A few weeks ago, my 7-year-old son said to me matter-of-factly, “Mom, if you need me, I’ll just be in my closet.”
I was thrilled.
Because in his closet he has set up a little nest of sorts. A sleeping bag squished into a small space on the floor, two flashlights sitting on the shelf and, most exciting for me, a book or two tucked in there among his shoes. This is his hideaway reading spot, and since he’s a kid who is more interested in throwing a baseball in the front yard for hours than tucking in with a good story, it makes me think that perhaps this reading thing might catch on after all.
That said, summer is here. And that little dark closet might be a tough sell for a boy who will be tempted by sprinklers and ballgames, swimming pools and bikes.
Oh, I want summer to be filled with those things and more. But with school out of session, that means no silent reading in a classroom every day or book reports and library time built into the schedule.
How do we encourage our kids to keep up with their reading over the summer when it’s not part of the curriculum? For some, that’s easy, and in fact they might have to be shooed out of the house and away from the books to get a little fresh air.
But for others, it can be more of a challenge.
Read on for a few tips and suggested reads from the people who get it: a children’s author, a middle school librarian and the book buyer at a favorite local toy store.
A handful of years ago (we won’t say how many), there was a little girl who opened a present on Christmas. It was a Paddington book and she was thrilled. It was like magic.
“I just think about my mom and how good she was at knowing what I would like,” says the now grown-up girl, Kate DiCamillo, author of books such as “Because of Winn Dixie,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and the Mercy Watson series about an irrepressible pig.
When DiCamillo won the 2014 Newbery Medal for “Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” she described in her acceptance speech “how central” her mother was to her as a reader, and what a huge gift that was. “I wish I had fully known that when she was alive so I could say it,” DiCamillo says.
She remembers summers spent in the library, and how her mother read to her and her brother, always making books fun.
“There was a biography of George Washington Carver that I just loved so much. I remember my mother saying to the librarian, ‘Can’t we just buy it?’ and her saying, ‘Betty, you know it doesn’t work that way!’ ”
That encapsulates how we can help our children continue to explore, experience and enjoy reading during the summer. Parents and caregivers should be the guides, but not the dictators, here, say teachers, librarians and, yes, this author.
Letting kids choose their own books is the key to helping them read. Don’t hover. Don’t judge. Don’t say no if they want another “Big Nate” instead of “Charlotte’s Web.”
Be the parent who says “this is totally yours,” DiCamillo says. “It’s treacherous waters where you’re forcing something onto them. It pushes them further away.”
Let them kick back this summer. Let them find that perfect little spot that’s just theirs to enjoy their books, DiCamillo says. She laughed when I told her about my son’s closet. Her spot was a treehouse.
“I remember so clearly the treehouse and slamming that trapdoor shut,” she says. “It’s yours, your little spot. That’s your place to read.” (Mine was in front of a fan in the quiet of a sunny upstairs hallway in our un-air-conditioned house. Yours?)
But if you think your child would rather you read to them, don’t hesitate. They will learn just as much, possibly more.
“My feeling about reading together is off the charts,” DiCamillo says. “I can’t figure out why this is such a profound experience. . . . But I think everyone who does it shifts, and [you’re] doing it as much for yourself. There’s a subterranean kind of connection that occurs.”
Bob Hassett is the librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, not to mention the father of two teen boys. So he definitely has some thoughts about summer reading.
The first thing that kids need, he said, is easy access to books, particularly ones they can connect with. Without school and homework, there aren’t the usual structures in place that ensure books will be at a child’s fingertips. Take a look around the house. Notice anything missing?
“Even in households where parents are strong readers, they might not have a lot of young-reader books around. So schedule trips to the library,” he says.
Most public libraries have a youth services person “literally waiting for you to ask them, ‘What can I read?’ ” Hassett says. Those librarians would love to offer some suggestions. And they won’t judge if a kid asks for something that isn’t considered great literature.
That means even children who don’t like to read can find something.
“This is a good time for reluctant readers,” Hassett says. It used to be books that might be a bit easier to read were only geared toward younger readers. But in the past few years, “there’s really been an explosion in that market.”
Hassett is also a proponent of incentive programs, saying they “give kids a nudge.” Scholastic has a summer reading program this year where kids who hit certain milestones can unlock new short stories written just for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge by authors such as R.L. Stine, Maggie Stiefvater, Michael Northrop and more. The D.C. public libraries are part of the same Collaborative Summer Library Program and are offering two free Nationals tickets to kids ages 6 to 18 who are registered and complete their summer reading program. (In fact, libraries in all states are part of the same program, which DiCamillo is helping to promote.)
Deborah Johnson is the buyer for the book section of Barston’s Child’s Play toy store in the District, and she wants adults to remember that “summer is the fun time.”
In other words, don’t be a tiger mom about this summer reading stuff.
“It all depends on how we define reading,” she says. “Is it on your own? Reading a fiction book cover to cover?” Or do you have a reluctant reader? Johnson says those kids often like “nonlinear” books, where they can read a few pages, close it and come back to it later, at a different page or topic. For this, she likes the National Geographic books for kids, as well as the “I Wonder Why” series. Those books are heavily illustrated and are about topics children might like: birds, sharks, oceans, castles.
“Summer is a time to kind of hang around and just . . . noodle with it,” Johnson says. “Dip into it and out of it. It’s a way to enjoy a book without seeing it as a task that needs to be accomplished.”
Parents need to relax this summer, too, she says. Just because a child in fourth or fifth grade might not jump into reading easily “doesn’t mean they won’t become a lifelong reader,” she says. “I think kids get messages that parents are worried about their reading. But we have to remember that everyone has their own taste and own pace.”
She also says she doesn’t mean to lecture (we’re listening), but children have phones and other technology from a very young age. If they play a lot of “brain-numbing games,” she says, they are less likely to want to read a book. So perhaps we should consider getting our faces away from the phone, too. Remember that children are modeling our behavior.
“Have a summer where you all unplug a little more,” she says. “Go outside and toss a ball around, then come in and cuddle up and read.”