March 06

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Reading Outside the Box (and on it, and under it, and around it…) by Nancy Tandon

ACT ONE: EXPECTATIONS

INT. – LIVINGROOM – STORYTIME

Parent fluffs pillows on couch and calls children to her.  Nearby is a basket overflowing with library books.  First child chooses book and calmly snuggles next to parent.  Second child races into room, listens for two seconds, then begins climbing on parent’s head.  

CUT!  Cut!  This is not what reading looks like, is it?

For all the time I’d spent studying emergent literacy and language development, nothing had prepared me for the contingency that one of my own would not be a book lover.  My firstborn had been a textbook reading partner.  A painfully early riser, she had often logged whole hours of read-aloud time before day care started for the day.  One of her first two-word expressions was “more book.” Naturally, I chalked this up to good parenting.

Enter Child #2.  He didn’t ever participate in story time the way I expected.  As he’s grown, what his reading life “looks like” has been a challenge for me to accept and encourage.  How I wish I could package up and send some Nerdy blog posts back to my former self, including the recent ones on book shaming and the benefits of appreciating comic books!

It took some time, and a healthy dose of humility, for me to realize that by steering my son only towards what I deemed were “good” books, I was squashing his desire to read at all.

ACT TWO: REALITY

INT. or EXT. – WHENEVER, WHATEVER

Parent lets go of picture-perfect ideal of what reading should look like.  Turns to camera and offers the following suggestions to encourage unique, out-of-the-box readers:

1) Allow for active listening.

By this, I mean letting a child be truly active while you read.  It would drive me crazy when my son would slide off of my bed onto the floor headfirst, over and over, when I read to him in the evening.  One night I challenged him to summarize what I’d just read, and he did it like a boss.  Lesson learned.  You do not always need to sit still to comprehend well.

2) Follow their obsessions.

Among the things that held my young reader’s attention were: a Batman book with sound effect buttons, the comic book that came with a new pair of sneakers, and a descriptive pamphlet from a package of action figure toys.  We read them all.  Ad nauseam.

I’m afraid I sometimes had a hard time hiding my disdain.  But when my son looked up at me and said, “You hate this book, don’t you?” [I did – I hated that book with the sound buttons], I dug deep and replied, “I love that you love it.” And then I read it.  Again.

3) Play on their sense of competition.

Pulling in the driveway one day, I noticed my kids were “calling” electronic devices they wanted to use when we got inside.  Instinctively, I “called” the reading room (a little side room that I often read in).  That’s all it took.  Both kids clamored to join me there, and I practically choked on my smugness.

4) Seek out positive influences

One of my son’s friends is a boy two years older than him, who is an avid reader.  I thank fate for that, and I milk it.  The mere idea that “Jack liked this (or that) book” is enough to at least have it be considered.

Author visits are another prime opportunity to encourage new book choices. Sometimes, the influence goes beyond him being interested in the visiting author’s work.  For example, for months I had been encouraging the 1999 Newbery award winner, HOLES by Louis Sacher. Only when author Tim Green visited our school and mentioned it was one of his favorites did my son decide it might be worth a look.  Halfway through, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe I didn’t want to read this before.  It is so good!”

5) Keep the supply plentiful

I try never to miss the library book sale, and always keep the “library basket” full.  Having plenty of books on hand increases the chance that there will always be something around the house my ‘picky reader’ will be interested in.

Going to the bookstore as a treat after doctor and/or dentist visits, or during long airport layovers, is another fun tradition. (Plus, let’s be honest, you know you want to go to the bookstore, too!).  It’s a little pricier than ice cream, but you can limit the budget to paperbacks and/or clearance bins.  Beyond that, allowing the book to be the reader’s choice alone is very empowering.

The story of the non-typical reader can have a happy ending.  The more we meet children where they are, the more likely they are to become what we’re hoping for: lifelong, interested, engaged readers.

Nancy Tandon is a children’s book writer in Connecticut.  She has degrees in Psychology, Elementary Education, and Speech-Language Pathology. She is especially fascinated by how the human brain processes language, and strongly believes that reading the written word helps us make sense of it all.  Nancy lives with her husband and two children and hereby “calls the reading room, infinity!”  Connect with Nancy on twitter: @NancyTandon