How To Grow A Reader

In the last twelve years, I have made many, many mistakes, but there is one thing I have done right: my children are readers.  Obsessive readers, the kind who bump into streetlights and door jambs because their heads are buried in a book.  Ubiquitous readers, who will anything from the ingredients on the back of the pickle jar to the worm composting book we brought home from the library by mistake.  Interactive readers, who often burst into laughter in the middle of a passage or beg to be allowed to share the most hilarious (or interesting or surprising or disgusting) lines.

How did this happen?  Well, of course they’re brilliant, creative types.  But since this is a blog about reading, I thought I would start by giving my advice on something I know well: how to get your kids to read.

First the ones everybody knows:

1.  Read to your kids often from the time they are very small

2.  Have a lot of books around the house.

3.  Let them see you reading.

Those are in all the parenting books.  But here are my additional, foolproof, money-back guaranteed (ha, ha, see that’s a laugh out loud line one of my kids would read out) suggestions 

4. Go to the library!  A lot!  Have Thursday Night Library Night or Saturday Morning Library Morning or Surprise!  It’s Library Afternoon.  Let your kids get out as many books as they want/the library will allow (within reason).  This drives my husband crazy because we usually have, literally, 45 library books on our library shelf.  (Seriously, if you do this, keep a library shelf because otherwise you will lose your library books.  I speak from experience.  Even if you have a library shelf, you may lose books, but not as many.)  Kids love the idea that they can get out all 7 Harry Potter’s or 6 different dinosaur books.  And they love being able to choose what they want, even if it’s not something you would choose.  And because it’s free, you don’t have to worry that every book is worthwhile.  We go to the library once or twice a week.  Generally, when we get home, I come into the house by myself, because the kids are still in the back seat of the car, engrossed in whatever new books they’ve just picked out.

5.  Don’t forget non-fiction!  When I was a kid, all they had for kids non-fiction tradebooks were encyclopedia-light books like The Dormouse or Delaware.  But nowadays there are absolutely amazing, insightful books on every topic you can imagine.  My son read books earlier this year about the making of the atom bomb and a boy in an tiny African village who built his own windmill.  My daughter’s favorite author last year was Gail Gibbons who writes books about everything from frogs to Valentine’s Day to the post office.  If your child has an interest, there’s sure to be a book about it.  And if you want to find your child an interest, the National Science Teacher’s Association puts out a list of the best trade books published each year.  I generally go through it and find all the books on the list that are in our library.  Also, there are lots of books on less-sciency non-fiction topics: rock stars and video games and TV characters, etc.  (Those are not generally on the NSTA’s list though, you’re on your own.)

6.  Don’t worry about age level.  My kids, now 8 and 12, just read through the entire list of picture book nominees for the North Carolina Children’s Book Award.  They found many of them hilarious.  At the other extreme, last year Ms Tumble (my 8-year-old) got really into Shakespeare and actually read the first two acts of Twelfth Night.  (I’m not sure how much she understood it – maybe more than I would have wanted her to!)  This isn’t to say you shouldn’t determine that the content of some books is inappropriate for your kids – of course you should!  That’s part of being a parent.  It’s just to say ‘don’t get hung up on the labels on the book that say ages 6-9’ or whatever.  That’s just some marketing director trying to figure out how best to sell the books, and it has nothing to do with your particular child.

7.  Limit screen time.  Okay, I know everyone has their own philosophy about this, and every kid is different, etc., etc.  So I say this only from my own experience.  We allow video games only on Friday and TV/videos only in French.  (That’s what works for us!)  My son is an avid reader who probably reads a minimum of 5-7 books every week for pleasure.  I guarantee you that if he were allowed unlimited video games, he wouldn’t read a single one.  Ms Tumble is different – she gets bored with video games after an hour or two.  But my son?  He forgets to eat, drink and use the bathroom when he’s playing video games, so I really think he would forget about books.  (And I know there are a lot of people who will maintain that reading books is no better than playing video games, that video games encourage creativity and develop critical thinking, etc.  And that’s fine.  This post isn’t to say books are better than video games, just to say that – for people who want their kids to read – unlimited screen time may make it harder.)

I have a lot more thoughts on this topic; I will add them as I think of them.  Toodleloo.




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Reading is the Staff of Life


My grandmother always used to say “Anyone who can read can cook.”  She said it in a kind of ‘whatever’ way, like cooking was really no big deal, and nothing to be proud of.  After lots of experience with cooking and (amateur) cooks, I’ve come to believe there are two kinds of cooks – those who can look in the refrigerator or the cupboard, see what’s there, know what goes together, pour this and that into the pot, stir, taste, wrinkle their forehead, scramble through the cupboard for the thing that’s missing, add that, and come up with a delicious meal.  And the second kind, those who can’t do any of those things, but know how to read!  My husband is the first kind of cook, I am the second.  But here’s the thing – isn’t it great that there are recipes?  So that those of us who have no cooking sense can still make fabulous meals?


