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Crossing Literacy Thresholds: When Kids Are “Stuck” Reading the Same Things

The Invention of Hugo CabretI take a democratic spirit with regard to my children’s reading. In my view, if I take them to the library every weekend and they’re reading something — anything! — then we’re good, right?

Maybe not. Lately, my nine year-old has been apathetic about our library trips, preferring to wait in the car. When in the library, he picks only one or two graphic novels and comic books. In fact, for a few years, that’s all he reads.

I’m not here to criticize graphic novels; I am a huge fan of them myself (my kids steal my Raina Telgemeier and Babymouse books). Yet I sensed that my son was stuck on a reading threshold. He seemed to lack the confidence to read books with more words and fewer images, or books longer than 125 pages. As a parent, I wanted him to cast a wide net and read widely. I wanted him to read books that told stories or developed ideas in other ways than graphic novels.

How could I get my child turned on to other kinds of books? Here are some things I tried:

Read aloud as a family or listen to audiobooks. Hearing the natural cadences of speech, especially done by someone who has a talent for making an author’s or character’s voice come to life really hooks readers on a book. Try reading a few chapters aloud (or listening to audio books) and see if your child wants to pick up the book and continue reading on her own. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch reading technique, but it works. [Ed. note: for more on Family Reading and audiobooks, see “Go to Sleep, My Little Darling” by Kristy Pasquariello,” “Surviving Road Trips with Audiobooks” by Suzanne Nelson, and “On Rachael Stein’s ‘The Penderwicks on Hayward Street.‘”]

Notice what kinds of books your child gravitates toward and find new books that forge the transitional relationships you’re looking for between the two kind of books. Because I had a child who loved graphic novels and comic books, I looked for chapter books that preserved some of the same relationships between words and images. I was looking for books with short chapters, some illustrations, and plenty of white space. We wanted to keep those pages turning! We found these transitional books in Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot, Mac Barnett’s The Terrible Two books, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and others.

Don’t assume your kids will have the same reading preferences as you. Because I lived in the fiction section of the library as a kid, I assumed my son would, too. I discovered he loved nonfiction books about subjects he was interested in, ranging from animals to weather and money. He poured over encyclopedias, almanacs, Scout manuals and other survival manuals, Guinness Book of Records volumes, and gamer guides. From this, I could introduce other nonfiction titles and suitable fiction parallels such as Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived series, David Lewman’s Club CSI books, and Andrew Clements’s Lunch Money.

Let interest guide your selections. You know this, but it bears repeating. If your child is all about sea life, basketball, or drawing, then let that guide you.

Try the modern classics. Some authors are especially gifted with ability to write in a distinctive voice that grabs children and won’t let go. Check out some modern classics, even if they seem unrelated to anything your child is interested in. For us, this meant books like Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books, Andrew Clements’s Frindle, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy, Carl Hiassen’s Hoot, and Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt.

These tactics succeeded in getting my son to read some new books, but graphic novels and comics are still his go-to books. I’m okay with that, as long as he knows he can step across that threshold.

Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What have you tried to nudge kids to cross that threshold and try new forms of reading? Do you see reading thresholds as something parents, teachers, and librarians should help kids navigate, or should we back off and let kids figure it out on their own?

Read Roger Sutton’s Horn Book Magazine interview with National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang on his “Reading Without Walls” initiative. Also read Julie Hakim Azzam’s excellent Horn Book Magazine article “‘Mommy, Do I Have White Skin?’: Skin Color, Family, and Picture Books.

Julie Hakim Azzam About Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. While her academic specialization is on literature from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, she has a passion for children’s literature and has been interviewing children’s authors for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.

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Comments

  1. Christy Smith says:

    Thank you for the suggestions. These are great for me to try with my 7 year old and my 7th grade students.

  2. A great piece, Julie. Thanks for sharing these ideas. I have one boy who’s voracious, another who loves stories but is often reluctant to pick up a book. The transitional book idea above is a great one for my reluctant guy.

    My hungry reader LOVES teen spy type stuff, Cherub, Alex Rider etc. and I’ve recently let him read an adult thriller series that’s probably a little too old for him on the proviso that in between each book he reads a classic or something that pushes him into thematically-rich territory. This has led to him reading ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, the audiobook of ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Hatchet’ (which I’d been trying to get him to read for years) and, next, ‘Life of Pi’. It’s been great to see him trying new things.

    Anyway, great piece. Excellent tips! Thanks.

    Tristan.

  3. Julie Azzam says:

    Thank you, Christy and Tristan! I hope these suggestions help. Tristan, it sounds like your hungry reader is becoming quite the reading omnivore with your help!

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