How do I get my child to read books with more words and fewer pictures?

Children’s book expert Lorraine Levis on a common battle, plus some recommended reads

Fans attend attend a Captain Underpants book signing with Dav Pilkey. Photograph: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

My eight-year-old son only seems interested in books with very few words and loads of pictures. How do I get him to move on?

This is a battle waged daily between parents and children everywhere. Parents fear that children aren’t reading enough and children are told to “pick a book” and are then shot down when they pick something they know they will enjoy.

I want to address the concern from your perspective first. I understand that the developmental stage your child is at is one full of milestones and anxiety as they take their first meaningful steps in education. You want to see them flourish into readers and mathematicians and sports stars. More than anything you want to see them happy and thriving in all areas of their lives, with education being a big part of that.

Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, is a guest on Good Morning America. Photograph: Lou Rocco/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Growing up, our ability to read and engage with texts is something we are judged on and examined in with great scrutiny and for many this is the first step towards falling out of love with stories. I am not for a moment criticising our teachers and the amazing job they do but they are at the mercy of a curriculum which encourages set answers and “correct” thinking which is easily standardised and graded. And this can easily bleed into children’s lives outside school. You want them to excel and one way to do this is to encourage them to read widely and at a high level, thus broadening their vocabulary and introducing them to new concepts and ideas.


From a child's point of view, a comic book or heavily illustrated book offers so much more than just a few moments of occupation

Most of the time this is all done with the best of intentions. Maybe you’re a reader yourself and you can remember your love of reading starting with the books you read in school. Maybe you never made that reading connection and you hope that by encouraging them to push their boundaries you can help jump-start the reading journey that you never had.

Of course the motivation might also be financial – books can be very expensive, especially those which come out in a hard cover on first release. Spending upwards of €10 for something which has minimal text on each page can seem like bad value when for the same money, or less, you could get a book which would occupy them for hours, with full pages of text which will keep them engaged and also be full the educational things you want them to encounter.

These are all perfectly valid points, but I would also ask you to consider the other perspective.

From a child’s point of view, a comic book or heavily illustrated book offers so much more than just a few moments of occupation and the sales figures back this up.

The children’s bestseller lists in the Irish and UK markets are monopolised by three authors. David Walliams (illustrated by Tony Ross), Jeff Kinney and Dav Pilkey make up 20 of the top 30 children’s titles which sold though Irish tills in 2019. These are the books children are looking forward to and buying as soon as they come out. One of the reasons for this is that these books are accessible, funny and at least partially illustrated. They offer a child who doesn’t necessarily read with great regularity a book which speaks to their sense of humour (a lot of jokes about bodily fluids or just general boldness) and also offers a reprieve from the structured learning of their school day.

Illustrated books are also a great confidence booster precisely because they are easily read and quickly finished. Getting though these books is less of a colossal task than facing a full page of small text and challenging prose. They offer comfort to children who are well able to read more advanced books, and they offer an opportunity to those who feel intimidated by independent reading. The popularity of these books, and many similar ones which might not sell in quite as huge numbers, make the act of enjoying a book into a social experience as children share their love of these characters and the worlds they inhabit.

Focus on what your son loves about the books he reads. In so many ways that it more important than the educational value, especially in reluctant readers

When a child finishes a book they love, they don’t see how challenging it was, they see that they finished it and all of the pride which comes with that. On the other hand, when they attempt a book which doesn’t engage them or that they find too challenging to finish, they will feel that strongly and you run the risk of turning them off trying again with something else.

You should also not discount how important engaging with art is for their cultural development. Illustrations offer a huge amount in the way of context for the story as well as just being something that should be enjoyed in its own right!

But at the end of the day, none of this really answers your original question. My advice to you is twofold. First, try to take what I’ve said above on board and by changing your attitude towards the books your son is choosing you might lessen the anxiety it is causing you. And second, if you still want to try and move them on, baby steps are the way to go.

There are varying degrees of illustrated book and by slowly but surely getting recommendations which become slightly more advanced in their text but remain funny, engaging with something breaking up the text, then you will be surprised how open he is to the idea of change. Focus on what he loves about the books. In so many ways that it more important than the educational value, especially in reluctant readers. You will also find that the more they read, at any level, the more confident they will become and you will suddenly find that he moves on to more challenging books by himself as new concepts and ideas grab his attention and he moves away from the fart jokes!

My recommendations

Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith
Perfect for fans of Superheroes and Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a personal favourite of mine. Imagine Greg ends up in a school for superheroes, but he has no powers!

Danger is Everywhere by David O'Doherty (illustrated by Chris Judge)
An extremely talented Irish team. This series offers hilarity with a great text to picture ratio which is both long enough to get some time out of but also short enough to be a great confidence booster.

The Person Controller by David Baddiel
All of David's books are great for kids who are moving onto bigger blocks of text in their books but they still hold onto the whimsy and laughs of a Walliams title.

Lorraine Levis is an ex-bookseller, children’s book expert and enthusiast. Her debut nonfiction book, Once Upon a Reader, is publishing with Currach Press this Autumn. She is a children’s sales executive for Penguin Random House