How to get your children reading
Elaina Ryan of Children’s Books Ireland offers some expert advice on persuading kids to put down their phone and pick up a book
Ruthanne Gallagher (9) and Pat Kenny launch the Bring a Book, Buy a Book campaign in aid of St. Michael’s House during World Book Week, which encouraged parents to go Tech-No for the week, and instead swap and read used books. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan
One of the questions that we’re frequently asked at Children’s Books Ireland is how to entice children and young people away from screens and towards a book. Is limiting screen time the answer? That’s down to parents to decide; what we do know is that taking away the phone or iPad and replacing it with something that’s seen as being “good for you” is about as appealing and effective as taking away a gooey fudge brownie and putting a lettuce leaf in its place.
Studies show that screens are very much a part of children’s lives, but so too are books, in most cases: according to a comprehensive Arts Council & ESRI report which draws on information from the longitudinal Growing Up in Ireland Study (Arts and Cultural Participation among Children and Young People: Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland Study), half of three year olds watch television for two or more hours a day. But that same study tells us that over half of three-year-olds are read to; half of families sing and recite rhymes and poems with their children and almost half paint or draw. Keeping reading in the mix as they grow older is the challenge: at the age of 9, only 6 per cent of children said they never read, while at the age of 13, that figure increases to 21 per cent.
So how do you encourage a young person to read? The short answer is that finding the right book for each young person is crucial. Join the library. Persist. Explore what’s out there with an open mind, give the child the information they need to make the choice themselves, and if you need some guidance, seek help from a great bookseller or librarian, or from Children’s Books Ireland.
Let a young person loose in the library. Let them read whatever they want. Let them read comics. Let them read books that might seem too young for them. Ask them to talk to you about what they’re reading. Read something yourself – a newspaper, a magazine; lead by example
So much of what we do at CBI is focused on providing really good information about children’s books to adults – through Inis magazine and our annual Inis Reading Guide, and at our annual conference – so that they can guide young readers towards a book that will be engaging and enjoyable. But there’s nothing more powerful than speaking to young readers about what they love and finding a book for them that will have them sneaking under the covers with a torch after bedtime, or reading underneath their desks because they just have to know what happens next.
The CBI Book Clinic is designed for young people to talk to a Book Doctor about what they have loved reading, or if they’re not yet a reader, what their interests are. If they’ve reached the end of a brilliant series and they need some direction on where to go next, or if they haven’t picked up a book in years but they can tell us they love rugby, or zebras, or trains, or superheroes, the Book Doctor will write a prescription based on a 10-minute chat with them.
Every child gets a Book Passport to take away – an illustrated booklet of activities with artwork by Fintan Taite, where their prescription is written and they can log reviews, complete reading challenges and doodle if they feel inspired. And every family gets a copy of the Inis Reading Guide, filled with reviews of the best books of the year for all ages, including poetry, non-fiction, leabhair as Gaeilge and a special Citizens of the World section, reflecting the need to foster empathy in our children and young people in relation to their counterparts in other countries.
There’s something powerful about a recommendation that comes from someone whose enthusiasm for books is obvious, and who isn’t an adult in authority or with a role in the child’s education. The Book Doctors come from backgrounds where they’ve learned about children’s books over years: booksellers, librarians, bloggers, broadcasters and book reviewers, they have seen patients of all ages, from babes in arms to older teenagers. The Book Clinic has toured the island north and south, often attracting repeat visitors in need of a new prescription, popping up in museums and shopping centres, at festivals such as Bloom in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and Electric Picnic in Stradbally, Co Laois. Readers will find it at the Ennis Book Club Festival, the Belfast Children’s Festival and at Ranfurly House in Dungannon in the coming months, and parents should look out for Twitter Book Clinics online throughout the year.
And what if your child can’t be persuaded to come to a Book Clinic? Why not look at ways to reach young people where they are: at school. Even with very limited resources, it’s possible to encourage a culture of reading in the classroom. When a child enjoys a book and recommends it to a friend, the power of that recommendation!
One useful way to find out about new books and to get free resources and materials is to sign up for the CBI Book of the Year Award Shadowing Scheme. For the past 27 years, the CBI Book of the Year Awards have celebrated the best books by Irish authors and illustrators, with an expert panel of judges choosing winners for five awards, and the vote from our shadowing groups deciding the winner of the sixth, the Children’s Choice Award. From the point of view of an educator, shadowing is a creative way to contribute to students’ development in reading, writing, oral literacy and critical thinking. And from our point of view, it’s a way to get children and young people reading books that are excellent and that they will enjoy and want to recommend to their friends – the most powerful endorsement of all.
Every shadowing group gets a pack that will help their teacher or book club leader to engage the group with the books in interesting ways - they might redesign the cover, write a diary entry from the point of view of a character, hold a courtroom drama or class debate about something the book brings up or write a piece of fiction inspired by the book. The pack is a guide, a jumping-off point for making reading a more social, interactive activity and for encouraging young people to articulate their opinions about a book and interrogate the reasons they loved or hated it.
We include several groups in a short film, to be screened at the awards ceremony at the International Literature Festival Dublin in May, and we invite shadowers to the awards to meet the artists and present the Children’s Choice Award to that year’s winner. Bookmarks and posters are a welcome addition to any resource pack, and alongside phone and email support from CBI, we hope that groups will keep signing up to be part of the growing team of young critics that shadowing produces.
Other ideas? Let a young person loose in the library. Let them read whatever they want. Let them read comics. Let them read books that might seem too young for them. Ask them to talk to you about what they’re reading. Read something yourself – a newspaper, a magazine; lead by example. Have books in the house if you can – library books, second-hand books, new books. Follow CBI on social media and enter competitions to win books.