How to build a reader, part 2

Yesterday I shared the story of how I helped Cooper grow as a reader. We are both very proud of the way his literary muscles have strengthened over the past two years!  He came home from school yesterday with a book from the library, a huge, fat book — he walked through the front door with it held high over his head, as if it was a trophy (which of course, it was, sort of, since it had been on hold for a few weeks and he was psyched it was finally available to him.)

Then last night I read this awesome post by the amazing Laurel Snyder. You should go read it. Now. I’ll wait for you right here.

*gazes thoughtfully out the window*

*drums fingers*

Okay, you’re back.

Laurel’s post just blew me away, because, in her usually beautiful style, she said exactly what I believe to be the immeasurable value of picture books — who needs them, and why, and what we’re losing by forcing our kids to read bigger and harder books at earlier ages.

Then I thought, “Oh crap!” Because I really didn’t want anyone who read my blog yesterday to have gotten the message that I was suggesting that it’s a good idea to push kids in their reading. Because there is a difference between forcing kids to read up too soon, and helping a child expand his repertoire, broaden his literary horizons. In the former, you’re forgetting about all the wonderful things children — and adults — get from reading picture books, and you’re forgetting why we need those things. In the latter, you’re encouraging a reader to branch out and try something new.

I happened to be sitting at the dining room table while I read Laurel’s post last night, and Cooper happened to be sitting next to me doing his homework. I asked him if he still liked to read picture books. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Why?”

“Because some adults think that kids should be reading harder books at younger ages. They think that picture books are for babies.”

Cooper rolled his eyes and said, “That’s stupid. Picture books are awesome!”

And you know what? Before bed he read one to Joanna. And despite his new library borrow, I saw him take a few picture books to bed.

There are just some things you never outgrow.

Thank goodness.

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.