Above is a picture of my white bread, from the recipe I read in the Good Housekeeping cookbook and have made so many times (usually around once or twice a week now) that I know it by heart.  Super easy and super delicious.  And all thanks to a book! 

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Changing Brains

An article in the Washington Post the other day argued that ‘reading online’ is changing the way that our brains work. Basically, it says that because reading online is often either very brief amounts of information – like text messages or tweets or facebook posts – or connected to and surrounded by all kinds of other information, videos and hyperlinks, etc., it is rewiring our brains to skim and search for information. Anecdotal evidence in the article suggests that people are having a hard time switching back to in-depth reading.


This is actually really relevant to me, as I work at a magazine where we’re debating the switch to online submissions. Right now, I spend about 20 hours a week reading paper manuscripts. If we switch, pretty much all that time will be spent reading on a device.


The article is written pretty much in a doomsday style: oh, no, our brains are changing and now we will no longer be able to read the classics!! But I think the author elides two different things: one are these short bursts of information like text messages, and the other is reading a longer work on an electronic device. I mean, I already read a lot of news online – while sometimes I might skim to the end of the article or stop reading in the middle, most of the time I read the whole thing through. And in the past, didn’t people used to skim articles in the newspaper? I’m just not as sure as the author that this is really changing society in a fundamental way.


The more interesting idea, to me, was the implicit one that we might not have easy access to our own past. When I lived in New York, I had a lot of Turkish friends, and they often complained that Ataturk’s decision to switch the Turkish language from an Arabic script to a Latin one meant that they really couldn’t read anything that had been written prior to the 20th century. At the time, I wondered how hard it could be to learn to read a different script. But maybe you had to read the text in a whole different way? It’s not that they couldn’t learn to do it, but that it wasn’t easy.


I don’t know. I have a kind of argument I haven’t really worked out that people are reading more nowadays because of the internet. More on that coming soon.

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Happy Birthday to Sakartvelo


Today is the 23rd independence day for the country of Georgia. Only two more years until a quarter of a century!

Quick snapshot: Located at the crossroads of western Asia and eastern Europe, the kingdom of Georgia reached its political and economic strength in the twelfth century. It was annexed by Russia in the 1800s and became part of the Soviet Union in 1921. In 1991, it declared independence (on April 9th!) The Rose Revolution of 2003 introduced government reforms. In 2008, there was a conflict with Russia over some breakaway provinces that wanted independence.

Capital: Tbilisi

Official Language: Georgian

Religion: Orthodox Christian (83.9% of the population)

Population: 4.9 million (120th most populous country in the world)

Area: 69,700 square kilometers (also 120 in the world)

Fun Fact: The name ‘Georgia’ comes from the Persian word for wolf (‘gurg’) because, apparently, the medieval Muslims used to call Georgia the Land of the Wolves. Georgians do not call themselves ‘Georgians’ but Kartvelians, and their country ‘Sakartvelo.’

Books to read about Georgia: There aren’t a whole lot of books written in English set in Georgia. The only one I can really think of is A Time of Miracles written by Anne-Laure Bondoux (it was actually written in French, but it’s been translated), which is a YA book about a French orphan who finds himself in Georgia during the civil unrest after the fall of the Soviet Union. A lot of it takes place in refugee camps. Since the boy is French, he keeps thinking, well, I can always escape here and go to France. It raises some interesting questions about nationality and place, in my opinion.

Other than that, I think there are some travel guides and quite a bit about orthodox religious saints in Georgia (I haven’t read any of those though.) Also, for kids, there are some ‘country’ books, but most kids probably won’t want to read those unless assigned for class.

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Book review: Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother

On the Menu: home made tomato soup with basil and fresh bread

I’m Reading: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly


I don’t write that many book reviews – and certainly not fiction – because I know how hard writers work to get it right, and how devastating it can be when people tell you you’ve got it wrong.  But this book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, is a little different.  This got huge press a couple of months ago, with Chua claiming that the book was all about how ‘western mothers’ are raising lazy, unproductive kids while ‘Chinese mothers’ raise disciplined, ambitious children.

I actually agree that many parents – including, too often, me – are far too lax.  In the book’s excerpt in The Wall Street Journal and Chua’s many media appearances (I didn’t see any but I read about them), it seemed like it was all about school and learning.  I thought I could learn something from it – I believe that kids can do a lot more, both in terms of knowing stuff and in being creative, than many parents ask for.  And I was willing to learn how to ask.

But here’s my problem with the book.  It’s not about academics at all.  There’s maybe one minor example of how the mother pushed her two daughters to work harder in school.  All the rest of it is about music, and how she pushed them over and over to become the best possible pianist and violinist respectively.  Ultimately, this is just a story of a ‘stage Mom’ – or ‘tennis Dad,’ or ‘skater parent’ or whatever term you want to use.   There’s nothing Chinese about this – my American-born neighbor makes her 9-year-old daughter dance three hours a day and all day on Saturday, and fly out to California for TV show auditions.

