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How Do You Inspire Your Child or Teenager to Read?

My 11-year-old nephew is reading War and Peace. How did that happen?

By Edward Nawotka

Kieran reading Tolstoy

Yep, that's him reading Tolstoy...

A few months ago my sister-in-law informed me that my 11-year-old nephew was reading War and Peace and liking it. (Don’t believe me? She blogged about it here.) How on Earth did that happen? Well, it probably helps that both of his parents are writers, his dad is published novelist, and the boy was given books on tape to help him fall asleep at bedtime. But War and Peace? It goes to show that the truly great books can travel across centuries and generations.

Turning a kid into a reader might seem like a daunting task in the age of Facebook, Twitter, video games and incessant digital distraction. But it’s not impossible. And there are some do’s and don’ts.

My parents’ plan, for example, was to try and entice me with books they thought would suit my interests. They presented me at a young age with biographies of Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel, the two World War II generals who faced off in North Africa. (I was fascinated by the Battle of El Alamein as a result of watching too much The World at War.) I’m confident that plan backfired. The truth is that I seem to have gotten most of my early education from the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. It wasn’t until years later, while bored one summer afternoon, I picked up a copy of John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano and got hooked on novels.

With my own daughter, I’m trying to play it smart. She’s three-and-a-half years old and I’m delighted that she’s interested in Curious George and the Mr. Men books. I’m not trying to push her into reading Charlotte’s Web or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang until the time is right. But, I won’t lie, I have copies of them already waiting for her. I’ve also got a boxed set, still in cellophane, of the Harry Potter novels for the just the right, too-hot-to-go-outside boring summer afternoon.

It’s said that simply having books around the house is the best way to interest a child in reading. As we transition to e-books, it may be more difficult for parents to accumulate their own haphazard pile of books. I worry sometimes as I sit with my iPad reading an e-book that she sees me and thinks I’m playing a game. I’d much rather her know that I’m reading. But how do I show her by example when all the tools for reading start to look like tools for something else?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t hurt that you can get “War and Peace” free from the Apple store on your iPad. It was the first book I got for my iPad, in fact, just so that I would always have something to read if I got stuck in an airport for a long while! (The second book, also free, was Adam Smith’s “the Wealth of Nations.”) Your child should think it is cool to use an iPad for reading, and when he or she wants a break from Tolstoy, there is a lot else one can do with an iPad. In my own childhood I got hooked at an early age on both the Greek myths (as well as the Iliad and Odyssey) and also Dickens’s novels, because of their strong characterizations. I expect editions of all of these are available on the iPad for free as well. No longer is it necessary for parents to have a well-stocked library to encourage their children to read. The Apple store does it all for them!

  2. Peter Cook
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Very cool conversation starter. You’ve hit the center of the middle of the sweetspot of the whole silly “argument” over books vs. e-books. Books are books; “e-books” are fancy telephone calls. Don’t get me started.

    Books are objects in the spacetime of the hearth. They take their place with toys, paintings, chairs, knives and forks, hammers and screwdrivers, golf clubs, mirrors and doors and windows. They are things to display, to store, to exhibit, to touch, to smell, to know, to be at hand, to be hidden under the bed, to be stacked against the onslaught of the busyness of our comings and goings.

    No matter how ingenious, no video game actually trumps an actual bat and ball beckoning from behind the closet door. That a big ol’ copy of Tolstoy might seduce a kid’s imagination in the same way as a big ol’ oak tree in the backyard is no big mystery, is it?

  3. Posted August 12, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Peter, please don’t get me started on the silly “argument” over books versus scrolls. Clearly, nothing compares to the tactile pleasure of unrolling handmade papyrus carefully produced by master craftsmen. Has everyone forgotten that the handwriting of the scribe is what truly binds the reader to the words of the author? Writing that lacks even a single smudge from a human hand at work is utterly soulless and should horrify any literate person.

    Of course, there are those who claim that scrolls cannot match the deeper connection that comes from fingerprints pressed into clay along with cuneiform script, and that hardened clay is more permanent than flammable papyrus. I am sympathetic to this point of view, but on the other hand, a single scroll can record so many more words in less space than a clay tablet. That simple fact makes libraries possible, and it is obvious that nobody can properly concentrate on reading outside of a library. The window into the mind of another person is not just a piece of hardware or some common household implement, and those windows should be opened only in a special, sacred place. Only a barbarian would think of scattering them recklessly.

    That most people on earth could ever feel satisfied with “reading” something spat out of a factory, made from machine-cut tree-farm “paper” crushed in the oily steel embrace of a mechanized printing press, is a sure sign of a society in deep decline. When the written word is as cheap and disposable as a plastic spoon, it will be worth no more than that.

  4. Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Books are stories, the last time I checked anyway and we’re not about to lose that fascination for stories that’s dogged us since before we could write. Ebooks are just the latest way to access great stories and so I think they’ll catch on :-)The free classics are excellent only sometimes the language is a little too difficult and the contemporary references can leave you scratching your head a bit. The Giglets Adapted and Illustrated Classics make a nice change and are great for introducing kids to classic stories; http://www.giglets.net

  5. Mary Jo
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    As a child, I grew up with friends who, like me, were avid readers. When I was in the second grade, the fifth grade leader of our group directed a film adaptation of “War and Peace” which he had already read, and, in his movie, he featured his siblings and neighborhood friends. 38 years ago, my friend was an unusually talented child and he remains exceptional. My influences as a reader were molded more by my friends’ interests than by my parents’ interests.

    For 24 years, I have been an educator and for 22 of those years, I have been a mom. My husband and I are both prolific readers, and my children are not particularly avid readers, although they do like to read. They are both very talented and successful students.

    My husband and I exposed our children to stories related to their interests as well to the rituals of daily stories and trips to the libraries. At the end of the day, it takes a village including parents, friends and charismatic teachers to create passionate readers.

    E-readers are something I love since I can have it with me all the time and love how I can download anything I would like. I do worry a little bit about using e-readers for Good Night Moon, a book which my baby daughter adored. She had 13 paper copies since she flipped the pages with such enthusiasm that she ripped many of the books. I was grateful for the development of the chubby book and kind of hope for a hybrid world with books for little ones and e-books for everyone else.
    I don’t fear e-books. I think accessibility is a big part of creating a reading.

    I do fear little ones need the tactile part of holding Good Night Moon and read

    At the end of the day, I think friends passions play a role in the development of readers,

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