On Raising Readers

The Boy, with his nose in a book in the Chisos Basin campground at Big Bend National Park.

One of my greatest joys is the fact that my three kids, nearly 18, 15, and 10 years old are serious readers. I love that they love books and I love the people they have become and are becoming as a result. It’s evident as soon as you meet them that they’re book people. So evident, in fact, that it’s common for people that don’t know us well to comment on it. I cannot tell you that if you follow the same steps we have, and there are a few deliberate things I’ve done, that your kids will turn out the same but I do think your experiences will be similar.

Start Early

To begin with, I began reading with my kids almost as soon as they were born. Board books are an obvious place to begin, but we also read other books way before they were developmentally ready. Does it make sense to read a 6 month-old a book like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? What about Madeline to a 1 year-old? Going to Sleep on the Farm to a 2 year-old? On the surface, maybe not, but I do think that beginning the routine of reading with your kids as early as you can is important. I think it helps them develop language to hear language being spoken and I think them hearing your voice, even before they can understand it, strengthens your connection with them. I also think it’s a good thing for kids to always remember being surrounded by books.

The Streak

The next thing I did with my kids is a thing we call “The Streak” and is patterned after a 2010 NY Times article. In early 2010 I moved from Houston to another city, several months ahead of my wife and children. I was searching for a way to remain connected in my young kids’ minds, knowing I’d only see them every weekend or so. The Streak became the thing and was simply our attempt to see how many consecutive nights we could read together.

I began with my oldest daughter, The Eldest, who would have been 8 at the time. I also began a Streak with The Middle, who was 6. The Middle’s streak was broken pretty early on for reasons I can’t remember, but quickly resumed. The Boy, now 10, also has a Streak of his own. The Streak with the Eldest essentially has been unbroken, though as in the NY Times article, she’ll be headed to college in August and I assume the Streak will end. At times we’ve had to get creative, such as when I’ve traveled for business or the kids have gone to camp. We’re somewhat flexible with the parameters as the Streak is for no one but us. Shel Silverstein poems get trotted out when time gets short. The important thing is that we’ve never debated whether or not we’ll read together. We just do it. It’s not negotiable and it works on three levels.

The first is it raises the importance of books in our household. Everyone values them and even their friends know about the Streak. The second thing is it ensures that I will spend a few minutes with each of my kids every single day. This is more and more important to me as they age and I feel our time together drawing short. Thirdly, as the kids have gotten older I’ve been able to read books with them that they might not have found on their own, at least not so soon in life. I’m referring to books like Fahrenheit 451, The Graveyard Book, The Boys in the Boat, and The Day the Cowboys Quit. Sure, these books were on the shelves in my house and the kids could have found them on their own. But this way I could influence what they read and…wait for it…we could talk about what we’d read! Yes, friends. I have two teenage daughters and every single day we spend a few minutes together reading and then we end up in conversation. It’s like magic.

The Library

The next thing we’ve done with our kids that has contributed to us raising readers is that they each got their own library card from early ages. I feel like them having their own card, if your library allows it, gives the kids some sense of ownership in their reading life and makes going to the library about them and not about you. It’s a simple thing, but it my experience it matters. Follow that up with actually taking them to the library regularly and you’re on your way. The library is a community that readers should be taught to use and enjoy. We’re pretty liberal about buying books too, but especially when the kids are relatively small, you’re better off taking them to the library. It didn’t take me long to realize that buying Magic Treehouse books was a fool’s errand. Yes, they’re fine books but the kids would finish them before we’d made it home from the bookstore. I found it far better to let them check out a stack from the library and burn through them as fast as they please.

Movies and Books

Finally, I come to movies. Movies? I thought this was about books? Yes, but some books, particularly popular books like the Harry Potter series or The Hunger Games were made into movies. The rule in our house is that you can see the movie, but first you have to read the book. We started this early on and old-fashioned sibling rivalry has, like a fly wheel, kept this one going far better than I could have anticipated.

Raising readers isn’t that hard. It just requires you to make it a priority. Love your kids, love your books, and mix the two liberally and regularly. Your results may vary but I suspect they’ll be terrific.

What have you done to raise readers?

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