Sunday, September 9, 2018

How to Find a Book to Read for Your Kid


(It's way past midnight and a stray thought brought this post on. I'm just going with the flow.)

In my last few years of teaching, I have noticed that parents often ask me to recommend books for their children. I don’t know if they realise how difficult it is to recommend a book to someone you know only on the surface – I do try to get to know my students as well as I can, but it’s hardly possible to remember their every interest and taste. Let’s face it: the parents themselves are more likely to have a deep understanding of what their child likes. So how does the choice go to the English teacher? It’s the assumption that there is something mechanical about choosing a new book.

One of my favourite linguists, Stephen Krashen, oversaw a study on what he called a “home run book.” That is, a single book that makes a reader. In a study titled, “Can one positive reading experience create a reader?” researchers Debra Von Sprecken and Jiyoung Kim along with Stephen Krashen present findings from a survey of over two hundred Grade 4 students in L.A. Students were asked just two questions: 1. Do you like to read? 2. Is there one book or experience that interested you in reading?

The findings were interesting. Nearly all those who said they liked reading admitted that one book had ‘sparked’ their interest. Furthermore, they could name it. However, the book varied across the students, even for those with similar backgrounds. This led the researchers to conclude that while there is such a thing as a home run book, the selection differs for every child. The recommendation the study ended on was this: to spark an interest in reading in children, the sure-shot way is to expose them to many, different kinds of books, hoping to get a home run.

Of course, this answer would not satisfy most demanding parents. And yet, I won’t simply give arbitrary recommendations. I do rant a lot about books in class, and I see children note down the names of books that they think they might like. Children also catch recommendations from peers and usually, once a book is bought by a kid, it doesn’t rest till it has made the rounds through the entire class. Reading spreads faster than wildfire – I quite like that. Apart from word of mouth, though, there are other ways to look for books.

First: Goodreads lists. Goodreads has many faults as a social media platform, but it does offer reading lists curated by thousands of average readers. This makes them far more accessible and reliable than say the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Not to mention, you don’t have to be a Goodreads member to view these lists. It helps that there are Goodreads lists of recommendation for the most ridiculous things. To illustrate this, I went to the Listopia page on Goodreads and searched for the tag, “grass.” Three relevant categories (just to name a few): 1. Books about Plants 2. Meadows and Fields, Savannahs and Steppes 3. Young Adult books with grass on the cover. So, even if you have a weird kid with odd demands on your hands, Goodreads would be your friend.

Second: Movies. This sounds counter-productive. But there are so many great movies out there today which have been adapted from books that are better. Wonder, Life of Pi, IT, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, About  a Boy, To Kill A Mockingbird, Ready Player One – all of these are suitable, if not excellent, reads for your teen or preteen. But the problem is, once you’ve watched the film adaptation; the interest in the book is gone. So if you ever see your kid begging to watch a movie, check if there’s a book version and make them experience it first as a kind of challenge/reward scheme. I’d also suggest scouring the internet for adaptation trailers to find book recommendations.

Third: Bookstores / Libraries. An astounding number of kids in my school have Kindles. The reading rate should then be predictably high. Am I right? Wrong. Kindles are great, amazing even, for readers; handy, convenient, sleek and shiny (are they?)… But, here’s the thing - they probably won’t create great readers. I couldn’t stress this enough, the best way to introduce your kid to a lifelong bookworminess would be to take them to a bookstore or even better, a library. Once a month, at least. These establishments, especially bookstores, go to great lengths to create an attractive ambience. And whether we like it or not, we do judge a book by its cover.

Make a picnic out of it, spend some time together, let them take a stroll through the store and find what they like. Model the behaviour yourself. Read. Your child sees you nose deep in a book often enough, trust me, they’ll want to do it themselves. Don’t tell them they should read to improve their language or expression or writing or thinking. Don’t make a medicine out of it. Tell them it’s FUN. It’s like a mental adventure park. The benefits are simply a by-product. They need not read a Charles Dickens, even a comic book would work, or a picture book! You must always remember: a good book is far more important than great literature. Expose them to a lot of different books and hope that they find that one book that hits the right chord. There’s no stopping them then.

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