It occurs to me that I might have found the secret formula for getting kids to read. While the media and teachers complain that kids don’t read anymore, I can’t get my kids to stop. Even Lucia, who is too young to read, is a voracious reader. I jokingly yell at Eve (age 12), “How many times do I have to tell you to STOP reading!” She would read while walking and eating if we would let her. And not only is Maya (age 27) a published romance novelist, but she’s about to get her master’s degree in literary history, and has read the works of Proust…all of them.
So what’s the secret?
1. Be a reading role model. Thanks to mirror neurons in the human brain, our kids will mimic whatever we do. So if we spend a lot of time reading, they will spend a lot of time reading. It doesn’t matter whether it’s People magazine, romance novels, or literary fiction—the act of reading in front of our kids makes them want to read. So if you want your kids to read, read in front of them. Read newspapers, magazines, books, and cereal boxes.
2. Buy books like candy. When we go food shopping, we always end up in the book and magazine aisle (in fact, that is our “home base” if anyone gets lost). It’s our “reward” for completing our chore. Everyone gets to buy a book or a magazine, and I don’t judge too harshly what anyone picks. For the little one, it keeps her occupied during the checkout process. If Eve can’t find a good book since she has read all of them already, I let her buy those teen celebrity magazines—after all, we are in the magazine business, and I want to encourage future magazine readers! But a fresh, new book is just as exciting as a candy bar, is much better for you, and lasts a hell of a lot longer.
3. Indulge their pleasures. My husband isn’t a big reader—unless it comes to sports stuff. It’s not my cup of tea, but if that’s what gets him reading, then I’m all for it. Eve has read the whole Twilight series—I think about nine times. That’s OK with me. Lucia likes Thomas the Tank Engine, even though she’s a girl. But she also loves the Disney Princesses. The great thing about books is that there is something for everyone, and for every pleasure. Anytime people use book preferences to pass moral judgment, I get angry…the whole idea that certain books are good and others are bad—or that people should only read “literary” books—is what gives reading a bad name all together.
4. Read aloud. Lou has always read to Eve before bed—they’ve done Narnia and The Hobbit—and he has ultimate patience reading to Lucia, over and over. My favorite read-aloud story is from a time when Eve came down with pneumonia. One of my favorite books growing up was the Little House on the Prairie series. I was devastated that Maya never wanted to read them, and Eve was showing no desire to read them either. So, while she was captive in bed, I read Eve the first book out loud. Not only was it fun for me—I had forgotten how funny and interesting the story was—but Eve was hooked, too. By the time she went back to school, she had read the whole series. Recently, on a long car trip, I read aloud some of the diary of Alexander von Humboldt’s journey to South America in the early 1800s. It was utterly remarkable how modern his voice sounded, and how fascinating his insights were. I knew no one else would ever read it on their own, but by reading it aloud to a captive audience, I got to share a little bit of my pleasure with them.
5. Make them come alive. We have been to Louisa May Alcott’s house in Concord, Massachusetts, twice, and have swum in Walden Pond. Next summer we are visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead museum in Iowa. I’ve dragged my whole family to Lady Murasaki’s 1,000-year-old home on a backstreet in Kyoto, Japan, to see the Tale of Genji world she created in the first novel ever written. Maya and I and a dear friend of mine went on a trip to England and visited some of our favorite sites from Regency romance novels. If there is a movie or documentary about a writer, or a favorite book, we watch it, and probably much to the annoyance of my family, I talk about it. (I tried to force my kids to watch the Botany of Desire documentary on PBS, but only Lucia stayed awake for the whole thing). We visit historical sites that we have read about (for Lou, that involves sports stadiums—thankfully, he has other friends he takes with him). Reading makes the world come alive in your head in a whole new way. Anytime that can be reinforced with real-life experience, it’s a great thing.
6. Have reading parties in bed. Speaking of great things…I love to read in bed. I get cranky when my kids want to stay up and all I want to do is go to bed and read. So I came up with the idea of having reading parties in bed. They LOVE it. We all get in our pajamas and brush our teeth and then meet in my big bed to read until we can’t keep our eyes open anymore. Then, it’s a much easier process to get them from my bed into theirs without a fuss. We don’t do it every night, so it keeps it special, but we do it at least once a week, and I have never, ever, heard either of them say they didn’t want to come to a reading party in my bed…but sorry, only my girls are invited!