Guest Post: Giving Children the Gift of Reading by Emily Jenkins
It’s the holiday season, and whatever your traditions, you probably want to buy some books for the kids in your life. Books make the best gifts!
But even better than a book is the gift of reading. Why? Reading is empowerment. Reading is joy. Reading is knowledge. Become a reader will change a child’s life.
As a parent of two big readers and as a writer of more than forty children’s books — my most recent is Brave Red, Smart Frog, which is a book of seven fairy tales for ages 6–10, and my latest picture books include Tiger and Badger, Toys Meet Snow, and Princessland — I have some advice. Here’s how to give the gift of reading this holiday season.
When I was a kid in the ’70s, well-meaning adults gave me their favorite books as holiday gifts. I was given The Hobbit — and I did not read it. I was given Johnny Tremain — and I did not read it. I was given Oliver Twist — and I did not read it. And Old Yeller. And Treasure Island. And The Jungle Book. And Little Nemo in Slumberland.
I read none of them. But why not? These grown-ups who loved me told me these were awesome books. What was the problem? Why did these gifts meant to foster my love of reading at the holiday season land so poorly?
Let’s get started.
- I was a girl. All the books I just mentioned are male-authored stories about men and their male companions. These excited adults could have thought a little more about the recipient and a little less about their own nostalgia.
- Even if I had wanted to read them (and I did love many male-authored stories about men and their male companions), they came at Christmas and Hannukah (my family celebrated both). Thus I unwrapped them at a time when I hoped for clothes, records, toys, and games. Books couldn’t compete.
- The books were presented as educational or as a way to connect with that particular grownup: ‘This book changed my life.’ ‘I loved it when I was your age.’ ‘Every kid should read this one.’ ‘Let me know when you’ve finished it.’ They felt like assignments, like religion, like nostalgia, like family obligation. I wanted reading to be fun.
I see so many well-meaning parents, grandparents, godparents, and family friends give well-intentioned gifts of books that don’t get read. So what can you do instead? I have ideas.
- Look at the kid. What is this particular, unique kid into? For younger ones, do they like dogs? Airplanes? Princesses? Reptiles? Tractors? Dinosaurs? Search by keyword and follow their enthusiasms, not your own. For older kids, what are their favorite movies, if they don’t love books yet? Would they like something in the same genre? Sci-fi, maybe, or comedy? Or would they like a pop star or sports biography of a favorite hero? What’s the recipient’s identity? Is there a book that affirms that identity or gives voice to it? There are wonderful book lists at weneeddiversebooks.org. Other good places to look are the Amelia Bloomer List, the Coretta Scott King Book Award list, and the Pura Belpré Award list.
- Embrace the commercial stuff. Holiday time is not a time to shame someone for loving Star Wars, Moana, Captain Underpants, or My Little Pony. I’m certainly grateful no one shames me for loving Lee Child and Mindy Kaling! And I bet you feel the same about your leisure reading. So: if you know your kid is a fan of something, celebrate it. Books-A-Million has entire categories for just those tie-ins I mentioned, and more. Meet the recipient where he or she is, open-heartedly. You’ll be rewarded with kids who dive into the books immediately, and who want to talk to you about their passions.
- When in doubt, go with popularity. Again, don’t judge the books because you don’t know them (yet). Look on the bestseller lists. Want to give the gift of reading? Think of it this way: a gazillion kids love this book. Your kid probably will, too. And if he or she has heard of it, it’s more likely to get given a chance.
- Comic books and graphic novels are wonderful gifts. Embrace them. They’re a gateway to reading for many kids who don’t know they might love books, and graphic novelists are now MacArthur winners, Newbery winners, and National Book Award finalists, so don’t worry! They’re awesome.
- Buy and give books before the season really starts. Consider presenting them on the weekend school gets out, or even earlier. Maybe even the day after Thanksgiving! This way book gifts don’t compete with toys and games. Don’t wrap the books. Just offer them — maybe three to choose from, really fun ones — and then act like it’s no big deal. ‘Just something you can do if you get bored when we visit Nana.’ Pack them when you travel. Even if your kid says not to.
- Consider a book of family games, logic puzzles, quizzes, or riddles. Give it early, when your home is filling up with guests. Have your kid tell you jokes while you cook or interview relatives with quizzes from the book.
- As the season begins, buy yourself a cookbook full of holiday desserts with photographs. Invite your little ones to look through it with you. Pick some recipes to make. Write a list of ingredients down, reinforcing the literacy lesson. Then make the desserts together, reading over the recipe as you go.
- Also early in the season, buy a book of holiday songs that fit your family tradition. Books-A-Million has 258 of them. The ones with pictures are especially fun. Some even come with CDs. Pull the book out and sing a couple of holiday songs over the next few weeks. Check the book for the words to the verses you don’t know, or ask your kids to do so.
- Don’t hesitate to buy books for the youngest babies. Books-A-Million has a nice big 0–2 section, and many new parents have no idea how early a baby begins to love stories. A nice big stack of board books will give four or five years of pleasure and can really make a difference in a child’s attitude towards reading.
I wish you a joyous and book-filled holiday season and a happy, literary 2018.
Register now to win a fantastic Candlewick Prize Pack just in time for Christmas!