There are two crucial pieces of evidence for this view, in addition to the fact that the book is all about the music and almost nothing about school.  (In fact, she took her daughters out of school, frequently, to practice their instruments.)  One is that, over and over again, she talks about how other parents asked her ‘how she did it,’ how she raised her kids to be such great musicians, and she waits, with baited breath, hoping they’ll ask more, so she can brag.  The other is that she doesn’t even want them to be professional musicians.  So how can this be, in any way, about preparing them for successful futures?

Ultimately, Amy Chua is little different from those parents who want their kids to be the next American Idol or the people who want to be on reality TV.  Since this is exactly the opposite of who I want to be, and the values I want to pass on to my children, this book really held no wisdom for me.




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Journey to Somewhere

On the Menu: out for dinner

I’m reading: Possession, by A.S. Byatt


When I was in college and, later, grad school, all my friends and I said the same thing: we would raise our kids to experience all different religions.  However, here I am, Captain Zulu is now nine, yes, nine, and Ms Slinky is heading straight toward 6, and really, except for a couple of masses with my Mom or Mark’s Mom, and some sort of generic Christianity at the YMCA, they haven’t experienced anything.  A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor invited me to go to church with her and I thought, why not?  And while I was there, I thought: I will take the kids to a variety of churches/places of worship around the area, maybe one a month, and when we get to the end, see what we think.

I would not exactly characterize this as a spiritual journey, but I wouldn’t not, either.  I’m keeping an open mind, that’s all.

So this church, the Hope Community Church, is what people would probably call a mega-church.  It’s enormous, and going in, you feel almost like it’s more like a gym or a community center than a church.  There’s a huge church area with a choir and two levels of seating, downstairs and the balcony, there’s a cafe, a quiet area for reading, a place where you can sit to meet with a church person and talk about your life, an enormous children’s area with nursery, plus rooms for the older kids.  You can drop your kids off for the service and then pick them up afterwards.  Everything is computerized.

At first, I was going to sit in the cafe and read, but then I decided to go upstairs and listen to the service.  The first half was almost entirely singing.  The second half was the pastor, talking.  Perhaps I went the wrong week; his sermon seemed to be almost entirely about how people should get more involved in the church: emotionally, spiritually, service-wise, financially.  To be fair, every religious community has those kinds of talks, at least sometimes, so I didn’t hold it against him.  I did get turned off when he said, “the government can’t fix a pothole” and a number of people in the congregation cheered.  It occurred to me: maybe this isn’t the church for me.

As someone raised Catholic with extensive experience in Islam, one thing struck me very forcefully: there was almost no ritual involved in the service.  That is, I think, what people who become protestants – some of them anyway – like about it, but it didn’t feel like church to me.  It felt more like sitting around with some friends talking about church.  It also felt a little like those religious programs I’ve occasionally flipped through on TV.  Perhaps the singing at the beginning was a little bit ritualistic?  I don’t know.

Also, because the sermon was mostly about people getting involved, and not really about the church’s views per se, I’m not sure where it stands on theological issues.  They do have a whole ton of programs you can do to find that out, but I’m not intrigued enough to devote six Wednesday evenings in a row (or whatever it is) to finding out.   My neighbor is very ‘what it says in the Bible’ although not in a crazy sense, so this is probably not the first church I would have chosen to visit.

Coming Up: a Quaker meeting (at least that’s the plan)





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Ubi-marketing: does it have to be this way?

On the menu: Pasta with grilled tuna

I’m reading: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua


Sigh.  I quit Facebook a year or two ago, mostly because I felt like everyone on there was always trying to sell me something.  In the nicest possible way, of course.  And frequently things that I actually wanted.  But I just get so tired of being sold to.  And I can’t help but feel like it wasn’t always like this, like back in the day – even back in my day – it was possible to go places and do things and read stuff and think about things without it being just an indication of something else you might like to buy.  And sometimes it feels like all of Facebook – indeed, all of social media – is just a bunch of people waving their arms around and saying, hey, look at me.  There’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes being looked at is exactly what you want.  But it reminds me of the Princess thing.

When Ms Slinky was small(er), I didn’t want to buy her princess stuff.  It wasn’t that I had anything against princesses per se, just that it felt like princesses were completely crowding out the market, and that soon there would be nothing but princesses for everyone.  As it turned out, I worried needlessly: Ms Slinky likes princesses well enough, but she loves dinosaurs.  But this is my thing about being sold to all the time.  I just want there to be another state of being besides commercialism.

So I have decided to carve out this little corner of the internet and try to make a space for myself that isn’t being bought or sold.  A temple in the marketplace maybe.  Or just a little section of the garden with a chair and an umbrella and some red roses and a bit of really good sunscreen.  We’ll see how it goes.  Maybe all this is just my frustration that *I’m* a particularly bad seller, and the feeling that my writing career never took off because I didn’t relentlessly promote myself.  Or maybe I really mean it that I’m looking for satisfaction out of life, not success.

Let’s find out.



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