How to Raise a Reader
Appearance by Maria Russo (book by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo)
Tuesday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m., at Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield St.
By GWEN OREL
When you’re engrossed in a good book, and the kids are playing nearby, you’re parenting.
You’re modeling reading, says Maria Russo, co-author, with Pamela Paul, of the new book “How to Raise a Reader.”
Other points in the book include: Leave books around the house and let kids discover them.
Children prefer real books to books on screens.
Some European countries don’t even teach reading until a child is 7 or 8.
Russo, a Montclair resident, is children’s books editor of The New York Times Book Review. She will appear at Watchung Booksellers to talk about the book on Tuesday, Sept. 3, just in time for back-to-school.
“How to Raise a Reader” began as a digital-only guide in the New York Times. The authors received so many requests for a printable version that it was natural to turn it into a book.
“It’s the kind of book I wish I’d had when my first child was born,” says Russo, whose children are 16, 13 and 9. “It’s a book I’d want to pull off the shelf and browse through, not read on my phone or digital. I die a little every time I dig into the phone.” Children and even teenagers actually prefer books to digital versions, she adds. “It’s a kinetic thing, a physical thing, they turn the pages, can go back, and go at their own pace.”
“How to Raise a Reader” is divided into five sections: the first addresses babies and toddlers, followed by a section on “growing a reader,” a chapter on middle-grade readers, a section on teenagers, and an annotated list of books for every level.
The section for babies explains what to look for in a board book and why: bright colors and durability matter, since a baby may throw or chew on the book, and chubby hands tear pages. A section on reading with toddlers includes tips for reading out loud, such as “Always begin with the title of the book and the name of the author and illustrator. This will teach an appreciation for the creation of books and allow the child to begin to identify favorite authors and pick up on similar artistic styles.”
And: “It’s okay to hate some children’s books.”
Whether or not a small child is “really” reading or has memorized the book, or is reading the pictures, is not important, Russo says.
“The first step is following a visual narrative. There are lots of wonderful wordless books,” she explains.
Russo loves graphic novels.
“Parents and teachers are learning to treat them not as a quasi-literary diversion but as reading. One of my big messages in the book is to let children read illustrated books. It helps them become readers. Visual reading is reading. It’s decoding, helping brains in the process of becoming readers.”
Raising a reader is a project that does not stop when a child has learned to read on his or her own. A 6-year-old can read a page to you. In the Middle Grade novel years (which are not middle school, but are books for ages 8 to 12) children begin to choose their own books, and can join fan communities. Parents can help children find those groups.
Teenagers sometimes take a break from reading: the book describes how Russo’s 13-year-old daughter just stopped reading for a long spell, following a move to a new town and entering a new school. Russo learned from a psychologist who works with adolescents that it’s normal for teens to drop an activity when adjusting to a new environment. “They are feeling out a new identity,” she says.
At the end of the school year, Russo’s daughter suddenly packed all the Harry Potter books to reread at summer camp, and not long after “flopped down on the sofa with a copy of Stephen King’s almost-900-page ‘11/22/63’ she brought home from the library.”
IT’S NOT HOMEWORK
“Don’t stress” is one of the book’s messages for all parents.
Teaching the mechanics of reading, such as phonics, is not the parents’ job.
“It doesn’t matter what age your child learns to read, so don’t push it,” Russo says. “Don’t try to teach a 4- and 5-year-old how to read. In Europe many countries don’t even formally teach reading until 7 or 8. Not every brain is ready. They use the instructional time for things brains are ready to do, like science or math.
“A lot of parents feel pressure, and panic,” she says. “I hope I can help change that.” Everyone learns to read, unless there’s a visual or other physical problem that can be identified.
It’s important that parents not make reading seem an extension of homework. “It’s your job to keep the enthusiasm up. ‘Wow, have you seen ‘The Olympians?’ [a graphic novel series]? Did you read ‘Zeus’ yet?
“I suggest being a little checked out of what level they’re at,” she adds with a laugh. “Books go viral among kids. When your friend is into ‘Dog Man,’ and you’re the first one to give him the new ‘Dog Man,’ that’s real social capital.”
Russo was an early reader, as were two of her children, but one was not. In the middle of first grade, he was still not fluent.
“At first I was alarmed, but then I got enough knowledge to learn it doesn’t matter,” she says.
Reading to a child at any age is a wonderful way to connect. “I found it to be the place where my experience as a parent felt transcendent,” Russo says.
And reading around the child is one of Russo’s favorite tips. “When I’m sitting there involved in a novel or memoir I can’t stop reading, I’m actually parenting. Read your own books, and read them really visibly.”
Bring on the classics
Regardless of where your child’s independent reading is, the span between 4 and 8 is also a good time to start reading aloud more sophisticated books that he may not be able to read on his own yet but that will surely stimulate and enchant. Think about literary classics like Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” as well as newer books like Kate DiCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” Reading these kinds of stories to children at this age may be one of the most satisfying reading experiences of your reading life. They don’t have to know the meaning of every word to appreciate it. You will find yourself marveling all over again at their beauty and depth, and hearing the grace and perfection of the language makes a lasting impression on young ears. A book like “Through the Looking-Glass,” with its sophisticated wordplay and puzzles, is even better when shared with a favorite grown-up.