CARE AND FEEDING OF RELUCTANT READERS by Tania del Rio
Whenever I hear the word “reluctant reader,” a little part of me withers. It’s a condition that has always mystified me, but one that has also motivated me; my greatest goal would be to convert a reluctant reader into the opposite: a rabid reader! But how do you do it? How do you get kids who cringe at the sight of a book and convince them to look beyond the printed page and give the story a chance?
I was lucky enough to be raised in a house filled with books. Both of my parents are avid, or shall I say, rabid, readers, and as a child I loved to pick through their expansive bookshelves, hunting for a new story to immerse myself in – the thicker the book, the better.
I’m grateful that they never censored what I read or told me that something was too “hard” or too grownup to handle. They let me discover for myself what I was capable of reading and I would vacillate between well-loved copies of Roald Dahl stories and violent historical dramas depending on my mood.
Whenever my family would go out and I would beg for a toy, my dad would tell me, “No toy, but you can choose a book.”
I quickly learned to exploit this caveat, and soon my own bookshelves grew.
I’d like to say that if every child grew up in a household like mine, there would be no such thing as a reluctant reader. But I know that’s not true. In fact, my two younger brothers — who were also raised in a house that practically doubled as a library — were definitely what you would call reluctant readers, if not resistant readers. It didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t to this day. But I acknowledge that there are many reasons a kid might not like to read. Sometimes learning disabilities are a factor, and those kids require specialized techniques, compassion, and patience in their reading journeys. But many times, it boils down to boredom. Books, at a glance, just aren’t as shiny or interesting as other gadgets, or might seem claustrophobic to an active, outdoorsy kid. But I believe that when boredom is the root cause, kids just haven’t found the right book yet. With so many options out there in the world, there is bound to be a story that captures the imagination. This is where librarians and booksellers come in so handy – they can help your kids find something they will love. (But please, please, don’t ask for “girl books” or “boy books.” Not only does this limit the great stories your kid could be exposed to, the last time I checked books didn’t have a gender.)
Now that I am an author, there is no higher praise than a parent telling me that my series, WARREN THE 13TH, appealed to their reluctant reader. I’m certain it’s because of the amazing illustrations throughout by Will Staehle which break up the monotony of plain text. WARREN sits snugly between illustrated novels and graphic novels – it’s more visual than the former and not quite as illustrated as the latter. It provides a bridge for kids who are used to reading comics – another excellent lure for the reluctant reader- and lets them dip their toe into prose.
Speaking of comics, I can’t speak highly enough of the medium for attracting the interest of a kid who hates to read. My own career started in comics, and all too often I’ve heard disparaging comments about comics books as a lesser artform. Thankfully, perceptions have been changing rapidly over the last decade with comics breaking more and more into the mainstream, and any glance at the best-seller lists dominated by SMILE creator Raina Telgemeier will tell you how much these stories are being devoured by readers of all ages. But we still have a ways to go before comics are fully embraced as a valid artform by society. I believe it starts at home. Adults shouldn’t guilt or mock kids or teens for wanting to read only comics, or imply that comics are childish. Any reading is good reading and should be encouraged.
In fact, I think one can take it a step further by encouraging kids to create their own comics. An activity like this further strengthens their storytelling bone and makes them more receptive to reading as a result. Doing workshops at schools across the country, Will and I have seen how enthusiastic kids are about drawing comics – even if some of them start off complaining that all they know how to draw is stick-figures. Hey, stick figures are great! You can still tell a story with only minimal artistic talent.
Another thing which I think helps reluctant readers in the case of WARREN is the design and layout of the book itself. Will has done a great job of adding a variety of fonts to call out sections of text, and making the act of reading more interactive with visual tricks – text that bursts, crawls, or twists across the page. Furthermore, we’ve hidden riddles in the text so that kids who might only be looking at the surface of the page initially might notice some letters look differently than others.
There may not be one fail-proof answer for how to transform a reluctant reader into a fan of books, but I think a combination of freedom of choice, guidance from librarians and booksellers, comics and engaging visuals, as well as encouraging comic-making and storytelling in kids are all a good start.
And on my end, I hope to continue to write books that will transform a reluctant reader into a book lover, knowing that even if manage I convince even one kid, it’ll all be worth it.
Tania Del Rio is a professional comic book writer and artist who has spent the past 10 years writing and illustrating, primarily for a young audience. Her clients include Archie Comics, Dark Horse, and Marvel; she is best known for her work writing and drawing the 42-issue run of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She is also the author of the WARREN THE 13TH series published by Quirk Books. She lives in Los Angeles.
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