Turning a MUST Read Into a WANNA Read

“School’s out! No more class, books, homework, and tests! We’re gonna run around barefoot, swim, play video games, and eat Popsicles!” declare happy children heading to summer break.

But it doesn’t take long for parents to burst these happy summer bubbles with the dreaded news:  “Time to get your books from the required summer reading list.” The once-happy children face-palm and sadly shake their heads as they realize that summer break doesn’t include a break from reading. “But we don’t wanna!”

Way to melt their sweet little Popsicled hearts.

This isn’t the case for all kids. In fact, many kids love to read. Or at least they don’t mind it. But what do you do with a child who does not like to read? Or with a child who doesn’t mind reading, but would rather hang out with Spongebob, Mario or Zelda all day?  How do you turn a MUST read into a WANNA read? Sometimes it comes down to a matter of words (which is convenient since we’re talking about books).

When adults hear that a book is a MUST read, they get excited. When kids hear that a book is a MUST read, they get bummed. The suggestion to “GET LOST” in a book sounds more like bully speak or a fearful scenario at the mall, not a delightful experience of losing track of time in the pages of a good book. A love for books can get lost in translation when kids are told they have no choice. They have to read or ELSE.  To a child who either has a hard time reading or doesn’t enjoy reading, that’s a real passion-killer. Remember the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld? You don’t want to be a “Book Nazi.” There are happier ways to get kids passionate about reading.

I surveyed parents on how they motivate their kids to read and turn off technology, and their answers included:

  • Rewards like pennies per page, earning TV/video playtime, treats (Popsicles, anyone?)
  • Summer Bingo reading cards (Pinterest has lots of fun ideas)
  • Reading with and to them (wonderful bonding time)
  • Reading books in a series (getting them delightfully hooked)
  • Book clubs with other kids (see what other kids are reading, make new friends)
  • Bribery

You might consider all of the above, but before you try bribery, try something else if you want your kids to do more than just required reading. If you want to get them passionate about books, try a little re-wording.

Start by redefining what books are.

Kids all want friends, and kids like to choose their friends. It’s a drag having to hang out with kids they just don’t like. Sometimes kids complain that they don’t have any friends to play with. “Well, guess what books are?” you can offer them. “FRIENDS.” You can even drop an author-y quote or two:

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

Let your child choose his bookish friends—if he likes sci-fi, let him choose one. If she likes mystery, let her choose one. Sure, some lists require certain book classics, but encourage their “fun friend” choices, and allow them as many of those friends to come home for a sleepover as they’d like. If a kid sees a book as a friend and not as a chore, they will know they never are alone. Their friend will always be there to hang out with them and show them a good time.

“What do you mean? How can books hang out and show me a good time?” your child asks, curious but not yet sold on this bookish-friend idea. Hand them a Popsicle with another pithy quote or two:

“A childhood without books – that would be no childhood. That would be like being shut out from the enchanted place where you can go and find the rarest kind of joy.” – Astrid Lingren

“If you take a book with you on a journey,” Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, “an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper – memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.” – Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

“Okay, maybe I could try that,” your child says with an orange-tinted grin. “But this summer reading list is so long.”

Time to wax philosophic: “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many get through to you.” (Mortimer J. Adler)

You have the ability to put a new cover on books for your child by helping them to understand that books are more than paper and ink. Books are friends, escapes, adventures and according to Stephen King, “a uniquely portable magic.”  But you also have the responsibility of modeling a passion for reading. One of my readers, twelve year-old Zack told his mom, “A lot of parents say they want their kids to pick up a book and stop playing video games, but then those same parents pick up their phone or ipad; my friends rarely see their parents read.” (Uh-hem. I think it’s okay for kids to play the role of “Book Nazi.”)

Zack wanted to add one final remark about how he loves to hold a real book in his hands: “There’s something pretty exciting and amazing about opening the front cover of a book and seeing the title page. It’s just a page with the title and the author and I think to myself, ‘What adventure does Jenny L. Cote have in store for me today?’ There’s just nothing else like that.”

Open a book with your child, plug in the author’s name and ask them that same question. Tell them their “friend” is waiting, and ask them if they’d like to go along. Don’t be surprised if you get a smile, and a WANNA read summer day out of them.

Jenny L. Cote is an award-winning author and speaker. Cote’s next book The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key (Living Ink Books) will be published on August 15, 2017.