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Sep 04

How to raise a reader

I like to read. A lot. It’s kind of my thing, Marc likes to work out, I like to curl up with a book. I’m the oldest of four (or six, depending on if you count stepsibs) and grew up with a fair amount of chaos. I can read in the middle of a hurricane. It’s how I calm down, it’s how I center myself. It’s a little bit of peace in an otherwise busy, busy day. And while the list of things I wish for my kids is long, one of the top ones is that they be able to relax with a good book. Not only because I think it’s fun, but because reading expands your mind, it makes you think, it teaches you empathy and compassion and makes everything easier.

To accomplish that, I’ve filled the house with books. It wasn’t hard, I have a bunch to begin with, and have found that people are always delighted to pass along kids books once their own children have outgrown them. Marigold and Eagelfeather deliver books, they get them for Hanukkah and Christmas and Easter. We hit the library several times a month, and I make it a policy to always stop and read to them when they ask. We read before bed, we read to calm down after a temper tantrum. I generally remember to pack a book for them in my pocketbook along with my own.

But still… they didn’t really seem to love reading. Not the way I did. I tried to be very zen about it – it’s their life, after all. As Jessie is fond of pointing out, just because I like ponytails doesn’t mean that she will. Just because reading is such a huge part of my life, doesn’t mean that it will be a huge part of theirs. But I couldn’t shake that desire for them to fall in love with books. I knew, I just knew, if I kept trying, if I kept exposing them to different genres, if I kept bringing home different authors – eventually, I’d hit one that would turn the key and make them fall in love with reading just like I did.

Then I read a book by Paul Kropp, called Raising a Reader, Make Your Child a Reader for Life. I realized what I was doing wrong – I was expecting them to pick up a book and read it on their own. It talks about making reading a social event. Which is the opposite of how I always looked at reading. For me, reading is an escape. It’s solitary – but that’s not what reading, historically, has always been. And the book addresses why, even though we, as a society, read like mad to our small children, as they grow older, so many of them stop reading for pleasure. We stop reading to them once they learn to read on their own. I know I’m completely guilty of that. I used to read to Jessica all the time. Then she learned to read, and I just assumed she’d read to herself. I did. But she didn’t. She could read, but didn’t choose to spend her leisure time doing it. Sam is just starting to read, but is also much more likely to want to watch Lego Ninjago than to ask me to read Duck on a Bike to him again.

So I got out my old, battered copy of Little Women and asked Sam if he wanted me to read Harry Potter to him. And promised each of them that I’d read a chapter a day, every day. No television, just you and me, alone with a book. A half hour, I estimated, for each child. An hour and a half a day – because Julie loves being read to as well. It’s a big time commitment, and not at all easy to do. We work together to accomplish it, each kid knows to leave the other one alone when we’re reading so that they get the same opportunity later. I’ve managed it more days than not, and the kids are LOVING it. I’m loving it. I would not have picked up Little Women to reread on my own – but there’s a joy in rereading to my daughter, to see her relate to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy the way that I did. Sam is obsessed with Harry Potter, begging any adult who will sit still long enough to read him just one more chapter. And it’s working – I haven’t gotten Sam into Little Women yet, but Jessie and Sam will both sit still and listen to Harry Potter (Jessie had already read the first four books with us several years ago) and Sam is more likely to sit now and listen when I read to Julie.

I’m not reading my own books as much, and I’m staying up a little later to get all the stuff done around the house, but my kids are in love with books. In love with the story, and experiencing growing up in Civil War era Concord and learning to fly on broomstick, and I couldn’t be happier. And if it all costs me a couple of hours of sitting still, snuggling my kids for a while longer, is that really such a high price to pay?

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