When he was ten, my little brother was not a “fan” of anything. He enjoyed certain tv shows, but never got invested in the story and rarely read voluntarily, much to our mother’s chagrin. Mostly, he hung out with his jock of an older brother who poked fun at the fandom and writerly shenanigans of my marvel-obsessed sister and I, the resident Nerd and Author who “Care Too Much” about fictional worlds. Today, my twelve-year-old brother finished a 12-page-long original story, and is working his way through Lord of the Rings.
Around the same time, at the start of 2020, I was in one of the worst reading slumps of my LIFE. High school literature classes and a busy college/work schedule took my reading habit from several books a week to 1 or 2 a year. Thanks to a few beloved friends’ encouragement, I started the Stormlight Archive, and bounced back to reading over 30 books by this past year.
I’m not a teacher, or a parent, but I have learned a few things from watching his development these past two years, and watching the tricks that my friends pulled on me. For anyone else who spends a lot of time with impressionable kids and wants to play the (incredibly fun) role of neighborhood eccentric that sends children on adventures, here are 5 ways to encourage them to read.
1) Meet them where their interests lie
This transformation started with Avatar the Last Airbender. It just came out on Netflix, and we watched it as a family during the quarantine at the start of COVID. I could include him in conversations with my sister about fan-theories and subtext, and it made him feel grown-up to participate and contribute. When he came up with his own daydreams, I asked him to write his updates for me, and directed him to more reading material. Likewise, my friends indulgently listened to my writing rambles and gently nudged me toward a series they knew I would enjoy based on the similar tropes.
Try to introduce kids to similar genres as the ones they already enjoy. If they like a video game or tv-show, try to find novelizations or comics to accompany it. Show them how to use a library catalogue to look up the author’s last name and find other books. Listen to their rambles and ask questions, instead of just nodding and smiling. I’m sure we can all remember how hurtful, dismissive adults were when we shared our interests as kids. If they can trust you to be a supportive friend, they’ll be more receptive to your input in the future. I will accept recommendations from those same friends now with no questions asked because I trust their judgement on my taste in books.
2) Tell them stories
Making dinner? Weeding the garden? Folding laundry? Instead of putting on music or a movie for background noise, ask them if they want to hear a story. Humans have been telling tall tales over the household chores since the beginning of time, and oral storytelling is one of the most powerful gateways to voluntary silent reading. Tell them about crazy things you did when you were their age. Share your favorite fairy tales from that one obscure book in the back of the library. Pass the plot back and forth in a “choose your own adventure” never-ending story to let them contribute. Frame it as a fun way to make the chore less painful, and if they enjoy the story time, you might find them coming back to help if it means they can hear what happens next.
3) Don’t Gatekeep
Do they want to read comics? Fanfiction? Chapter books below their grade level? An epic that might be too advanced? Let them! If it’s fun, they’ll keep reading, and eventually move onto other types of literature as their tastes change. If it becomes a chore, they’ll lose interest and give up. This is exactly the tactic that English class pulled on me to put me into a 3-year-long reading slump. It says something dire when the most interesting and uplifting book we read all year was an account of the Armenian Genocide from a survivor’s descendent. If you want to nudge them toward the classics, there are easier methods than assigning something from an arbitrary reading list as homework.
4) Read together, Share favorites
Related to the above point about telling stories, never underestimate the sacred power of the bed-time read-aloud or a book club. Taking the time to read with someone else proves that you think the story is worthwhile, and there’s a special kind of joy in watching someone discover something you love. Take it from the Princess Bride.
If you know they will never pick up a certain book, such as a difficult classic, a long book they don’t have time for, or something outside their usual genre, reading it aloud to them is an excellent incentive. It outsources the work of reading to someone else and allows their hands to be free to play with blocks or work while they can still enjoy the story. If you don’t have the time to do a read-aloud, buying or renting them an audiobook can also be effective! I do most of my reading nowadays in the car while commuting to work.
5) Reward Initiative
The Annual Library Summer Reading Program was my bread and butter growing up. You logged how many minutes you read each day, which stacked onto your total tally. When you reached 200, 400, 600, and 800 minutes, you could redeem prizes and free books from the display. If you don’t have access to such a program, or it’s not summer, proposing your own challenge can take advantage of a competitive streak. Once, I bet my brother that he couldn’t read all 28 of the original Magic Tree House books before his birthday, and when he posted that last badge in his passport, he won a one-on-one ice cream date with me.
For me now, the chance to ramble about stories with my friends is incentive enough. They’re often subjected to “live-reactions” as I text my running theories. We usually meet up once I finish to have a debrief and share predictions for the next book. It’s nice to see them and share the excitement while taking a break from homework. And hey, I won’t say no to ice cream either.
Thank you for reading this post! I wish you the best of luck on all your bibliophilic adventures! Have a great day, and happy writing! 🙂