In Search of Enthusiastic Young Bibliophiles

The editors of the New York Times Book Review reveal the secrets to ensuring children grow up with a passion for reading.

Book cover of How to raise a readerChildren’s literature is flourishing, and parents have plenty of options when it comes to finding titles for their kids—and more challenges than ever, too. With their new book, How To Raise a Reader (Workman, Oct. 2019), Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, and Maria Russo, children’s book editor at the Book Review, advise parents to stop stressing over whether their kids are reading the “right” books and to focus instead on instilling a sense of joy in their young readers.

 

What are some of the worst things you can do if you want a child to love reading?

Pamela Paul: Don’t try to teach your child to read. That’s the teacher’s job. You can support the teacher in that role in any way they ask you to do. But teaching your child to read is not your job. Your job is to teach children to love to read, and that’s quite different.

Don’t judge your child on the books they to read; let them follow their own interests. Don’t correct your child when they are reading. Don’t make them feel bad about choosing an “easy” book at home, or wanting to be read aloud to in addition to school-mandated independent reading time.

Pamela Paul
Pamela Paul
Photo by Tony Cenicola

Maria Russo: Don’t “rope off” reading from other forms of entertainment, by nagging or haranguing about how much better reading is than watching a movie or playing a video game. Demanding that your kids read is another way of making reading feel like a drag—another performance for the adults to evaluate and say yes or no to. The better approach is to genuinely convey that reading is fun, and a part of the menu of entertainment options—if you love the book, let’s watch the movie together; if you love Minecraft, here are some great books set in the Minecraft world.

Why do parents and teachers sometimes get frustrated when kids limit themselves to a type of book, such as graphic novels or trivia-style nonfiction, rather than reading traditional prose novels?

PP: Often because they grew up in an environment where those books were disparaged. But today, teachers and librarians know these books are often very high quality and work particularly well engaging certain types of readers, ones who are more fact-oriented or are visual readers. Parents are still catching up on that message, because it’s not necessarily what they are accustomed to thinking of as “real books.”

Maria Russo
Maria Russo
Photo by Earl Wilson

MR: The bias against graphic novels, visual reading, and fact-based reading is also part of the generalized atmosphere of anxiety and “high stakes” that has crept into the cultural conversation around children’s reading. Parents believe that if their child isn’t reading “serious” classics and long novels by, say, fifth grade, that their academic future and life success are in jeopardy. But of course that’s nonsense. One paradox at the heart of our book is that, if you want your kids to do well in school, and succeed in a great many of life’s difficult tasks, a great way to do that is to help them love reading just for pleasure, for their own private purposes, whatever they may be. That’s what the research shows.

As book review editors, you assess literary quality, but as parents, you see how actual children interact with texts. Do the books that are beloved by adults in the kid lit community resonate with kids? Does seeing your children’s taste in books inform your work as editors?

PP: Kids’ tastes and an editor’s tastes do not always align, in the same way parents’ and kids’ tastes do not always align. One area in which I find the most frequent dissonance is with picture books that are very accomplished, but whose stories do not connect with young children. When my kids were younger, I would often bring home visually striking books that failed to resonate with them on a story level. I also gravitate toward sad stories, but not all of my children like to cry over books as much as I do.

MR: I’m always surprised by how often the books kids love, that have real staying power among successive waves of kids, are books I would judge as being of high literary quality.

I love that the ultimate judges are not going to be the librarians who hand out prizes, or the critics like me who pronounce, but the kids, who take a book into their hearts and pass it on to friends.

Much of the children's literature canon is racist or sexist, as you acknowledge. What advice do you have for parents realizing that their favorite books are potentially harmful?

PP: It depends on the age of the child. With young children, you can change the words in many cases (though there’s not much you can do about illustration). With books for older kids, you can talk it out with them. You can discuss the limited opportunities for girls and women, if you’re reading Louisa May Alcott. If you’re reading the “Little House” books, you can talk frankly about the treatment of Indigenous people. Children are growing up in a world in which these issues still persist, and books are a helpful way of exposing your child to those realities.

MR: It’s important to remember that the canon of children’s literature in this country is barely half a century old, and the great books were written from within a culture that we now acknowledge was steeped in racist and sexist ideas and realities. But what about kids of today, who are growing up in a world where many more children’s books are being produced than ever before? The true classics are great and will never go away, but some of them might eventually become considered more historical artifacts, to be read in the context of history, than as great works that have staying power as literature that illuminates the human experience, that speak to our hearts. The most important thing is to make sure your kids are exposed to all kinds of books, old and new, written from all kinds of perspectives, and are able to have conversations about these issues. That’s how minds get opened.

What can parents do if they encounter stereotypes in literature—both older or current books?

MR: It’s great to engage your children in conversations about how those stereotypes work, so they can spot them, and read skeptically. But I’ve had many conversations with parents of color who tell me that they are just weary of having their children exposed to the stereotypes. When a child sees something over and over, even if well-meaning adults are saying, don’t pay attention to that, they have seen it. So I would hope there’s something more we can do than just pointing out and “correcting” the harmful messages in some of the classic books.

I advocate actively trying to pair the book with another written from the perspective of the group that’s being disparaged. I push Louise Erdrich’s wonderful "Birchbark House" series on anyone who is also reading Little House on the Prairie.

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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