November 14


Hot and Cold: Coping with Children’s Changing Tastes and Attitudes by Terry Coffey

As a children’s author, I feel a heavy weight on my shoulders. Not only do I want to make sure my stories are enjoyed by children, I also feel a responsibility that I don’t in some way create an experience so bad that it turns a young person away from reading. I say that in self-deprecating half-jest, but still … I guess that’s just the way we writers think.

As a dad, I place even more pressure on myself, because I want my little girl, who is not yet reading, to learn and love books as much as I always have. I don’t want to do anything to make books anything other than a source of enjoyment for her.

When she was really little, either her mother or I would read her a story every night at bedtime, and she loved it. She would not go to sleep until she’d had her story. Given my aforementioned insecurities, then, you can imagine my reaction when she started saying she didn’t want a story anymore. She didn’t want to be read to. Part of this, I came to understand, was that she was anxious to read herself and as she grew older sometimes felt like it was too “babyish” for us to read to her.

She is now six, beginning to read a bit in Kindergarten, and, thankfully, still loves books. Sometimes she still wants us to read her a story, although not typically at bedtime. Below are a few books and tips based on my experience over the past few years of trying to adapt to her changing attitudes and tastes.

I have always found it key to tie books in to her favorite things. She loves riding her bike, and she loves horses, so one book that helped keep her interested was Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse by Rebecca Janni. In the book, Nellie Sue wants a horse for her birthday. I mean REALLY wants a horse. Our daughter loved the galloping story of this girl and her wish for a horse, and she loved hearing it because Nellie Sue talks like a cowgirl when either mommy or daddy read it there were lots of opportunities to have fun with Nellie Sue’s accent.

Another of Janni’s books, Every Cowgirl Goes to School, kept her interest because we discovered it as she was getting ready to start school, so the character was in a situation with which she could identify. Sure kids love far out fantasy and adventure, but they also connect with stories where they can easily see themselves participating. Our daughter is very shy, and while Nellie Sue is very outgoing, she could identify with the story because of the difficult adjustment period for Nellie Sue and the new girl in her class. Now that she is a Kindergartener, our daughter has been exposed to the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park. She can identify with some of Junie B’s attitudes and troubles; in her current phase these books are about the only ones she wants us to read to her. It helps that her teacher read Junie B. stories to her Kindergarten class.

Another book that helped us get through another “I don’t want a story” phase was The Boxcar Children. This classic by Gertrude Chandler Warner is meant for slighlty older kids, but our little girl could really identify with it because it was a story of adventure not only told from the children’s point of view, but in fact told from a point of view (at least at first) that adults were the enemy. Like it or not, sometimes our kids wish they could be on their own, having an adventure without mommy or daddy there telling them to stay out of the mud or brush their teeth. We read a chapter a night, and when we were done, she wanted to start over.

During another “disinterested” patch, we discovered that tie-ins with favorite movies and television programs are also key to reviving interest in books. The Wizard of Oz is her favorite movie. She had received an illustrated version of the original book as a gift, so one night we suggested reading an excerpt and she was hooked. Other literary tie-ins have included Felicity: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp (another of her favorite movies), and several Barbie stories. She loves Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, and also has an impressive collection of Barbies, so those stories had a double pull on her. One more series with a move tie-in that rekindled her storytime interest was the Teacher from the Black Lagoon series written by Mike Thaler and illustrated by Jared Lee. Creature from the Black Lagoon is a movie she watches over and over, so when we came across these books in the library I read one to her right there. She started pulling all of them off the shelf, so we checked them out and she loved them all.

When your little one seems to be getting bored with the whole book thing, try the Scholastic Storybook Treasures DVD series. During a visit to the library we came across the DVD Where The Wild Things Are – And Other Maurice Sendak Stories. Where the Wild Things Are has been one of her favorite books for quite a while, so we decided to give it a try. There is a bit of animation to it, and you can see the words to the story onscreen as the narrator reads. She watched it over and over and even began recognizing the words in the book and would read it to us at bedtime.

Go to the library, and let your child browse around and pick books they think they would like. This may sound like playing with matches, but it helps give them a sense of having some bit of control, and also adds to the fun for them. It is tempting as parents to say, “Look, it’s bedtime, I want to read you a story, and this is it.” What we have found, however, is that this attitude can simply turn kids away from books.

So, go with the flow. Let them pick out a few things. Be adventurous and have fun with the reading, Do silly voices. But most importantly, be flexible and not judgmental. You may not like all of the stories you come across, but that’s OK. It isn’t about your tastes and attitudes. It’s about theirs.

Terry Coffey lives in New Castle, Indiana with his wife, daughter, and dog. His children’s mystery, Camille Miles, Private Eye, is published by LadyBee Publishing. He has also published a collection of short stories for adults entitled Dry Fly Gospel.