It's not always easy to find books that you think your child will like, or to encourage him to read the ones you recommend. But regardless of the complexities of your child's needs, experts know that there are some universal truths that apply. Years of working with kids have helped them learn how to make that critical connection between child and book. Doug Dutton, owner of Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore in Los Angeles, won the 2003 Lucille Micheels Pannell Award from the Women's National Book Association. The award honors booksellers for excellence in bringing children and books together creatively, and in promoting children's interest in reading. Former children's librarian Judi Bort is a book selector for school libraries in Southern California. See below for their advice on finding the perfect books to spark — or build on — a love of reading in your child.
Follow his passion. "Adults like books when the books speak to them in a personal way. It's the same with kids," says Dutton. "Finding the right books is very individual." Just as your child may enjoy math more than art, or soccer more than tennis, his taste in books will reflect his personal interests. "Know what your child is curious about," says Bort. "Don't try to force something on him that you know won't grab his attention, even if it's an award-winning book."
Give choices. Dutton believes it's crucial to offer options. "Let your child be involved in the process," he says. Simply asking, "Which of these two books would you rather read?" can shed light on the kind of story that inspires her.
Almost anything goes. Don't be afraid to encourage an interest in lighter fare. "I don't have a particular disdain for comic books, as long as kids like them," says Dutton, reasoning that eventually, your child will move on to more sophisticated material. "Science fiction works well for boys, as well as mysteries, like Encyclopedia Brown." Another way to pique your child's interest is to give him a book that inspired a movie. "Lots of kids will read Freaky Friday after seeing the movie, which is great," says Dutton.
Start somewhere — anywhere! "A child can always begin reading lower than his level and work his way up," says Bort, "as long he is interested in the subject matter." What if he has no idea what he wants to read? Bort offers a little trick. "When I was a school librarian, I worked with a second grader who had a little less reading ability than the rest of his class. We went to the card catalogue and looked up books under 'KIN' — the first letters of his last name. When we found the books on the shelf, it almost didn't matter what they were about, because this boy found a connection to them. He ended up finishing all the 'KIN' books in the library, figured out what he liked to read about, and came back to me with a list of topics he wanted me to find books on. He read more books than any other kid in his class that year."
Ask lots of questions. Bort helps children choose books by simply asking, "What else have you been reading lately?" As a parent, you can easily do the same. Don't be afraid to approach librarians, teachers, and booksellers to get an idea of the authors, titles, and subjects that are winners.
Pay attention to what other kids like. Dutton listens to his staff at the bookstore when he needs to find books to recommend, but ultimately, his best source is his own children. Consider tapping your child's friends and siblings for their suggestions or visiting the Books & Authors page at Scholastic.com's Kids site The STACKS. Also see our list of booksellers' favorites for Dutton's and Bort's top picks.
Take a subtle approach. Dutton cautions against trying too hard. Realize that learning to love books might be a long, gradual process for your child. Pace yourself so she doesn't burn out. "Rather than pour it on all at once, give her books one a time. That way, she's hungry for the next one. She anticipates the next one every time she finishes a book."
Talk about books together. "Reading is a solitary activity, but kids really like to talk about what they've read when they are finished," says Dutton, mentioning the rise of book groups. When you read with your child — together and aloud, or silently with different books — you can get a better idea of what books he likes. Offer him a favorite of yours, and ask him what part he liked the best. "It's great for kids to read what adults have loved in the past," says Dutton, explaining that it forms a bond between a parent and a child. And now that parents are borrowing their children's copies of Harry Potter, the roles have reversed. "It's really empowering for kids to give a book to their parents when they've already read it!" says Dutton.