Parenting advice: How to get your kid to love to read

Dec 05, 2013

Heidi Powell, manager of the children's department at D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose, will talk about children's books and reading advice.

Thanks for joining us. What a fun story this was to write. I hope you enjoyed it and we can get a good discussion going about best books and ways to encourage young readers. Heidi Powell, the manager of the children's department at Politics and Prose is with us today. Her partner in crime, Mary Alice Garber, the buyer for the department, will be joining us too. Their wisdom really is invaluable. Lots of questions already! Let's get started. 

What is your opinion on children using E Readers? My granddaughter is 9 and loves books and reads well. I am somewhat hesitant about her using electronic books at her age.

I'm sure there is more to this answer, but just FYI, Mari-Jane Williams wrote about that today here:

E readers can be part of a "healthy diet"; however, I think the e-picture books become more like games.   I'd encourage parents to read physical books with their young children.  There are elements in physical books such as the use of white space and the turn of the page that e-books can't simulate.

I'm a librarian and have read to my kids age 17 and 11 from the womb. I spent many hours snuggled up reading with them as toddlers and young children. It is perplexing and sad that they lost their love of books by the time they were 10 or so. Neither of them read for pleasure (much), and grudgingly read assigned books for school. My 17 year old daughter is far more interested in Facebook, Instagram, texting friends, etc. My 11 year old is a better reader but prefers sports, tv, computer and video games. I've tried bringing home books related to the subjects they are interested in, I've offered to read to them or read together alternating pages, I've tried magazines which they are a little more interested in, and other things... I'm so frustrated and disappointed that they don't love to read. I feel that they are missing out academically, creatively, and spiritually. Please help!

I empathize.  I have 3 children, two of whom are teens.  One of them, formerly a voracious reader, now reads very little.  One suggestion we make to parents is to consider graphic or hybrid novels.  For the 17 year old try Blankets (Craig Thompson), To Timbuktu (Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg), Boxers and Saints (Gene Yang), or The Odyssey (Gareth Hinds).  For the 11 year old try Nathan Hale's (yes, that's his real name) Hazardous Tales nonfiction American History series which are entertaining.  Also, Battling Boy (Paul Pope).  Good Luck!

Some kids really, really struggle with reading due to specific learning disabilities. It's important not to make them feel stupid or like failures because they really don't enjoy reading -- it's extremely difficult for them. (one of my three children falls into this category, despite being raised in a houseful of books and lifelong readers). Don't forget, that before books, humans learned by imitation and we're still hard-wired to do so.

You make a really good point.  And although children may struggle with reading themselves, they're never too old to listen to a good story.  There are many great read- alouds that the entire family can enjoy and discuss.  There also are great audio books for those long car rides.  If you give me your children's ages, I'd be happy to make some suggestions for appropriate read-alouds.

I seemed to have missed the article and would love to read it.

Goodness! We should have had that. Sorry.

A little off topic, perhaps, but what background is needed to work in the children's section of an independent book store? Love P&P and its kids section!

Thank you!  The booksellers in our department come from a variety of academic backgrounds.  Some of us were--and are--educators; some of us were accountants; some of us recently graduated from universities.  We all read a lot as children, young adults, and adults, and we continue to educate ourselves

How do I get my 8-year-old to read less of what I consider junk and transition to higher quality literature? He's read and re-read all of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books and is now reading "Big Nate" books. He's also big on sports books. I feel this stuff is rotting his brain.

This was one thing I loved hearing about from Mo Willems when I interviewed him for this story. He said he loved to read comics, but that was akin to smoking, practically, at his age. He just wasn't interested in other things being shoved at him, that really didn't speak to him. Look at him now. I think reading is reading, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid might lead to the next book and the next one. One of the teachers I interviewed said she encouraged a student to read Twilight. The girl, who didn't love to read, read that then every other book in the series. By the end of it, she was telling her teacher that they were interesting, but after a while, she realized the writing wasn't that great. So her teacher suggested something else and the student branched out. It led her to other books that she ended up loving.

