Raising a reader

When Fred was 3 or 4 I’d read a New York Times article about the crisis of boys and reading – how boys are not reading, and how this puts them at risk for dropping out of school and heading into a whole host of adult problems. I remember feeling pretty smug at the time, because my preschooler just loved reading, thank you very much, almost as much as he loved eating vegetables.

And as many mothers of older children know, in time we learn to eat our humble pie.

Like many mothers who are privileged enough to do so, I’ve filled our house with children’s books from the time that little stick turned pink. I began reading to Fred almost from Day 1, knowing that even the newest of infants can begin to understand and process language even if they can’t yet verbally communicate.

Fred loved books, and he loved being read to and flipping through books on his own. This is instinctive, I thought, human. Boy or girl, what child doesn’t love color and pictures and a good story?

As he got a little older I saw that Fred was the stereotypical little boy who could barely sit still, a boy who preferred creating over absorbing, doing over reflecting. Then I realized this was the daytime Fred; by nightfall he became a reader. No matter how tired he was he wouldn’t be able to sleep without having cracked open a book first. It became a ritual as necessary as bathing. And trying to get him to close his book and turn off the light was the one fight I welcomed and was often willing to lose.

I would also talk my books with him and take him to library book sales with me. He was only too happy to oblige, somehow loving being a part of my adult reading world. He’d ask me questions like, “Is the girl with the dragon tattoo the same girl who played with fire?” He’d beg me to retell novels like The Hunger Games, and I’d struggle to abridge them to Rated G versions.

But then one day I messed up.

Last year in the second grade he became fascinated with The Mysterious Benedict Society. A complex 5th grade level book about a dangerous mission undertaken by 4 gifted children, it was not an easy read for this 7 year old who’d only just learned to speak and read English a few years before, but he loved it and we read it together night after night, chipping away at the 400+ page book, stopping every once in a while to go over unfamiliar vocabulary or expressions. How proud I was the day he gestured to take the book from me saying, “Mommy, I want to try reading this. Let’s take turns.” And so we did, and a few days later he said, “Mommy, I want to take this to school to read.”

He came home that day, beaming that he had read 30 pages.

“30 pages?! Did you understand what you read? Can you tell me what happened?”

I drilled him all evening, and he responded with, “I guess…sort of…I guess I sort of understood everything.”

Overnight my pride turned into panic. Reading is not about finishing a certain number of pages or trying to look grown up. I wanted to make sure he enjoyed reading, that he was getting as much out of the stories as he could.

The next morning I noticed that he’d taken The Mysterious Benedict Society out of his backpack.

“Aren’t you going to take the book to school?” I asked.

“Nah…” Fred responded.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to have you asking and asking me what happens in the story.”

I told a veteran mom friend about what had happened and she reassured me that I can quickly get him back. But deep down I knew what I had done. Since that evening Fred never again picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society on his own.

And so last summer I saw him slowly sinking into that hole I’d read about in the NYT article five years ago. Whenever we went to the library he’d head straight to the DVD section or the computers. Whenever I asked him to get a book he’d borrow manga. Whenever I suggested certain chapter books he would complain that there were too many words. My heart was breaking. Eight years it took me to build up a reader, and in the space of an evening I had managed to dismantle his passion for books and his confidence to read.

That summer I began googling “boys and reading” and looking through library books with titles like How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. I read all the old advice again: Fill your home with books; read to your child; have the men in your house read in front of your son; accept all kinds of reading material, from cereal boxes to comics to magazines, and don’t criticize.

Don’t criticize.

And so I – we (I’d enlisted Max’s help as the male role model) – started again from the beginning.

Then one day we were at the library, and for some reason Fred pulled off the shelf the first book in the Warriors series, the intricate story of a clan of cats that wrestles with such hefty themes as loyalty, ambition, individuality and identity.

“Lily reads these,” he said, referring to a friend whom he finds excruciatingly annoying but who is famed for reading 400 pages a week.

We started the book together that night, and we both became hooked. Then Fred made me swear to keep all of it a secret, because boys don’t read about “cute animals.” I countered that he should be proud to read anything he wants, and that besides, these cats fight. Fred reconsidered.

By September, Fred was well into the series. He started telling his classmates about the books, and one by one hooked the others onto them. By the end of the month his class was divided into cat clans with his classmates each named after a cat character.

