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Reading by 9

How To Introduce Your Kids To Quality Children's Literature

April 11, 1999|JANIE AND RICHARD JARVIS | Janie and Richard Jarvis are the authors of "The Magic Bookshelf: A Parents' Guide to Showing Growing Minds the Path to the Best Children's Literature," from which this series is adapted. "The Magic Bookshelf" can be ordered by calling Books America at (800) 929-7889

Editor's Note: As part of The Times' Reading by 9 initiative, Book Review is publishing a monthly series on how parents can introduce kids to the best children's literature.

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Who is the biggest influence on how devoted a reader your child becomes? Teachers? The local librarians and bookstore clerks? No, the answer is you. As a parent (or grandparent or guardian), you are the most important person in your child's life. You're also the strongest example he looks to when choosing favorite activities.

Think about how your children copy your behavior. Have you ever watched a boy practice shaving in front of a mirror with his dad? How about a little girl sitting at a computer and tapping away at the keys, pretending to be working like her mother?

Reading is no different. Children who grow up in non-reading households are likely to be non-readers. And if you ask children to read classic-quality literature while your coffee table is stacked high with tabloids and the TV is always on, why should they listen to you? Remember, you represent what your children want to be. Shouldn't you begin with the strong example of making reading good books a central activity in your home?

The way to acquaint a child with books and to nurture the love of them is to have the child live with them, among them and in them. For reading to be natural, books must not only be enthusiastically encouraged by adults but also must be accessible to the child. That means they must literally be everywhere.

Books should be highly visible in your home. Make them furniture. They should be shelved or propped in accessible places like coffee and end tables, bedside tables, shelves in bunk beds and so on. Place books you want children to handle on easy-to-reach shelves and surfaces and store the nicer books up high where they'll stay safe.

Encourage this natural contact with books so they are considered regular parts of children's lives, not just objects to be admired from afar or brought out on special occasions (except for the truly valuable books you might acquire).

If you're just starting on a "permanent" home library, consider the boxes and boxes of books--dog-eared assigned paperbacks from high school and college, nice hardbacks or textbooks you still value--that were stashed away for lack of a place to put them. These forgotten books can help make books a strong presence in your home. Invest in some good shelving if possible--though clever makeshift shelving works just as well--and bring those old books out of exile to display in family rooms, if not the living and dining rooms. Again, these don't all have to be children's books. Your goal is to set an example.

To flesh out your collection, join book clubs or visit secondhand bookstores to find nice-looking but inexpensive hardbacks. Also, watch for bargains on the discount tables at most bookstores. You can often find editions of classic books for sale. The point is to think of books as being as critical to your rooms as furniture and get everybody comfortable with having them around.

Childhood reading expert Dorothy Butler suggests that parents--especially those uncomfortable with books as toys for young children--think of books as nourishment, food for developing minds. Also, just as children need to learn to eat with the proper utensils, so too must they learn how to handle and properly read a book. This takes some initial bumbling. Later, you'll teach your children how to care for their books. But for now, designate some books for practice. Aside from the usual sturdy children's volumes, obsolete textbooks and out-of-date tomes can help your younger child through these awkward first steps at page turning and book handling.

Equip an older child's room with proper reading lights at bedside and perhaps by a favorite comfortable chair. Do the same in the family room. In "Raising Lifelong Learners," Lucy Calkins describes how her children made comfortable reading nests. With pillows, blankets and nearby heaters, they got cozy and helped themselves to the baskets of books beside them.

Calkins also details how, as her children grew older, she converted naptimes to reading times. Given the choice between napping and reading, they'd choose reading.

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