I like to understand what children's interests are and find books to match.  I wouldn't worry about the books your son is reading "rotting his brain."  If he likes Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate, give him Timmy Failure (Stephan Pastis).  Nothing wrong with sports books.  Encourage him to continue reading.  He'll expand his interests in time.

This is a new tradition in our house. For the 25 days of Christmas, I gift-wrap 25 books (owned & borrowed from the library), put them in a basket and every night let the kids pick one book to unwrap and read. They will get a mix of familiar favorites with new books. Not all are about the holidays, some are just wintery-topic type books. They love the excitement -- PLUS I love that PJs on & teeth-brushed with a lot less nagging in order to get to the book.

This is a very fun idea! (Good for you, having the patience to wrap 25 books.)

My child only wants to read books about one or two things. How can I get them to branch out?

I'm not sure it's a bad thing to want to read about one or two things.  I suppose it depends what those things are...If you figure out what appeals to your child about the things s/he wants to read about, maybe you could introduce those things in other ways.  For example, if s/he is reading only nonfiction books about sports, introduce a novel involving sports. 

I've taken lots of advice on this, like finding a topic he really likes (sports) and getting books on that; to let him read whatever he wants (fiction, non-fiction, magazines, books, websites), in whatever format he'd like (Kindle, traditional book); to read in front of him and show him that it's fun... but we still have trouble getting our child to LIKE reading. I don't like "making" him read, because I don't want it to feel like a punishment. I'm kind of unsure what more to do. Any advice?

And as an aside, Heidi: I see a few people asked questions in the comments section of my story: Do you have book suggestions for teenage boys?

I agree that you don't want reading to feel like a punishment.  As I mentioned earlier, I often recommend graphic or hybrid novels to parents in this situation.  They come in many genres, for all ages, and the format often is appealing to kids who "don't like to read."

Hi. My kindergartner has just started reading on his own. Of course we still read to him, and he brings home simple books to read, but where can I get more? The library goes from picture books to juvenile fiction, and I'm just not sure what is appropriate. Thanks!

Come visit us at Politics and Prose!  We have a lot of leveled readers and early graphics that are perfect for beginning readers.

Thanks for having this important chat! I have a precocious 10 year old boy who LOVES to read. He reads a few grades ahead. I have noticed that so many of the new tween lit is full of dystopian societies (not just the Hunger Games/Divergent many of the less popular new releases, too) and killing. What age is appropriate for all that dark and twisted fear?

I know that a lot of younger kids want to read dystopian novels, but the content often is inappropriate.  There are some good scary stories and fantasies I'd steer them toward.  For example, Adam Gidwitz's Tale Dark and Grimm series is very good.  The Ranger's Apprentice series (John Flanagan) is another good choice.  And The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau) may even qualify as dystopian, but I'm probably pushing it.

My two teenagers have always loved to read, and I think it's due to how much I love reading, and the time we spent making reading fun and exciting! Take them to storytimes at libraries and bookstores, have lots of books around the house on themes or topics that interest them, bring books with for entertainment in the car, or when waiting... I see so many young parents know just placating their young children with their cellphones -- use a small boardbook or picture book instead :)

All good suggestions. I was taking my kids to school this morning, and after we dropped off the older one, my younger one was silent. "What's wrong?" I asked him. "Why are you so quiet?"

"I reading, mommy!"

And he was. Made my day. But I can't say that would have happened with my older one at that age.

Thanks for taking questions today! I have 4 young nieces and nephews (this year between 8 and 11 years old) for whom I buy books for birthdays & Hanukkah. I am torn between wanting to get something trendy and hot that they will be so happy to read, but that they might just read once and then give away, and a classic that they will keep around and read over and over. (I still have a box filled with my favorite childhood books) Unfortunately the independent children's bookstore in my area (New Jersey) closed over the past year and I don't find any help at big stores. Can you suggest a list from someone or some group that knows what they're talking about that could help me choose books that could fit the bill for both? The nephews' birthdays are January and February so my book-buying isn't done this holiday season. thank you!

