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.

Pre-Parenting 101: A Crash Course

I have a part-time job as a moderator for the parenting forums on boston.com (which is great because there’s a ton of friendly and knowledgeable people out there sharing advice and experiences on a variety of parenting topics, and I love hearing their thoughts.).  Recently, a poster on the cusp of TTC (for the rest of you, that is “trying to conceive”) wondered how others knew they were ready for parenthood. As expected, many eloquent and helpful responses were soon posted.  Sure, making room for baby and saving a bunch of money are good ideas, if you can manage those sorts of things in this economy, but there’s more you should do to get ready for parenthood.  Here’s a quick course for the parent wannabes:

Before Becoming a Parent You Should…

  1. Become a celebrity.  Celebrities usually come with personal assistants, who are handy for things like reminding you to brush your teeth.  Plus, despite annoying paparazzi baggage, celebrities get lots of free stuff and are mostly rich.  I myself forgot to do this, darn it.  Learn from my mistake.
  2. Embrace chaos.  Give up your old control freak ways.  The new boss is the little mewling thing in pink pajamas.  She will set the schedule, run the roost.   Nothing will ever be tidy, clean, or organized again.  Love to be on time?  Yeah, never going to happen again.  What will happen is a last-minute diaper change that leads to getting stuck in rush-hour traffic, thus entirely missing the first semi-grownup party you’ve been to in months.  If you are extremely well-balanced, you’ll really believe that old saying, “it’s the journey, not the destination.”   Or, if you’re like me, you’ll wish you had just stayed home for another reading of Good Night Moon and a late-night (read, 9 p.m.) glass of wine and couch cuddle with husband.
  3. Grow a few additional arms.  You’ll need extra limbs when trying to feed the baby, talk to Mom on phone, play Candyland with preschooler, fold laundry (which never ends, see #4), email boss to explain for the 84th time where that client file still is, prepare healthy, fresh food, and blow your own nose.  Multitasking takes on a whole new definition in the universe of Parenthood.
  4. Learn to love dirty clothes and lots of laundry.  By some weird cosmic Maytag conversion table, your clothes will be so neglected they’ll stand up on their own, while the kids’ clothes will get constant washing.  Like your daily surprise at the stuff that comes from their bottoms, you’ll be unceasingly amazed that something so little could create so much…mess.  (Which, of course, grows with them.)
  5. Give up that pesky need for sleep.  First, any sleep you attempt will be disrupted by crying, calls for water, or monster-slaying. Second, interrupted sleep is not at all restful, just a giant tease. Third, interrupted sleep usually leads to insomnia where you lay awake for hours trying to figure out how much rest you might get if you fall asleep right now. Right now.  Now!  Then the alarm goes off.  Just give it up.  I hear that retirement is good for resting.
  6. Invent a time machine that allows you to add five extra hours to your day.  This, plus the aforementioned elimination of sleep, will allow you to not only get ahead of the laundry (#4), but also finally write those thank you notes from your baby shower. During those extra hours you might also manage to, oh, read a book.  Or a chapter.  Or the dust jacket.  Or at least the cartoons in this month’s New Yorker.
  7. Suck up to your neighbors, even the ones with the incessantly barking dog.  Emergency babysitting is far more important than 3 a.m. yipping or that blue spruce you’ve been arguing about for the past five years.  Get over yourself and bring them a pie.
  8. Get an advanced degree in diplomacy and negotiation.  You’ll need those skills when your daughters break out in a fist fight over who gets to be Cinderella and who has to be the mean step-sister, and your son swoops in armed with a glowing light saber, declaring himself the Great Turbo Galactic Obliterator Of All That Is Pink and Sparkly.  Handle that, and you can take on the Middle East.
  9. Realize the true luxuriousness of a minivan.  I know, they’re not as badass as those giant SUVs, but they are far easier for little legs to climb into.  Plus, they come with automatic door openers on your keychain, which turn out to be pretty handy when juggling the infant seat, groceries, toddler’s hand, and your own purse (which is actually a diaper bag, but we can pretend, can’t we?).  And there’s something endearing about your manly husband behind the wheel, especially if he’s the sort who swore while you were dating that he’d never drive such a stupid girly car.   It’s okay to giggle.
  10. Accept that while you may have found true love in your significant other, you have yet to experience the kind of fierce passion and devotion that can split atoms and render you paralyzed by the resulting joy and humility that comes when a perfect human spirit looks into your eyes and calls you Mommy.