If you want children to read, let them read what they love!
Published on: 20 March 2023
Our Writer-in-Residence, SF Said, is passionate about allowing children to choose what they read, in order to keep the love of reading alive.
‘What do YOU like to read?’ That's the question I always ask children when I visit schools, which I’ve been doing for 20 years now as a children’s author.
I’m always struck by how diverse their answers are. Every child is different, and likes different things.
But my experience has shown me that there is a book for every child out there. Because they’re all interested in something – and whatever you’re interested in, whatever you love, there will be books about it. And they will be the books that make you a reader.
We tend to do the things we genuinely want to do; the things we almost can’t help doing! Without that kind of internal motivation, we might dutifully learn how to execute a skill, but the moment it’s no longer demanded of us, we no longer practise it, lose the habit, and gradually forget about it altogether.
I’ve seen this happen to many children who were introduced to reading as something they were required to do, because it would be good for them.
As a child, I was extremely resistant to such approaches. I might be a hard-working author now, but I remember very clearly how suspicious I was as a child of anything that was meant to be good for me. I thought those things were boring, and I just didn't want to know about them. All my friends shared these feelings.
But I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where reading was introduced to me as something fun: something you did for your own enjoyment, or for shared enjoyment with others. The adults around me always paid attention to what I liked to read, and efforts were always made to give me a choice of reading matter that tapped into my own interests.
So if I happened to be interested in dinosaurs, I was shown books about dinosaurs. I devoured them, barely even aware that I was reading, just absorbing the material as if by osmosis. If I lost interest in dinosaurs, and became obsessed with football, I would be presented with football books and magazines instead.
In all cases, my interests and choices were taken seriously and supported. So reading always seemed like fun to me. It was something I did constantly, because I wanted to. It became part of my identity, and this sense of myself as a reader always stood me in good stead, helping me to do whatever else I wanted to do.
Because once you can read, you can read anything. Reading is a skill that unlocks so many other skills. Perhaps that’s why reading for pleasure has the biggest positive impact of any factor on children’s life chances.
So I think we have to help every child find the things that will make them readers – even if we, as adults, can’t always see the value in those things. When I ask kids what they like to read, I always try to share their excitement, even if the book or author they mention is not one that I personally love. Because I know their excitement will lead them on to other books and authors, whereas dismissing their choices might crush their identities as readers, putting an end to their reading altogether.
By all means, recommend books to children, and help them find the really good ones. But please: never, ever belittle or dismiss their own choices. Because choice is such a vital part of being a reader; an autonomous, lifelong reader, of the kind we want all kids to be. Independent readers, and independent thinkers, who will then find the other books all on their own.
And of course there is no one ‘right’ book for every child. There isn’t even one ‘right’ kind of book! We often talk about reading as if novels were the only books, but many children love and respond to non-fiction, poetry, picture books, comics, graphic novels.
All of these are forms of reading, and all of them are valid in and of themselves.
I went through a period as a child when I read nothing but comics. Concerned adults told me that I was too old for comics; that they would ‘rot my brain’, and I should go back to ‘proper reading’. Fortunately, I ignored this well-meaning advice, and comics taught me visual as well as verbal literacy.
And when I was eventually ready to return to novels, I had no problem at all picking up where I left off, because I had never stopped reading, even if it wasn’t recognised as such. So I never lost the habit, or my identity as a reader, or the sense that reading was first and foremost about my own pleasure. And without all of that, I don’t think I could have become a writer, and written books like Varjak Paw and Tyger.
In my next blog, I’m going to be looking back on my reading history as a child, and being brutally honest about what it was that I actually read for pleasure, and what really made me a reader. Some of these things are quite surprising, even embarrassing to me now, but I think it’s vital to be honest about this. Reading for pleasure is too important to be misunderstood.
For now, though, I want to make something very clear, because I think it is often misunderstood. When we talk about reading for pleasure, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t take reading seriously. I mean, it is the most serious thing of all! Reading for pleasure is the pleasure of full engagement of all your capacities, intellectual, imaginative and emotional; of your whole heart and mind and soul.
It looks like play, and it feels like fun, and it is so pleasurable precisely because it is so important to us. And the very feeling of excitement is what makes us want to go on and read more.
So, if you want children to love reading – let them read what they love!
Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 17 titles.