For one, how about checking out this year's Caldecott nominees? Also, we have a good list of books in today's story (it's here as an online gallery), much of which was recommended by Mary Alice and Heidi.


Go to our website, and check out our department's holiday favorites.  We just published it.  It contains reviews of our 2013 favorites.

Any advice on helping kids become more expressive readers? I volunteer-tutor middle school children and they enjoy listening to a book read out loud, but that enthusiasm isnt there for when they're reading to the group, or on their own. Any book suggestions for that age group that might get them more excited?

It might be fun to try something they could read as a group, where students could take parts.  Take a look at Joyful Noice: Poems for Two Voices (Paul Fleischman).  Hey World, Here I Am! (Jean Little) also might be fun.

At what age should I move from reading single story books (finished in a matter of minutes) to books that continue in chapters/night-over-night?

This is a really good question and one we get a lot.  There are more complex picture books that you won't finish in a matter of minutes: Balloons Over Broadway; The Secret River; Andrew Henry's Meadow; Life in the Ocean.  As far as starting on chapter books--and please don't abandon the picture books!--we often recommend My Father's Dragon and Jenny and the Cat Club.

At night with my 5 year old we read a 'real' (printed) book and an 'imaginary' book. The imaginary book is me pressing my palms together to open them like a book and then create a story every night on the fly. My son contributes to the story by way of picking characters and locations or activities. I try to work in topical / relevant life lessons, values, and challenges. Thoughts, ideas, suggestions or reaction to this?

That sounds wonderful.  What time is storytime at your house?

Take heart! As a teenager, my sister never opened a book unless required to for school, despite growing up in a book-loving family. She had an active scheduled as a teen and books just didn't fit in. However, as an adult, she now reads vociferously.

Always a good reality check. Thanks.

I have three children who generally will pick up or turn on an electronic device for amusement. However, they've got time limits and when the timer goes off, the books come out. Same at bedtime; no electronics in their rooms mean they generally hit the pillow with a book in hand.

That's one...

Hello - I have a 6 y.o. daughter who loves books and loves to read. My problem is that she likes to be surrounded by books, alot of them above her head, and read a few pages of each then move on to other books. There are books everywhere which is beautiful but I wonder how I can encourage her to stick to one book at a time. Or should I?

My youngest daughter, now 12, used to do the same thing.  In fact, she's not entirely over it.  It bothered me for a while, but then I realized it was more about the importance I placed on finishing a book; she was happy surrounded by books, reading a few pages at a time. 

I am glad that the chatter's teenagers love to read, but to say it's because she loves reading and she made it fun only tells part of the story. There are plenty of parents who are voracious readers who try their best to make it fun but struggle with kids who for a variety of reasons are not hardwired to love reading. My kids didn't even have cell phones until 9th grade -- still, they didn't love reading.

... and another!


Younger teens: books by Margi Preus, Heart of a Samurai and Shadow on the Mountain; Nation (Terry Pratchett); Downsiders (Neal Shusterman);  Sea of Trolls and House of the Scorpion (Nancy Farmer).  Older teens: check out Matt de la Pena; Man Made Boy (Jon Skovron); Swim the Fly (Don Calame); Black Swan Green (David Mitchell); Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell); and anything by John Green.

Thank you all for joining us, and for Heidi's great suggestions. We couldn't get to all your questions, but feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section of the story, or on Facebook/twitter @OnParenting or @amyjoyce_berg. Happy reading everyone!

And for up to date titles and suggestions, follow Heidi's department @kidsandprose.

In This Chat
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post, well, for a long time. Her first foray in to online chats were related to work. Now she's happy to chat about fun (but would like to believe the two can be one). An editor for Weekend and the Going Out Guide, she is particularly interested in movies, things to do with kids and things she can do on that rare date night. When not at work, she can be seen dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
Heidi Powell
Heidi Powell is the manager of the children's department of D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose.
Mary Alice Garber
Mary Alice Garber is the buyer for the children's department at Politics and Prose.
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