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Raising Boy Readers

ahlfeld-reading-stoveMy college boy is home for a long weekend. This makes for a glorious mixture of happiness, nostalgia, and awkwardness that many parents of first years have lived through before me. As I marvel at the adult he has already become, managing just fine without us for six weeks (well, not always fine, but mostly), I want to keep the little boy alive in my imagination. It helps that the walls are plastered with kid photos. One of my favorite pictures is one of both of my boys in front of the pellet stove, showing evidence of the thing I am proudest: I raised two boy readers.

Of course, it’s not always obvious now. They are nineteen and sixteen, and their devices, along with the accompanying multimedia noise and demands, have taken over. But their foundation is made of books, and I know that will carry them through life as it has for me. Memories of reading to my older son have gotten me through this difficult time of missing him and worrying about him. But it goes deeper than that. The act of reading together is our life foundation, too, and I am grateful for it.

It isn’t easy to raise boy readers, but of course most things worth doing aren’t. Boys who read aren’t celebrated in our culture, and at times the reaction is worse than indifference. But the ones who do will have language, and empathy, a way to learn, and a way to process emotions that others won’t have. I’m here to tell you: read to your boy for his whole life!

say_grandfather's journeyRead to create a comforting ritual. Don’t worry if he falls asleep, because you can always go back and revisit what he missed. Read him lots of women writers when he is young, such as Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton. Read across all cultures, showing him illustrations by Jan Brett and Kadir Nelson and Allen Say, and open up different worlds to him through the familiar sound of your voice.

Read him really difficult books aloud. He may not read them on his own, but if you read often and early enough, the ritual alone will carry you, and he will understand and grow in ways that will sustain him when he is an independent reader. Listen to books aloud in the car so you can build that enjoyment of books together. Reassure him that you will still read to him even after he is reading on his own.

Read him what he wants to hear. Does that mean you will have to read a lot of nonfiction about topics of no interest to you? Most likely! I have a strange depth of knowledge when it comes to World War II, famous diamond heists, and entry-level physics. Does that mean you will have to read terrible fiction books with licensed characters designed to sell toys? Yes. Hold your nose and do it, because you also need to let your son see how books can feed many parts of himself, both high-minded and the lowest of the lowbrow.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianIf you can do this, even a little bit, you will find that you will have built a house made of books with your boy. You may be lucky, as I was, to spend three years with Harry Potter and your boy every night, which is a long-term investment that results in shared themes you both can draw on forever. You may be able to navigate adolescence by reading Sherman Alexie and Chris Crutcher with your teenage boy, if you have logged the read-aloud time when he was nine and ten with Gary Paulsen. If you’re truly blessed, you will have a conversation about the tropes of Clive Cussler and how entertaining guilty-pleasure books can be.

We parents want to feel close to our kids no matter their age. Books have given me an inroad to my sons’ souls through the years because we spent time together learning, hearing great plots, and meeting interesting people. We still try to read aloud, although it’s going to take us years to get through The Martian at this pace! And one of the highlights of my son’s visit home was his asking me, “Hey, have you ever read Lysistrata? Well, you should!” So it’s next on my list, because how can I turn down a recommendation like that?

About Kelly Ahlfeld

Kelly Ahlfeld is the parent of two boys and librarian at the Mettawee Community School in Vermont. She likes to run and read, but never at the same time.

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