These days, I worry about Fred getting enough sleep. While he cooperates about lights off at night, he is often up at 6:30 if not earlier to read. He reads at the breakfast table and in the car and he begs me to ask him questions about what he’s read. And this time, I ask questions to talk rather than to test. This precious world with his books and characters and distant places? It is his, and may no one ever take this refuge away from him.

Tell me about your reading life with your children. Have you had struggles? How do you keep your children loving to read?

10 thoughts on “Raising a reader

  1. I’ll have to look for that series. I’m always seeking strong girls in books, since I have girls, but anything that engages them is the way to go. I’m so glad Fred is back into his pages of adventures!

    I remember when my reader took up a book that I knew was too hard and she was so proud to have ‘read’ it. No. She didn’t get it all. And I wanted to say, that’s too hard, but something held my tongue. Now she’s reread that book (Ivy and Bean) at least three times.

    • Yes, I think you did the right thing! I was talking to my mother about this over the weekend and she said that the kids will be able to understand the whole story in time. But first you have to give them the chance.

      I think that kids will stay away if a book is too frustratingly difficult. And if they want to plug away at it, there must be something there. I’ve learned the hard way to just appreciate Fred’s interest and curiosity. What more can we want?

      I think authors are very good now at coming up with strong girl characters. The Warriors series has a mix of strong female and male cats 🙂

    • Yes! The Warrior series has strong girl and boy cat characters. The Benedict Society is about 4 gifted children, 2 boys and 2 girls. I think it’s a lot easier to find strong girlcharacters in our children’s generation; when I was growing up Cinderella, Snow White, etc. were still the heroines.

      I’ve learned the hard way too, to just let him keep going and to bite my tongue. I figured, if the book is so frustrating, our children would avoid it, wouldn’t they? I think it’s wonderful that they are not scared to venture into more challenging books, and they can also learn a lot by reading “up.”

  2. We are readers. I think the trick is this: just as you do, start them off reading the first chapter together. After that, I give books for every birthday, every christmas.

    And I don’t ask about it after that.

    I have piles of books all over the place. Auggie is 10, and loves the Hiccup series and 39 clues series.

    I think Fred would find them pretty fun.


  3. We have 39 Clues (just the first one, which Fred got when he was younger and so couldn’t get into it, but we ought to revisit it) and I will need to check out Hiccup. I remember from Auggie’s posts how similar their tastes seemed to be!

    I love the idea of getting books for each birthday and Christmas. Lately I’ve been thinking that we can get books out of the library, but being able to own clean, brand new books is pretty special.

  4. This is fascinating, Cecilia. I hadn’t read much about the issues surrounding boys and reading. My boys are 5 and 3 and still in love with books so I guess I would have dismissed that NYT article like you did. 😉 But I’m very interested to hear your experience and how things changed as your son got older. I will keep in mind the tactics you used to reinfuse reading into Fred’s life. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Yes, so much talk and research out there about the dangers of boys and reading! But I think a supportive community is important – teachers who understand how boys read and what boys like, authors who can create characters and stories that appeal to boys, etc. With the “right” support I bet your sons will enjoy a long, steady reading life!

  5. I think it’s so wonderful that Fred is such a reader! I had never heard surrounding boys and reading, but it makes sense. That’s so great that he enjoys and looks forward to books because they truly are a precious jewel that some many have never come to know or enjoy. I do read to both my girls but usually just from their books. I look forward to the day when I can share my books with them!! That will be such a wonderful treat!

    • I think each reading stage is so fun, and especially so as they get older! I really don’t remember any of the books that I’d read before the age of 8, but after that, when I’d started picking out books on my own and reading independently, I do remember them. So it is quite fun now as I try and introduce to my son books I used to read, as well as check out the books that he has chosen for himself.

      Thanks, Jessica!

  6. What a beautiful ending to the post, and I was cheering you on all the way. Hey, we all mean well even though we stumble sometimes. I’m glad that Fred came around. As a reader myself, I know exactly how you feel. My first girl had the same “training” with the books as Fred, but with the second, she would take it or leave it. Nowadays she just mostly picks them up and “reads out loud” to herself. She’s in that I-don’t-need-your-help phase so we don’t bother her.

    When she’s ready, she’ll climb in with the rest of us as we read together as a family at bedtime. I can’t think of a more perfect way to end our evening with them. May they always be into books…*fingers crossed*

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