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How to Raise a Reader (Does Anyone Actually Know?)

Since becoming a parent two and a bit years ago, I’ve discovered that the world of raising tiny humans is full of advice. You can find tips on how to get them to sleep, to eat, to behave, to become nice well-adjusted adults. You can also find tips and books on how to raise readers, and books about the benefits of reading to your children, like Mem Fox’s Reading Magic, The Enchanted Hour by Meghan Cox Gurdon, Raising Readers by Megan Daly, and the aptly named How to Raise a Reader by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. From what I can tell, the advice from these books can be distilled into three main points. One, read to your children, all the time, for as long as you can (even after they can read for themselves). Two, surround them with books and make books easily accessible. Borrow books from the library, buy books new, buy books secondhand, whatever it is — just have books at home. And three, model reading to them. One of the best ways to raise readers is to be a reader yourself, and let your child see that.

Photo by Jen Sherman

But thinking about these tips and advice also made me wonder: how effective are these tips? Can readers be made or are they born? The rest of these musings are exactly that: musings based on anecdotes and in no way on rigorous scientific research but it’s interesting to ponder. There are two examples I wanted to explore a bit more closely.

First, my own upbringing. I was raised by Asian immigrant parents in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia. My parents are not readers. Their time was occupied with working hard, raising me, and building a new life for themselves in a new and foreign country. My mum hates books and reading, and being in places full of books gives her a headache. When I was kid, my mum would let me explore bookshops and libraries on my own while she waited outside. They never read to me as a child, and they never modelled reading themselves. When I was growing up, the only books in the house were mine, and I thought this was the norm in all families and households.

And yet, I ended up being what most people would consider a reader. I did a PhD on libraries and reading; I read 109 books in 2019; I co-run a children’s book review website, Baby Librarians; and as a parent of a toddler, reading is one of the few things that make me still feel like me. You could take this further and say perhaps I’m not a ‘real’ reader because I don’t enjoy literary fiction or reading the classics, and maybe I lack the cultural capital to appreciate those kinds of books because of my upbringing (this is exactly what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would argue). But regardless, I am a person who reads words printed on pages bound together, despite not having any of this activity modelled to me as a child.

The second example that made me think perhaps readers are born and not made is my husband’s family. He is the eldest of three, and when he and his siblings were children, they were read to regularly by their parents. They weren’t brought up in a household where bookshelves lined the walls, but books were accessible and library visits were not uncommon. As adults, my husband reads books I tell him he should read; he will happily spend an afternoon in Powell’s in Portland with me; and he likes books and reading enough to agree to marry me in a library. His siblings read considerably less; his youngest sister is not a reader and it is a joke in the family that the longest books she reads are the board books she reads to her niece (our toddler).

So how do you raise readers? It seems that there are things you can do to make it more likely your child will be a reader, but none of those things are guaranteed to produce readers. Some people just don’t like reading. As a parent, I will continue to fill our house with books (both mine and my child’s), and I will continue reading to her and taking her to the library and letting her choose what books she wants to read. But I do this knowing that this doesn’t make it a certainty that she will be a reader as an adult. I do this not because raising a reader is my goal in parenting but because in the here and now, reading to her and with her is a lot of fun. If she ends up not being a reader when she grows up (but is otherwise a functioning adult and decent and kind person) then that will be okay. As with most parenting decisions, who knows what effects you’ll have on your kid?

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