Happy New Year! We’re halfway through January, so I hope it’s still okay to wish you all a year full of exciting plans, challenges (why not?) and good company. And of course, great stories.
Anyone who wants to write, be it an adult or a child, has probably received this piece of advice at some point. In my case, I’ve heard it A LOT! It will make a great difference to your writing. It will change your writing life for the better. It will put an end to all your writing problems! Well, maybe not that last one, but yes, it will definitely be a big plus.
There’s the old adage “practice makes perfect” (which in this case loosely translates as “Write, write, write!”), and while it is true that you have to keep writing to get better at it, the same way you have to keep practicing on the piano to get that song right, there’s one more thing to do: read.
If you ever find yourself saying, “I don’t have time to read”, I don’t blame you. It was only last year that I managed to make a few changes to have more free time to read. I know time for reading is a luxury for many of us, but maybe you can find a moment when you can read, even if it’s five minutes every day, or twenty minutes once a week (though I’d forget what the book was all about after such a long time!). Children are watching us and taking cues from us, so if they see you read or write, they are more likely to do the same.
As an adult, I was always asking friends for advice on books, but sometimes I found we enjoyed different genres (for example, I really enjoy biographies and novels where we get to know the main character inside out, while I can’t cope with thrillers). So I tried other avenues. I would walk around the library, picking up books, reading the blurbs, I'd check out three of them to take home and would see if they were a good fit. Then I tried BookBub, a website where I answered a few questions and got a list of recommendations. Finally, I signed up for The Bookseller’s weekly newsletter, Books in the Media, to find out about the latest books coming out. It’s free and you can join here.
I still find time to eat and sleep and work. I realized that if I didn’t have a book on my bedside table, I would grab my phone and wander around aimlessly. I needed to change some habits.
Now back to the little ones. Children who read encounter new vocabulary, new ideas, new worlds. Children who read use their imagination to conjure up characters in their minds. They become familiar with spelling, punctuation, the structure of a story. While reading alone cannot guarantee you will master the art of writing, it will certainly help.
If there is a special kind of story you would like to write (for example, a mystery one), you should do some informal research, that is, read some books of that genre, and maybe also have a go at solving a simple mystery at home (Who left that sock there? Who ate the last cookie? And the biggest mystery of all… What time are we supposed to leave the house to make it to school on time?).
It’s crucial that children read for fun, that means they have to find stories that are interesting for them to read. It may not be the first book you or they pick. Choice is important here. If you can join your local library, you’ll be spoiled for choice!
For adults there are lots of different genres, and within each genre people have their favorite authors. This is similar for children, so the fact that a friend is reading a certain book doesn’t mean your child will love it too. But if your child doesn’t like a book, does it mean they don’t like to read? Of course not! You just need to find a good fit.
A poll I took among families of children in primary school found that while some authors were very popular (several children are currently reading books by Tom Gates, Malorie Blackman, Roald Dahl, David Walliams and Julia Donaldson), there was a wide variety of books that children enjoyed reading which their peers had never heard of. They enjoyed different kinds of books and different authors’ styles.
While many children enjoyed reading series, there was a wide range of these depending on the children’s taste, from Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster, Beast Quest and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, to Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Amelia Cobb’s Zoe’s Rescue Zoo.
Other children enjoy Charles Schulz's Snoopy comic books, Michael Bond's Paddington series, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, and many seem to be reading junior novels based on Disney’s The Descendants, as well as the Little Princess picture books by Tony Ross and Enid Blyton’s many books. There is something for everyone!
Some other children showed a preference for non-fiction books, mostly geography, science and history. The See Inside Usborne books were a favorite among some.
There’s magic when a child falls in love with a book and can’t put it down, so I hope your children find that magic!
This new year, don’t make reading and writing another painful resolution, make it a new and exciting habit!
A report from the UK’s Department for Education published in 2012 contains lots of insight regarding reading for pleasure.
You can read the key findings on page 3, or jump to page 9 to find out about the main benefits of reading for pleasure:
A big thank you to all the children and parents who shared their favorite books with me!