There’s a sad but predictable ritual I go through at least once a week at the library. It usually goes like this: a parent (usually a mom) drags a kid to my desk and says, “Can you recommend some books for my child?”
Usually the kid in question is staring fixedly at the floor. I try to be cheerful. “What kinds of books do you like?” I’ll ask. Or “What’s a book you enjoyed recently?”
The kid usually gives me a deer-in-the-headlights look, as if he’s never heard of a book before, much less read one. The mom will often supply an answer, “You liked that Percy Jackson book, remember?” The kid will nod obediently. And then we’ll all trudge over to the shelves, where I’ll do my best to talk up several other books that might appeal to a Percy Jackson fan.
Usually the kid will show little interest in any of my recommendations. He never signed up for this embarrassing public matchmaking service, and even though he liked Percy Jackson, none of these books ARE Percy Jackson. They may have shiny covers and nice personalities, but they are all total strangers and so am I.
On the rare occasion that a book does catch the poor kid’s fancy, often his mom will disapprove. “I’d rather he read a ‘real book,'” she’ll say, pursing her lips at the graphic novel I just put in his hands. Or, “That one looks too easy.”
One time, I managed to hook a boy with a nonfiction book about a zoo veterinarian, only to have his mom say, “I think he’d prefer a novel.” Another time, a mom told me she wanted her daughter to “fall in love with a book,” then spent the next twenty minutes criticizing every book her daughter opened, while yelling “Hurry up!” and “You can only take one!” I’ve never actually hit someone over the head with a library book before, but I can’t say I’ve never been tempted.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE recommending books to people, especially kids. But it’s a very different situation when a child or a teen comes to me of their own volition to ask for a suggestion. Those usually lead to amazing conversations: their faces light up as they share their favorite reading adventures, and they eagerly accept my shiny new books as if I had just handed them a big box of chocolates.
Arranged book marriages, on the other hand, are a depressing enterprise for everyone involved. That’s why I was thrilled to hear Young Adult author Kwame Alexander say in a recent interview, “Books are like amusement parks, and sometimes you gotta let kids choose the rides.” Although he admitted his own daughter threw that quote back at him when he tried to dictate her reading choices on vacation. (You can read the full story here: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/06/28/kwame-alexander-summer-reading)
I get it: I have two kids of my own, and I want them to love books the same way that I love them, and even to love the same books that I do. For the most part, they do, although I have more luck with the books I read aloud to them. Otherwise, my only hope is to keep bringing books home and leaving them in places where they might be discovered (I find that the backseat of the car is one of the best locations for a bored kid to meet a lonely but fascinating library book).
And that’s my main advice to parents of reluctant readers (or even avid readers who are caught in that mourning period between series): please, yes, ask librarians, teachers, friends, and book lovers of all kinds for recommendations, but do it on your own. Then bring two or three books home and leave them–no pressure–for your kids to stumble upon, open, and hopefully, if all goes well, find a match. Or ask them if they’ve heard of any books they might be interested in.
Above all, let your kids choose the ride. When I was in library school, I did a survey of kids who read above grade level to see if there were any trends in the kinds of books they read. The only thing they had in common: they all read voraciously, both above and below their reading level. They might read Tolkien one day, and Dr. Seuss the next. Being a book lover does not mean that you only read challenging, educational books. And encouraging your child to love books means letting them choose what books to love, even if those books seem silly or gross or “too easy,” or if they just want to read the same one over and over again.
Also, embrace other reading experiences. One of the best new publishing trends is the boom in graphic novels and audiobooks. Not only are graphic novels and comic books more appealing and less intimidating for many reluctant readers, they often feature harder, less familiar vocabulary than regular books, while providing illustrations to help kids decipher the new words. And studies on the science of reading have concluded that listening to a book on audio involves most of the same processes in the brain as physically reading it.
For some kids, ebooks are less daunting: they can adjust the font-size and easily look up unfamiliar words. They are also perfect for reading late at night without having to turn the light on, or hunt for where you left off (I became a Kindle convert as an adult when I developed chronic insomnia).
And, the number one piece of parenting advice I will offer (while usually forgetting to follow it myself) is stay calm. Sadly, nagging and obsessing over how much or what your kids reads is probably going to put reading in the same category as liver and turnips: something they know may be good for them, but they’ll never choose it voluntarily. Your best bet, after leaving books lying temptingly around the house, is to curl up with a good book yourself and just relax.