This is the second in my Reading for Pleasure articles. To see Part 1, click here.
One of the greatest things we can do to encourage kids to read for pleasure is to find ways for them to connect with works they can relate to and enjoy. The bulk and variety of books available on the market is astounding, and our local book industry boasts a formidable amount of quality books. This can overwhelm adults, let alone children, let alone reluctant readers.
My suggestion is to look at genre.
For teachers and librarians, creating some kind of book genre feature or event would be a great way to sift through the literary mire. Book-lovers will be there, on your doorstep but focusing on one genre more intently will bring in the stragglers—if they happen to resonate with that particular genre. So perhaps July is picture book month. August is illustrated junior fiction. September is young adult fiction with a romance focus or a focus on death.
We already know that once a child engages with a particular book, they eagerly lap up any further titles in the series. This sends a clear message that once children engage with a certain style, character, genre or even author, they’ll continue to seek out and read books of this nature. You can find books in varying genre on Kids’ Book Review.
Even when we identify genre, we will need to connect kids to books BEFORE we connect them to reading. We need to make books cool. Indispensable. Worth the time invested, and the literacy effort. We can’t insist. We can’t make it a chore. We can’t expect them to engage in a struggle, whether by content or competency. Kids don’t care about the priceless end-value of full adult literacy. They only know here and now. And here and now is all about them. About enjoyment and pleasure.
So, we know how to encourage kids to read for pleasure, but what are the pleasure deterrents to avoid?
Literacy problems are a major deterrent and of course need to be dealt with by using applied teaching methods. But we can still foster a love of books and story without confuddling that love with decoding or audio comprehension issues. We can do this for all ages with a focus on visual literacy, whether it be picture books, wordless picture books, comics, non-fiction texts, illustrated fiction or graphic novels.
Visual literacy. See this post for a comprehensive outline.
There’s a perception among some kids that reading is not cool, which is why we need funny books and books that push boundaries. We can’t underestimate the power of humour and sheer silliness, especially for younger or less mature children. We need silly. We need outrageous. We need dry, even dark, concepts. Cautionary Tales are a great example of this kind of humour.
At the children's Book Council of Australia conference in 2014, Andy Griffiths spoke of the dichotomy between adults’ and children's reactions to his books. In The Bad Book, there’s a story called Bad Mummy and the Very Busy Six-Lane Highway in which a young lad begs his rather vacant mum to run across six lanes of traffic. At first, she’s not so sure, but the kid whines, so mum says yes. Off the kid runs, and WHAMMO! He’s smashed to bits by oncoming traffic.
Of course, children laugh their heads off at this story. Andy told us he's discussed this story with many a five-year-old and when asked if they thought it might encourage THEM to run out on a six-lane freeway, the kids laughed harder and said ‘it’s just a story! that kid was silly!’.
Children understand the concept of dry humour more deeply than we could ever assume. We need to trust them.
Too PC, didactic or moral. We can’t hammer kids over the head with morals. We just can’t. They’re too smart, and they’ll just intellectually and emotionally rebel. In fact, I would say that books with heavy morals (other than cautionary tales, of course) can be the ruination of book love for children. MOST books have some kind of messaging inherently woven into story but it must be almost imperceptible or at least humorous. Don't worry--kids WILL get it!
In the 1920s, our own May Gibbs released her series of totally UN-PC gumnut babies into the world, with full-frontal nudity and plenty of bare bums. No one batted an eyelid, yet nothing like this would ever pass publication today. May had a wicked sense of humour and some of her text certainly pushes modern day political correctness. In Boronia Babies, an innocuous booklet for children, first released in 1922, we meet the Rose Babies. Herewith the text:
These are native Rose Babies. They are second cousins to the Pale Pink Boronias, and considered rather eccentric by their friends. See the little mothers hurrying to get their babies. If they are not quick, the buds will open right out and the babies will fall down… and DIE.
Won’t see that kind of text in modern day books, no no.
We should also be wary of mollycoddling and sheltering kids. Life is not sunshine and rainbows and excessive political correctness doesn’t wash it with kids. ‘Controversial’ books like Coles Funny Picture Books are a case in point. Much of the content of these books was exciting and naughty and funny and horrifying and pushing social boundaries yet kids should be entrusted with receiving and processing tales and concepts that will expand their understanding of the world and how others think. It's also important for kids to learn, just like the kid and the 6-lane highway, how NOT to be. What NOT to do.
Another deterrent is the perception that other things are more fun than reading. Kids have such limited time. They are so jammed with Too Much, both during and after school, and on weekends--they simply don’t have the opportunity to fill long, languid hours curled up with a book. A return to more simple, slower, easier living—for both adults and kids—is most certainly something that will soon be a necessity for humankind, not a luxury.
Not enough variety. There is a movement in the US that you may have heard of--#weneeddiversebooks. As our world population expands and children are born into increasingly unique circumstances, in richer and poorer environments, in blended families and cultures and race, we need to provide a larger diversity in subject matter and characters that our increasingly diverse kids can relate to. All children need to relate to stories. They need stories in their mother tongue. Our First Children need books with their own stories, their own Aboriginal culture. They need stories and characters who share their way of life. This is prime way to engage any kind of kid with books.
Dumbing down the dialogue. When Hachette UK made the confounding decision to ‘modernise’ Enid Blyton’s works, I wasn't the only book lover mortally wounded. Fanny and Dick became Frannie and Rick for reasons you might well guess. Bessie was replaced by Beth because Bess is believed to be a stereotypical name for black women and therefore carries racist overtones. Dame Slap became Dame Snap because the word slap might prove too traumatic for little ones, or indeed, might encourage children to walk around slapping each other. Jo was change to Joe, presumably because the publishers didn’t want young readers to believe Jo may be a transvestite. And the biggest travesty of all? The term Swot was changed to Bookworm. Not only are these two words UNinterchangeable, there is little more evocative and rich with meaning than the word ‘swot’. To rob modern children of this word is untenable. Don’t even get me started on Noddy.
To engage children deeply with books, don't hesitate to offer them more advanced and sophisticated books in regard to text and vocabulary or content. They will either get it or they won’t, but they’ll learn so much along the way, even if they're not consciously aware of it. Children NEED to be exposed to words like ‘swot’ and ‘fandangled’. This is priceless for vocabulary expansion, as even the very young quickly learn words by context and association. Plus, they sound so utterly delicious.
Picture books shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to reluctant readers (or any reader!). Learn more about this in my The Power of the Picture Book post.
Reading is more than about great story. When a child reads, they achieve language and comprehension skills. They become more literate, expand their vocabulary, develop comprehension and learn to use complex grammatical construct. They also develop writing and spelling skills.
But most of all, when children read, they have the opportunity to fall in love with story. To travel. To float above the real world and enter new places, achieve new experiences, expand their minds, hearts and souls. They may even find comfort there. And always, always, pleasure.
See Part 1, where I discuss the importance of entertainment in developing book love, and how to develop a reading culture in the home and at school
These posts are excerpts from my professional development talk given to teachers and librarians at Marist College Canberra, June 2015.
Be sure to check out KBR for some sensational book suggestions!