One long-ago day, my fourth-grade teacher assigned our class oral book reports. We were to talk 3 to 5 minutes about a book of our own choosing. I chose the classic Old Yeller.
Old Yeller, as it turned out, struck a chord with me (as it has for so many others over the decades). I devoured it, and when it was my turn to report, I faced the class and jumped in. After three minutes, instead of winding down, I warmed up. I spoke longer, giving more detail and identifying my favorite character. I noted all the parts in the book that moved me to tears. I went on for a full 15 minutes, earnest and animated. When I finally finished (or maybe I just paused to come up for air), the class burst into applause.
That wasn’t the day I discovered the joy of reading for pleasure. I discovered that on the laps of my parents long before I could read myself. But that was the day I discovered the joy of book talk. And talking about books we’ve read and loved is one of the best ways to fan the flames of a burning desire to read.
My wise teacher, a book lover who often read aloud to us in class, knew this. I believe she let me speak uninterrupted in hopes that my all-in endorsement of this literary gem would inspire other students to seek it out. She was all about teaching both the skill—and thrill--of reading.
If children can read proficiently, should we care whether they also thrill to a good book? According to science, we should indeed. Study after study shows that reading for pleasure makes us smarter, more empathetic, and even healthier.
One often overlooked way to spark and kindle a love of reading in children is through book talk. It’s human nature to want to talk about whatever moves us, surprises us, makes us laugh or makes us cry. Sharing the experiences that move us and change us somehow gives them added importance. Reading a good story is certainly one of these experiences. Reading aloud is clearly one path to book talk. But even when reading for pleasure is a solitary activity, as it most often is, there is a social aspect to explore. When it is cultivated, we nurture an even deeper joy of reading.
Here are several ways you can encourage book chat in your family to help your children grow into lifelong readers:
- Support your child’s appreciation of a favorite author or series. If your child read and loved one book by a certain author, help him find another by the same writer. If she is getting hooked on a series, encourage her to see it through. Is the author coming to town? Take your children to hear the writer’s talk. They’ll love hearing the back story, learning a little about the author, taking a selfie, and maybe even getting an autograph.
- Integrate book talk into your family’s everyday lexicon. Is there a line from a favorite book your child often quotes? Write it on a note that you tuck into their lunch box. Maybe that will start a conversation about the story with other kids at the lunch table. Tuck a note into one of their pockets, or consider putting a favorite quote on a tee-shirt.
- Organize a mother-daughter or father-son book club. It takes only a couple of like-minded families to make this work. Let the kids take the lead, choosing the book and playing on the book’s theme at the meetings as they wish. Choice is an essential component of book love.
- Participate in a reading event. Many non-profit organizations sponsor reading festivals or designate certain days designed to celebrate books and reading. Encourage your school to participate in one, if that isn’t already happening. Local bookstores and libraries also throw book parties and reading events. Participating in these activities will help your young reader feel a part of the larger community of book lovers.
- Download a few children’s podcasts about books. Here’s a list of some goodies.
- Read the book before seeing the movie. Hollywood frequently turns some of the best children’s books into movies. This is a great way to introduce your children to some not-to-be-missed titles. Start a family tradition of reading the book together before seeing the movie version. Talk about where and how the filmmakers adapted the book. (I’ll wager that they’ll like the book better if they read it first.)
- Talk about your favorite children’s books. Leave a copy of one of your favorites in plain view now and then and see if it prompts questions from your child. Or make “What is your favorite book and why?” questions everyone is invited to discuss at dinner.
As J.K. Rowling—the author who regaled children and adults alike with her Harry Potter books—once said, “If you don't like to read, you haven't found the right book.” Maybe your child hasn’t found the right book yet because they haven’t heard anyone talk about it.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.