How to build a reader, in four (not-so) easy steps…

Last evening, after we’d dropped Cooper and Ray off at the baseball field and brought Mitzi to her softball game, Joanna, Ellie and I headed to the library. I wanted to get a book for Cooper’s project on John Adams, and figured it was a good time to restock our supplies. The girls loaded up with a dozen picture books and easy readers, and I chose a similar amount of middle grade reads for me and the big kids to share. Picking titles for Mitzi is easy — really, she reads just about anything, and there were some books I wanted, so we could share them.

Choosing for Cooper was harder.

Once upon a time, my son, child of my literary loins, did not like to read. It didn’t come easily to him at first, and he is the sort who, used to certain things being easy for him, gets immensely frustrated when things are hard.

It was difficult to watch — he struggled and gave up. Nothing interested him. He wanted to play sports, not be still with his nose in a book. As much as I try to let my kids be the little people they are, frankly, this drove me nuts. I love reading. Reading is awesome! CHILD, YOU MUST LEARN THIS TRUTH! Oh, he was happy to flip through picture books, mostly of the nonfiction variety, and, okay, that was fine, but I was there on the sidelines with a whole library just waiting for him. I began to worry that, even though he was going to be *able to read, he would never have that passion I truly wanted him to have.

And then….Captain Underpants swooshed into our lives. It was perfect for Cooper — a graphic novel with hilarious text (bathroom humor and all) and fun interactive features (Flip-O-Rama!). As soon as he gobbled those up, I introduced him to the spectacular Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. (These, too, were a hit, not just with Cooper, but all my kids.) Suddenly, Cooper was reading eagerly, whenever he got the chance.

It was time for my move. I’m a fan of graphic novels, but I wanted him to try longer texts, to challenge himself, to work his reading muscles because, darn it, there are so many awesome books out there that I knew he’d love if only he had the confidence to crack their spines. Around this time we had gone to my parents’ for a visit, and I was perusing a box of books I’d been saving for when my kids were old enough, books from my childhood that I read so many times they were battered and worn.

And there it was. The perfect book for Cooper: How To Eat Fried Worms. I knew he’d love the plot, but also the fact that the chapters are quite short and not intimidating. I smuggled the book home and when the time was right, I offered it. Okay, I seriously played up the gross factor of eating worms and the competitive aspect of the challenge, but, hey. I knew they’d hook him. And it worked. He probably read that book a half-dozen times. It was our Chapter Book Milestone. From there he went on to books like Encyclopedia Brown, again, with short chapters and a fun pace.

Soon after, he had The Big Kid Book Epiphany when he found Dan Gutman’s series of baseball books.

Then it was Origami Yoda by John Angleberger, Warp Speed by Lisa Yee, and How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephardt. The 39 Clues. Then came The Full-On Novel Breathrough — Percy Jackson. I saw this as a huge step. Long chapters, lots of characters to keep track of, a twisting plot, and lots of books in the series. But he was addicted to them, staying up far to late to “just read one more chapter.”

And so Cooper became a reader. He is still unpredictable in his tastes — I’ve gotten him books that I was sure would be perfect, only to have him labor through the first few chapters.

So it was, at the library, that I picked up The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott and Scumble by Ingrid Law. I also told him that he was welcome to read any of the others I got — Hound Dog True by Linda Urban or Eleven by Lauren Myracle — though I did tell both the kids that the copy of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore was just for me.

I think all kids can learn to love to read. As a parent, you just have to keep trying. If I could get Cooper from Captain Underpants to Percy Jackson in two years, you can do it too.

The library is an excellent place to start.

8 thoughts on “How to build a reader, in four (not-so) easy steps…

    • Thanks, Ann! And, you know what? He came home from school today with a big, fat first book in another Riordan series — just walked in with it held over his head like it was the Stanley Cup. I wondered if I’d ever see this day…. 🙂

  1. Some boys do read *differently*, don’t they? The conventional route is friendlier to girls, not only in school curriculum, but in school, period.
    (This is why Mike Jung’s upcoming debut is going to break records. I just know it.)
    As a girl-reader, I would not have found the key as intelligently as you had. Great job, (again) Mom-Jenn.

    • Oooh I know — I’m so looking forward to Mike’s debut!! The thing was, I always knew he’d learn to read — I just wanted so much for him to be passionate about it. So many kids just don’t read unless they have to…

  2. I wish they had books like these when I was younger. Sure, they had some really great books, but they had nothing like they do today. I never had trouble liking what I read. My sister (though she didn’t learn to read well until 10) is an avid reader like myself. My brothers, on the other hand, never got big into reading. I think this is a shame, because if they had books like “Captain Underpants” when they were kids, they might read more now.

    I think it’s harder to get boys to read than girls from what I’ve seen. I’m glad there are better books now, because I have a 16 month old. I’d love him to enjoy reading like his father and I do.

    If you need more books to check out (and you may have read all these): “Holes” Louis Sachar, “Maniac Magee” Jerry Spinelli, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” Brian Selznick (lots of great pictures in that book), “Dragon Rider” Cornelia Funke (her other books are great too). Just to name a few.

    • Thanks! And I think our kids are being raised in an enormously wonderful era of literature — so many choices for any taste. It’s just up to parents to help them find what hooks them. Great list too — I should’ve said that he read and LOVED Holes — I’ll have to start a list for our next library trip! 🙂

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