How We Turned a Reluctant Reader Into a Habitual Reader (Or: I Lied on My Kid’s Reading Log and the World Didn’t End)

My son is a reader.  He likes books. He reads plenty.

But: He is not a voracious reader. He’s not one of those kids who gobble books up like Pac-Man chasing down dots. He doesn’t romanticize, Hermione-style, over the smell of ink on paper, nor does he have any desire to browse aisles at bookstores, read through reviews, or sit in on a book discussion. He prefers real paper books, but has no attachment to them as objects once he’s read them (I suspect  I’ve had some influence here, with my constant reminders to purge stuff, and my own “books are not bricks” mantra). He wasn’t an early reader by any stretch: He learned to read in school, not at home. And while he was read to plenty as a baby (he was the first child, after all), he never had any particular inclination to gravitate toward books on his own. He was behind the curve in reading in the early grades, and getting him to finish a book was a chore. And yet, now, at fifteen, he is a reader.

I often detail this evolution with book-loving friends who worry that their young children don’t read as well, as independently, or as much as they want them to. What I found with my guy is that while he never felt any intimate connection with books, he LOVED stories. Big stories. Sweeping stories. Huge, epic stories where you really get invested in characters and there’s a solid chance things might not end well. The thing is, books for very young readers are usually pretty benign. Once Himself got into the third in the Magic Treehouse series and realized that Jack and Annie were probably going to escape any real danger (how else would they get to book 4, 5… 25?) he completely lost interest.

Twenty-eight volumes to go!
I don’t think the protagonists have anything to worry about.

The thing is, at seven or eight years old, he just didn’t have the decoding skills to read more complicated stories yet. So, for most of second, third, and even into fourth grade, his independent reading pretty much consisted of me leaning over his shoulder to make sure he read X number of pages, or more often, me just lying on his class reading log and saying that yeah, he’d read for 15 minutes (I’m not ashamed).

But while he was faking reading, he was really, really into stories. Mostly movies at that age—Toy Story and all things Pixar were in a constant cycle of watch/rewind/watch again.

At my husband’s insistence, we had strategically hidden everything Star Wars related from him until he was seven years old—the age my husband had been when the first film came out—and then launched it with great fanfare. (It goes without saying that Episode IV comes first.) It was well worth the wait, because at seven, he was mature enough to really understand the humor, the humanity, and the eternal struggle with good and evil—along with the awesome light saber duels, droid banter, and space battles. Rather than getting caught up in hitting people with light sabers disguised as sticks (as I’d seen so many toddlers who got initiated too young do), Himself latched onto the Hero’s Journey theme of the tale. He was enamored of Darth Vader, blasters, and light sabers, of course… but still more concerned with Luke and the good guys ultimately defeating evil. We invested in some great Star Wars like books this one (which he paged through endlessly, looking at pictures over and over, until the spine finally split), but his dad’s 1970s original Han Solo paperbacks didn’t tempt him at all.

The #1 Christmas gift of 2007 at my house. 

We talked about Star Wars endlessly (something my husband and I liked to do long before we’d ever had kids). We did the same thing with the Lord of the Rings films, and Harry Potter, the latter of which we listened to on audio in addition to watching the films. Doctor Who became a ritual, as did parsing each episode and theorizing about what might come next.

We found stories elsewhere that grabbed his attention, and unexpectedly challenged him to not merely enjoy a narrative, but to read.  We binge watched Lost, and found that one key storyline was told entirely in subtitles. which we had to read aloud for him… until we didn’t anymore. As someone who does not enjoy video games at all, it took me a while to realize the long-form RPGs he was playing with his dad were yet another form of storytelling—and that they were actually really text-rich experiences that challenged him to read constantly, as bubbles popped up on screen and demanded he decode, understand, and respond quickly (ETA: Added bonus: he also learned to type as fast as Mad Men–era secretary).  By fifth grade, with the help of all those video games and subtitles (and you know, I’m sure school helped) his reading skills were catching up to those of his peers.

Once he was hooked on stories, we needed to step in our role as his supplier. I had a conversation with our local librarian about how I was having difficulty getting him to commit longer novels. When I told her really gravitated life-or-death epics, she excitedly handed me Gregor the Overlander, the first in Suzanne Collins’ fabulous and somewhat overlooked Underland Chonicles. My ‘reluctant reader’ banged through the entire five-book series in a couple of weeks. When he finished the last one, he cried for a day or two, just because he was so sad it was over.

It’s still his favorite book.

He had become a reader. He still is one.

But I don’t know if he’d be a reader we hadn’t actively worked to make him one. The key had not just been encouraging him to read, or reading to him, but finding books he would want to read, and then reading them with him (my husband and I both read Gregor as well). He wasn’t born a reader, but proper care and feeding, he grew into one.

