Raising readers

I had one non-negotiable clause in my parent contract. My children had to like reading.

I didn’t much care what they read, because I read, well, just about everything. I just wanted them to like reading. It would make them smarter people. It would set them up for success in life. It would make them less likely to watch 15 hours of TV a day. (Don’t take my word for it: Here are some of the benefits of reading aloud to children.)

So as soon as they were born, basically, I read to them. Before naps. Snuggling on the couch. At bedtime. Every chance I got.

That’s the first part of a two-part strategy. The second? I made sure they saw me reading for fun. Books. Newspapers. Magazines. Everything. If you teach kids reading is a chore they have to do for school, they’ll hate it. If you show them reading is something you like to do, they’ll want to be like you.

I still read to them at bedtime. But now they’re both just as likely to sit side by side on the couch in the afternoon, reading their own books. Actually getting them to put down the book and have dinner can be a little difficult.

(I never ignored dinner for a book. Oh no. Not me. I also never tried reading and walking down the stairs at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Also, reading while walking down the stairs can be painful.)

I love that they love reading. Sometimes I take my own book – or my notebook with a work-in-progress – and I join them.

And then they hover over my shoulder and demand I read them the work-in-progress. And that’s well worth it too.

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Quite the spoonful of sugar

I attended an author talk Monday night with Julie Andrews (aka Mary Poppins) and Emma Walton Hamilton, technically on the topic of how to get kids to love reading, but there were plenty of Broadway and Disney-related questions as well, which wasn’t surprising. Because Mary Poppins was on the stage. (Yes, I am aware of her many other stage and screen credits. And I am going with Mary Poppins anyway. Chim chim cheree.)

I’m going to be a bad reader here and admit I’ve never read the P.L. Travers books, though I hope to get to them at some point. It’s funny how the movie version of a book can take on a life of its own, isn’t it?

Amusing note: Julie said P.L. called her while she was in the hospital, recovering from giving birth to Emma, to say she was too pretty for the role, but that her nose was perfect. Also, Julie said “Saving Mr. Banks” wasn’t totally accurate; P.L. was even more crotchety in real life (not the word she used, I believe).  

At any rate, the mother-daughter duo, who are both utterly charming, gave some good advice — start reading to kids early, slow down as you read the words, use different voices for different characters, talk to the child about what they’re reading, make the experience interactive. Though I have to say, I’m always astounded when parents need to be told to read to their kids. Isn’t that something you just do? Change their diapers, give them tummy time, read to them.

After I gave birth to my son, as soon as I was clear to drive a car again, I drove myself to the bookstore and stocked up on picture books. Lots of Dr. Seuss, plus “Where the Wild Things Are.” I made sure to get the books I’d loved when I was a kid, so my son would love them too. Spoiler alert: It worked, maybe too well, since it’s hard to get him away from a book to do … oh, anything else. But I can relate. I’d rather be reading too. 

Which is exactly the thing all we writers and writers-in-training have in common, isn’t it? We all love reading, or else we wouldn’t want to create reading material for others. So you could say Julie and Emma didn’t need to sugar up the medicine where I was concerned, though judging from the wild applause, I wasn’t the only one.

My daughter loves Julie and Emma, although she doesn’t entirely know it yet, because of the “Very Fairy Princess” books. She adores these books. She puts her tutu on over her jeans and tells me, “I’m the Very Fairy Princess!” Well, of course you are, sweetie.

I like the books because Gerry — the princess in question — is the total opposite of the stereotypically super-girly princess-loving girl; her leggings are ripped at the knee, she has dirty fingernails, she sings a little too loudly, she likes to take charge. How she sees herself is at odds with how she actually is, and that disconnect is consistently funny (and adorable).

So my daughter will be happy with me in a couple weeks when she graduates from preschool, because a signed copy of Julie and Emma’s latest, “The Very Fairy Princess: Graduation Girl,” will be waiting for her. Talk about perfect timing.