Children's Book Editor Mary Kole on Raising Avid Readers

Would your child rather do hours of backbreaking chores instead of reading a book? Do you have to beg, bribe or threaten to get them to sit down and turn (or swipe) those pages?

“But I hate to read!” is, sadly, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children aren’t born with a natural aversion to reading. Just look at what happens when we give toddlers books: More often than not, they fall in love. They carry their favorite books around with them, looking at the pictures and reciting funny or clever phrases.

Why, then, is reading such a snag for so many elementary and secondary students? What turns so many little book lovers into book loathers? Some parents blame the school system. By then, most kids associate reading with tests and homework. But reading for pleasure is such a wonderful and often enlightening pastime. Having that aptitude is a gift your child will enjoy for life – but how do you go about giving it?

We turned to Mary Kole, a former literary agent, to see what tips she has to offer. As a freelance editor working directly with writers on their manuscripts day in and day out, she obviously loves books. What’s more, she’s been writing about children’s books at since 2009, and as the author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, she knows what goes into a great kid’s book.

Mary, a very well-read and caring mother of two – “I have a 21-month old son and, by the time this goes to press, probably a newborn!” – is a wellspring of great advice.

Are kids today – what with video games, tv, smart devices, etc. – less inclined to read books?

There is a lot more competition for kid attention these days, that’s very true. And busier and busier lives, including for kids, mean there’s less emphasis put sometimes on the quiet pleasures of sitting back with a good book. But ever since children’s books started making money, think Harry Potter and Hunger Games, publishers have stepped up their efforts to invest in younger readers.

The market has grown immeasurably in the last 15 years. And as long as books are emphasized at home, as well as in school, I think kids are going to be drawn to books in addition to screens. Or books on screens. One thing is clear, the need for compelling stories, well-told, will never go away. That puts a lot of pressure on writers to turn out prose that can stand up against an Xbox. Luckily, that’s what makes it so compelling to be involved in getting the next generation of children’s books published.

In order for a child to enjoy reading, how important is parental example?

Incredibly important. Parents and siblings who can model reading are invaluable. Reading isn’t just about consuming story, it’s about unplugging and relaxing and spending time with one’s own imagination. Seeing that made a priority at home not only helps kids reading, it potentially helps them develop healthy self-care habits, and gets them excited to create, imagine, dream, and live rich inner lives.

It’s been said that reading to kids (even when they’re in the womb) is the first step to getting them to want to read on their own. Thoughts?

I am a complete 100% proponent of this, and not just because clients who want to write for children are my business! I read to my son in utero (The Little Prince, one of my absolute favorite books from my own childhood). I read to my son the day he was born. I have read to him every day of his life, without fail, and I plan to do the same with my daughter.

This is obviously anecdotal, but my son asks for books many times a day. He is surrounded by them. They’re all over his room. We have piles of them in the living room and downstairs, too. Anywhere he plays. He will hop into my lap and say “Book?” It’s so gratifying because, from the looks of it, reading will be something we share for a long time, something he will enjoy himself, and something I hope he’ll pass on to his own family. I made it a point to fill his life with books and reading, and it really wasn’t a chore.

What’s the best way to get a reluctant reader to start changing his/her mind?

There are many ways to encourage a love of reading. The most powerful, I think, are modeling the enjoyment of reading (kids do what you do, not what you say to do), and making books available. Go to the library instead of the mall or zoo. Offer a book to unwind after homework instead of screen time a few times a week. Do rewards if necessary. Give books as gifts, making sure to let kids pick their own, so they can get excited. Go to book signings if you have a great children’s bookstore in your area. Talk about something interesting you’ve read. Put on audiobooks in the car instead of the radio. But the positivity about reading starts with you.

Why don’t some kids like to read? (I mean, what’s not to love?!) Do you think it’s lack of education, short attention spans, or something else?

Kids do what they know. In a lot of American households, there’s not a premium put on reading. So that doesn’t help. Then they start to see reading as a chore with assigned books at school. That doesn’t help. Screens are just so much more engaging and flashy. Another strike against reading. And, honestly, a lot of kids struggle to read, are affected by learning challenges, or otherwise have trouble. It’s often difficult to talk about or cope with, so they avoid reading. In my experience, it really does take a passionate reading advocate or mentor to get through to reluctant readers. But that investment is so worth it. Children’s librarians are heroes in this regard, as well as parents, of course.

What kinds of stories are the best, to spark a child’s imagination? What’s the best way to find out what your kids would like to read?

Go to the library, get your kid a card, and browse around. It may seem strange if the library isn’t a big part of your lives, but they’re incredible resources. Involve the librarian. What does your kid like? Do they want to learn something or do they want a great story? Do they want awesome pictures? Maybe a graphic novel is a good bridge for screen lovers and reluctant readers. And the best news is, a trip to the library is free! You don’t have to buy a ton of books that your child may not read, you can hook up with a reading advocate to make reading feel engaging to them, and you might even pick something up for yourself. Make it a fun family outing. My niece and nephew have a weekly library date with their Grandpa.

Does getting kids to write their own stories help create an interest in reading?

It could, but it really depends on the kid. You don’t want to force them into something where they may not feel comfortable. Some people are visual learners, not everyone loves to write. Besides, the skill of writing and the skill of reading are different. If the particular kid is into it, by all means. Or maybe encourage them to draw a picture or make up a song about something they’re reading. Inspire them to connect with the material in their own way, and I think this’ll be a positive additional tool in your reading-positive arsenal.

Do most kids enjoy holding an actual book, or is it better to get them reading e-books? Should they have both?

Whatever works! I love the tactile experience of reading for younger kids. They don’t recommend screens before age two anyway. But if you have older kids that only consume digital media, maybe get them a simple Kindle. Books that are downloaded onto an iPad or phone alongside apps and games tend to get ignored.

What are your favorite tips for getting children to read more often?

Books around the house! Books wherever your kids are! Audio books in the car! And read yourself! A long-running slogan from the Association of American Publishers is, “Get caught reading!” I love that idea.

Editorial Services:

Tags : ask the expert   life lessons   

Anya Henners
We visit the library every week and look forward to borrowing a tall stack of books each time. Great article
Ruth Zakarai
love these tips
Chloe Farhadi
Gosh I need all the help I can get
Elodie Nilsson
Our library is right next to the farmer's market. We go every weekend and get our fill of good stuff to eat and to read.
Carol Glover
I always surrounded my son with books from the beginning and he loved them. We do regular library visits and he has his own card. Just as often as I find him playing with toys, I see him reading books. I think making them present and available is really the key.