Pamela Paul and Maria Russo know books. Paul is editor of the New York Times Book Review; Russo is the Times’s children’s books editor. They also know kids. Each woman has three children: two boys and a girl. Their new book, How to Raise a Reader (Workman), marries their profession with their passion.
“It was not hard labor,” Paul said. “We both had books our kids have loved that we really wanted to write about, and we both know different books because our kids are different ages.”
The collaboration grew out of a work assignment. The Times regularly asks its staff to produce life guides—everything from how to find a nanny to how to ask for a raise—based on reporting they’ve done or their areas of expertise.
“The Guides team approached us to come up with ideas on books for kids, and as soon as we thought about it we just decided, ‘Why don’t we do it all at once, all ages and stages?’ ” Paul said. “And once we did that digital guide, people started asking, ‘How do I print this out?’ ”
The two journalists also found themselves with nearly twice the amount of text than the online guide could use, so their next move was to expand the material to book length, creating a resource that parents could flip through as needed: a reference guide of tips and book recommendations that’s especially necessary in areas where schools no longer have librarians.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating and disappointing it is that in my wealthy, suburban school district, my son’s elementary does not have a librarian,” Russo said. “Teachers can’t possibly keep up with all the new books. Without a librarian, it’s more important than ever to help parents step into that gap and provide resources.”
Paul suggests parents rely on experienced booksellers and the book recommendations that the best independent stores—like Powell’s, Anderson’s, or BookPeople—produce and post online. Russo’s advice is to network books like you might babysitters. “One thing I highly recommend is to make sure you are really plugged into what your child’s friends are reading at six, seven, eight,” she said. “Talk to their parents. Those books can move virally through a friend group. It’s the most amazing thing to watch, especially when they start trading books.”
Having two book review editors (and avowed bibliophiles) write a book about raising readers might seem a bit like preaching to the choir, something Paul and Russo were acutely aware of and worked to overcome. “Honestly, we really thought much more about getting those people on board who know they want to raise readers but maybe don’t have all the tools. We wanted to give them really practical tips,” Paul said. “The goal was to write the most accessible book possible.”
That said, one of the book’s fundamental messages is that it’s going to be tough to convince kids about the joy of reading if they never see their parent with a book. “A very foundational message in the book is that it begins with you. Kids look to their parents as models,” said Paul.
The editors also say some parents may have to counter messages their children receive at school. Once children start to read on their own, they can be discouraged from choosing a picture book. Some educators devalue the worth of graphic novels. Some elementary school grading systems don’t let a student reread a favorite novel to fulfill a class requirement.
“Our response is, if that’s happening at school it doesn’t need to happen at home,” said Paul. “The school’s job is to teach your child to read. Your job is to get them to choose to read and to love to read.”
Both editors said that means respecting your child’s choices, especially if they are different than your own. Paul says one of her son’s is not reading novels at the moment. He wants only facts. “Their tastes are constantly changing,” she said, recalling that the novelist Jennifer Egan once compared her appetite for books to her appetite for food. “She said she likes to eat what she’s hungry for. If she’s in the mood for something salty, a cookie isn’t going to do it. It’s the same with books.”
Allowing this freedom is extra important, Russo said, with a reluctant reader. “There are kids, and for whatever reason it seems it’s especially boys, who are not reading on the schedule that the schools or other parents expect these days,” said Russo. Discovering and developing a boy’s taste in books can take some trial and error sampling. Series books such as Dog Man, Wimpy Kid, and Dory Fantasmagory worked with Russo’s reluctant reader. “A lot of the time it’s the books that have strong visual images that really call out to this kind of boy.”
Despite their positivity and their passion, the authors acknowledge that the struggle is real. Two-income families are busy, and the competition for a young reader’s attention is stiff. “Right now, it’s really hard. TV is great these days. The internet is constant,” Paul said. Raising readers, she said, requires recasting popular notions about what reading is. If it feels like a chore, kids will relegate it to the same bin as homework: something to be done with as quickly as possible so they can get to the good stuff.
“I think most people know it’s important to raise readers. We don’t need to explain all the different benefits of immersing a child in books,” Paul said. “We need to emphasize that becoming a reader is a wonderful thing. You are never bored when you have a book.”