So, if you’re worried that  your young one is not a reader, don’t. Just be patient, and enjoy some stories with him while his skills catch up to his interests. I sincerely believe that the best way to get a kid reading is just to unleash your own inner geek and nerd out with your kids. Indulge in stories—across all sorts of media—together:

  • Watch an epic film together.
  • Find an appointment-viewing style show to watch together each week, and then discuss it, water cooler-style, over dinner or while driving in the car.
  • Treat yourself to great graphic novels, and share them with your child.
  • Have him or her explain the plot of a favorite video game to you.
  • Download an excellent audiobook and listen together.
(Image: Library of Congress)

(Image: Library of Congress)

Audiobooks; Not just for the car. 

Once a kid becomes a story addict, he’ll start jonesing for the harder stuff. He’ll take on longer, more difficult narratives, and gradually his reading skills will catch up with his appetite. Keep on putting really good books in front of  him, show him that you think they’re worth reading yourself, and limit competition from other, shinier interest for just a little bit of time each day.

With a little legwork, you can make books just as accessible, convenient, addicting, and social as the Internet. And books can become as much of a habit as video games are. Also, free from your local library, and totally portable.

Why isn’t everyone watching SyFy’s Face Off?

I talk a lot about getting the kids to read more books, and spend less time with screens. But the truth is that for my family, some TV time is quality screen time. When you’ve got a show that you all enjoy, it’s like you’ve got a weekly date to all get on the couch, Simpsons-style, and experience something together. For us, that show is SyFy’s super fun competition show, Face Off.

If you haven’t tuned in, think Project Runway, but substitute special effects make-up for fashion. Each season, the show culls a group of special effects artists who are trying to break into the industry, and puts them through a series of deadline-driven challenges. As on Runway, the artists are mentored by a knowledgeable industry insider, and judged by professionals who could make or break their careers. Each week, someone gets crowned a winner (and in some cases, is offered immunity for the following week) and someone else is sent home. Like Runway, Face-off offers viewers a glimpse at how things are made, and  in particular, how creative people merge artistic vision with technical skill to make beautiful things.

But thats where the similarities end. Because while the format resembles that of runway, the content is on another level entirely.

My daughter and I (and occasionally our menfolk) used to watch Runway pretty religiously. We are not particularly interested in fashion, but we really loved seeing the process behind making clothing. But as the seasons wore on we grew tired of it. Each season (and especially after the show moved to Lifetime and grew to 90 minutes) there seemed to be less time spent showing people actually making stuff, and more time devoted to interpersonal drama. And ugh, the drama. Each group of designers was more predictable than the last, with contestants clearly casting themselves (or being cast by the show’s editors) into specific roles: they bitchy one, the underdog, etc. While some competitors did prove to be nice ladies and guys, the competition was fierce, in both the literal and Christian Siriano sense of the word: backstabbing, smack-talking, shameless self-promotion, and passive-aggressive criticism of one another seem to rule the day on Runway. Making matters worse, the judging was just infuriating. When Anya’s was crowned winner in Season 9 over Victor (a win that seemed largely pre-ordained by the producers), we thew up our collective hands and tapped out. Clearly, we do not understand fashion. (As the judges might say, I’m just not their girl).

But movies? Movies we get, and Face Off offers a real glimpse into the part of movie making that most of us rarely think about. Unlike the drama-driven bitchfest that Project Runway has become, Face Off presents friendly competition in a largely collaborative atmosphere. The artists showcased on Face Off are not just talented. They also demonstrate the kind of behaviors that anyone who ever wants to work in a creative industry should emulate.  Contestants help one another out all the time, not just on team challenges, but also on individual challenges when their own hides are on the line. On the rare occasion when someone shows up with a chip on their shoulder, they usually don’t last long. The artists turn to one another for advice all the time, and when mentor Michael Westmore shows up in the workshop, they listen to his notes with respect that borders on reverence. The mood continues on the reveal stage, where the judges offer constructive criticisms and encouragement rather than snappy, Michael Kors–style one liners. Contrary to what the producers at most reality competition shows think, really fun to watch a show with your kid where you don’t hate any contestant. In fact, by the time you get down to the top five or six, you kind of want them all to win.

In a sense, they all do. The judges on this show—all major players in the special effects industry–seem to use the show as a proving ground for scouting new talent. So even if only one winner gets to claim the prize, a strong showing by a losing contestant is more likely to get a foot in the door than any backstabbing or scheming would. In any event, I get the sense that there is just no room for divas in this industry. Judges Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill,  and Neville Page (and in earlier seasons, Patrick Tatopoulos) are among the biggest names in the field, but they are still far from household names. So winners are not competing for fame so much as for chance to get noticed by people who can put them in a position to work for a living.

It makes for great tv that is fun to watch together. For kids (or anyone who has ever watched a movie), it shows just how much work goes into old fashioned special effects, and highlights the importance of time management, teamwork, and thinking creatively. For the family, it not only provides appointment television to share at a time when our kids are less interested in spending time with their parents, but it has given us more of an appreciation for the work that goes into the movies and tv we otherwise enjoy (and we’ve all started doing Glenn Hetrick impressions, noting “this-is-a-very-effective-make-up” whenever a monster or even just an injured patient shows up in the course of a TV show).

Season 8 premiers tonight, with past winners serving as mentors to  new contestants (and all seasons are streaming now at Syfy.com). Let the friendly competition, thoughtful critiques, and teamwork begin!