When my son was a tot, I delighted in reading to him from my favorite picture books — Frog & Toad! Stuart Little! — and zealously sought out new titles for us both to enjoy. Even when he could read without my help, I spent a lot of time scoping out books for him. But I knew less about what he was actually reading.
Then along came Harry. My son devoured the Potter books and was eager to discuss them. My husband and I wanted to know what the hoopla was all about, so we headed to Hogwarts ourselves. Our 9-year-old would beg us to catch up — but not read ahead of him.
Thus was launched an explosion of middle-grade book reading in our house. We all read Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid, then we split off, the boys reading the action/adventure titles, mom and son discussing realistic fiction.
For too many kids, reading for fun drops off in the tween years, says my colleague Kitty Felde, host of the Book Club for Kids podcast, which I produce. “Middle school is the battleground where we lose readers,” she says, “so if we can hook them there, we’ve got them for life.”
In school, young children first learn to read, but as they get older they read to learn. The more your child reads, the more fluent he becomes, so, dear Reader, I offer some suggestions:
Readers in Chief
The best thing you can do to support your child is read yourself. “If you’re a reader and you are talking about how fabulous it is,” says Carrie Ann Johnson, reading specialist and adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, “that really sets the tone for the household, especially if you have both parents as readers.” She adds that it’s also important to tell kids about your experiences not liking a book: “Then reluctant readers get the idea that it could just be the book, it’s not just me.”
Parents frequently run on empty, and reading middle-grade and young-adult (Y.A.) novels yourself is an energy-efficient strategy. Plus, there’s a lot of writing talent here, including Linda Sue Park, Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate, Kwame Alexander and Avi. Granted, you will find some of your kid’s favorites insufferable, but you’ll get a better sense of her interests and gain insight into the minds of tweens and teens.
To find the good stuff, I scour The New York Times Book Review, two bookstores — Vroman’s in Pasadena and Once Upon A Time in Montrose — online lists of funny middle grade books and the library. I also listen to the recommendations of kids featured on the reading podcast at BookClubforKids.org, and I charmingly (embarrassingly) interrogate my kid’s friends.
When a book seems like it might interest my kid — let’s call him by his podcasting handle, Mr. Waffles — I’ll dive in. If I like it, I’ll keep reading and recommend it to Waffles. Many books are rejected: too scary, too mature, not interesting. I don’t finish most of them, but usually I’ve read enough to pass some on with a comment such as: “You might like this, it’s about a dragon whose best friend is a mouse.”
So Many Books
Johnson says the financial success of J.K Rowling’s books prompted publishers to invest in middle grade and Y.A. books: “So there is a plethora of material — the variety is immense.”
Mr. Waffles enjoys a wide range of books, although mostly fiction. His favorite genres are fantasy, animal stories, realistic fiction and some historical fiction. Other kids, however, are tougher customers. “This is why you need to be an expert in the market, so you will have the knowledge to pull the book that will be perfect for your child,” Johnson says.
You can also outsource — librarians are eager to help. “Our goal is to match your child with books they enjoy,” says Katherine Loeser, head of the Glendale Library Children’s Department. “It’s not that you are ever interrupting us, we are just keeping busy until you come and see us.”
Fantasy is an especially popular genre these days. But some of these books can be intense — loaded with conflict and violence, so you might want to review them first. Don’t shy away from historical fiction, though: You’ll learn something you can discuss with your kid.
Mr. Waffles especially appreciates well-written funny books. Authors we recommend: Richard Peck, Stuart Gibbs, Gordan Korman, Jennifer Holm and Jack Gantos.
Which reminds me, just because your kid can read a book targeted at older kids doesn’t mean she should. In particular, so-called high-low books are designed for older kids who aren’t strong readers. They’re a good choice for reluctant readers, but can be too mature for younger kids.
And while I’m at it, please don’t assume your child will only enjoy books about kids like himself. The popularity of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder shows us that kids appreciate stories that find the common humanity among diverse people. Mr. Waffles loves the young reader’s edition of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, I Am Malala, as well as William Kamkwamba’s autobiographical The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
It’s All Good
Another hot genre is the graphic novel. Just because it’s popular with reluctant readers doesn’t mean it’s for dummies. In addition to great art, many graphic novels use sophisticated vocabulary and cover complex topics. Also, the pictures help readers interpret the text. Johnson says studies have shown that kids who love graphic novels often become superior readers in the long run. “So it’s actually an excellent choice,” she says.
Now that you’ll be auditioning a lot of books, I’ve got a few financial tips. One, the Pasadena Public Library will transfer books from any Pasadena or Glendale library to your nearest branch, no charge. Two, ThriftBooks.com has a giant selection of used books for around $4 apiece. (But please frequent your local bookstore; there’s no substitute for the advice you’ll get there.) Three, swap books with friends.
While a reading level can help you identify a book that’s in the ballpark, especially for beginners, once your child is a solid reader, you need only scan the first few pages to see if it seems right.
Insisting that your child stick to books that are challenging is a good way to kill his enthusiasm. “The accelerated reading has taken the pleasure out of some books,” says Loeser, referring to a system of rating books and rewarding students for reading more difficult ones. It saddens her to watch children “who [want] a 3.5 book put it back to find a 4.5 because they’ll get more points.”
If your child reads a lot, she’ll be exposed to a wide vocabulary, so there’s no need to strong-arm her into reading fewer, more difficult books. “Reading specialists will argue if the child is truly passionate about and compelled to read a book, that is the book they should be reading,” says Johnson.
Reading material is everywhere, so load your child with opportunities. Some popular options at our house: the new monthly kids’ section in the Sunday New York Times, Los Angeles Times Sunday comics, magazines like National Geographic Kids and Muse in the car and newspaper articles for discussion at the dinner table (check out the website Newsela.com).
Audiobooks! Mr. Waffles has been an ardent Audible subscriber for nine of his 11 years. He likes to revisit books he’s already read and finds some nonfiction content more palatable in audio form. “There are amazing audiobooks out there, and there are high- level actors who are now [voicing] audiobooks,” Loeser says.
Yet More Tips
Meeting a favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) author can be inspirational for kids. Mr. Waffles even cadged an interview for his book podcast, The Book Meese.
Loeser attributes her love of books to a mother who continued to read to her long after she could do it herself. Johnson also endorses reading aloud to older children; she expands the material her 11-year-old twins are exposed to by reading noteworthy books to them.
Sometimes kids just need a little boost, so reading even the first pages of a book to your child can help him get hooked.
Still, even voracious readers have days when they’d rather be playing video games. So here’s my final tip: snacks. When encouragement is needed, invite your kid to join you for popcorn while you take turns reading an exciting new book.
If your child, school or library is interested in participating in the Book Club for Kids podcast, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information at BookClubforKids.org. You can find Mr. Waffles’ middle-grade books podcast (SoundCloud.com/BookMeese) in iTunes podcasts and on the RadioPublic and KidsListen apps.