When I tell people that I write children’s books they usually imagine that I am:
1.As rich as Croesus from all the royalties my kindly publishers send me.
2.If not, then at least as rich as J K Rowling. I mean, at least.
3.If not rich, then surely living in a world full of sweet peppermint twists, where unicorns of joy regularly gambol at my feet.
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It’s fun to disabuse people of these charming notions.
They blanch on hearing about some of the ogres in publishing, and when I tell the average Shining Indian Yuppie how much children’s writing actually pays, the silence is deafening.
There’s a fourth notion that some people — mostly mums with streaked hair and big bags — have about people who write books for children. This is the one where they imagine that writers must know enough practical magic to be able to whiz a video-game-and-mall-obsessed child into an avid reader — overnight, at the age of say 9 or 10 years. Easily done, no? Well, er, no.
When parents tell me ‘My kid doesn’t read, what to do?’ I usually ask them if they read. Some laugh out aloud at the quaint notion of themselves as readers, while others look thoughtful and ask if I meant Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul. When I say ‘No,’ they reply cheerfully, ‘Then no, I don’t read. But I’d reeeallly like my kid to read!’
So I explain that to inspire their kids to read, they need to get excited about reading themselves. They look shattered. Obviously I should have said something sensible like ‘Soak three newspapers overnight, blend and pour into a purple glass and then pour into your child’s mouth while holding his nose shut and praying to the sun. You can be sure that he will begin reading on the sixth day!’
Unfortunately, human beings are essentially apes, and we learn by imitation. Little apes watch grown-up apes to figure out what is edible and what is not, what is to be loved and what is not. So if parents value shopping, video games and trips to the mall above all other activities, chances are their kids will too. If parents love football and hiking, chances are their kids will too. And typically, if parents read, chances are, their kids will read too.
I personally worry that reading too much makes kids introverted. Sometimes I feel it lets them get their life-experiences second-hand. But that’s probably because my kid reads. I would rather she were sporty and physical, but she has grown up watching her mother read while lounging around, cooking, eating, and even while trying to fall asleep. Father is same-to-same, with the added feature that he also reads on the pot. It would be pointless for me to despair at the fact that she doesn’t run or swim fantastically well, and regards the act of climbing trees with suspicion. But she reads everything, everywhere — all sorts of books, in the car and on the pot. Apples have this nasty habit of falling close to their trees.
So yes, mums-and-dads, the only thing that will get your kid excited about books is you getting excited about them. If you don’t read but genuinely want your kid to, here are some suggestions: buy interesting, age-appropriate books, and read them out to your child. If he or she is too young to get the ‘reading’, then tell the tale. Dramatically, with a sense of fun. While keeping a watch out for signs of engagement and/or boredom. Talk about books, spend money on buying them (yes, that is key) — you could, like us, also trawl through secondhand stores. While your jaw might lock with boredom, chances are your kid might get into a reading habit.
And who knows, maybe it’ll make a happy reader out of you too!
(this article first appeared in the DNA of Mar 27, 2011)