Keeping kids reading through choice

Published on: 30 January 2023

Author and school librarian Lis Jardine shares her thoughts on the importance of children choosing their own books.

As a secondary school librarian I am well aware of the importance of reading for pleasure, which 'can increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing throughout life,’ (The Reading Agency) - not to mention the improved academic performance. But I also see first-hand how many kids stop reading, often between Years 8 and 9 (age 12 and 14). 

So what makes a child choose to read?

‘[T]heir choices are an important part of reading for pleasure… children need to feel that their choice is a valid one or they may be deterred from choosing again.’

This observation from retired school librarian Anne Thomson is echoed by the TES, who stated in a recent article that ‘Children are far more likely to read something they’ve chosen for themselves on a subject they’re interested in… To really see themselves as readers, children must be in charge and have ownership of their reading.’

This is how I would suggest we ensure kids have access to the choice they need:

1. Show them the astonishing range of books available

Kids need to know that there is a huge variety of books they might enjoy; don't just offer them things you read twenty years ago.

Due to limited retail space, the rich diversity of available books is never even noticed by the majority of buyers. Is it any wonder that many parents and teachers stick with old favourites? @MsLogan23 tweets:

‘My son is an avid reader but doesn’t score highly on tests. When I asked why he thought this might be, he said, “Cos what we have to read in those books is really boring. I just finish it as quick as I can.”’

Many children are jaded by old fashioned reading books, and have no idea that fresh, relevant and exciting stories (like hilarious school-set murder mysteries) exist. 

There is, admittedly, a gaping hole in the offering from publishers for Years 8 and 9. -Many are reluctant to sign books that don't fit neatly into the '8-12 (Middle Grade)' and '14+ (YA)' categories that most bookshops use. As consumers we could be demanding more 'in-between' books - sometimes known as 'clean teen' - to keep kids coming back for more instead of giving up as soon as Middle Grade starts to feel a bit young.

It is a daunting dask to keep up with all the new releases. So where do you find the information on books? Websites like BookTrust have a wealth of book reviews and book lists that can help a reader find the perfect book. Try their Bookfinder as a starting point!

2. Use the library and your local bookshop 

Author and librarian Dawn Finch says that

‘The library is a key factor in turning your child into an accomplished reader – precisely because of that treasure trove of choice. Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free?’

Both school and public libraries were early victims of the cuts to public funding but are doing the absolute best they can, offering a quality choice of fiction and non-fiction. Our frequent use of these libraries will help them secure more funding.

Independent booksellers, like librarians, once prided themselves in placing the right book at the right time into the right hands, but their carefully chosen collections are becoming a thing of the past. The range of booksellers on our High Streets have been replaced by three big players; Waterstones, Amazon and the local supermarket. In a survey I conducted at my state secondary, most children sourced their books from these three. Waterstones shops are big, but even they can’t stock everything (and not every High Street has one). Amazon's popularity algorithms are self-perpetuating. The few celebrity-authored books sold to supermarkets at a huge discount are generally humour, reducing buyer’s choice down to a single genre - a tiny proportion of those published in the UK. Buyers supporting their local bookshops rather than going online or to supermarkets for cheaper prices would make a real impact.

3. Adults should allow children to choose without passing judgement. 

Michael Norris, an American publishing expert, believes that it is parents who often stop their kids picking up the reading habit.

‘Parents have too much of a role in deciding which books their child is going to read. It is turning children off. They should let them choose.‘Looming over a child takes all the fun out of their discoveries.’ 

Norris goes on to suggest parents should let children talk directly to a librarian or a bookseller, while they themselves stand back. Anne Thomson says

‘As a school librarian I felt sympathy for a child who brought a carefully selected book back to the library the following day saying “Mum says this is too easy for me”.’

By stifling a child’s instinctive choices, or passing disparaging judgement, parents are having the opposite effect to that which they intend. 

@Jess_Keating tweeted in March 2019:

‘So often, I hear well-meaning parents say "I want him to love reading, but all he loves to read is [insert fun book]!" The answer is in the question. That kid already loves to read. Yay! So let's not judge the choices, bc we can never know the extent one book can have on a life.’

4. Make sure they call themselves a reader.

Superhero comics are reading. Beauty or car magazines, music web sites, gamer blogs and technical instruction manuals are all reading, plain and simple. We must make sure our kids know that all these forms are valid and that reading anything makes them a reader. This identity will stick.

Good luck! It's not easy, but by letting children manage their own reading choices, we'll be giving them a gift more precious than rubies - a lifetime of joy.

The Detention Detectives is out now.

HomeTime fun for children aged 0-5

We’ve put together some fun stories and activities to help keep you and your child entertained when you’re at home.

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