How parents can inspire love of books among children

Parents play a key role in developing their children's passion for reading, but it must be encouraged and not forced, writes Mabel Sieh

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 April, 2013, 10:37am

Sarah Webb, author of the popular teen-advice series Ask Amy Green, has been shortlisted twice for Britain's Queen of Teen awards and the Irish Book Awards, and her other books have won acclaim worldwide.

But surprisingly, early in Webb's life she wasn't always recognised for her storytelling skills. If not for her parents and good books placed her way, she says she would have never discovered the joys of literature.

"[Growing up] I was not good at reading or writing. I could never do my homework quickly. I felt very stupid in school," says the 44-year-old Irish author , who was in town in March for the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival.

"Once, I got a big cross from my teacher on my assignment, along with a comment: 'Oh dear, what happened?'

"I was born with funny hips and I had a cast on both legs," she adds, part of many childhood difficulties that adds authenticity and empathy to Ask Amy Green, geared for readers aged 10 and above.

Green, a 13-year-old high school student in Dublin, helps her "17 going on 21" aunt Clover Wildgust dish out tips and quirky advice to troubled girls in a lifestyle magazine column, even as Amy tries to fix her own woes, from boy problems to dealing with divorced parents and the mean, whiny, rich girls at school whom she calls the "D4s".

Amid those early struggles, what turned her own life around, Webb says, was discovering the pleasure of reading. Although she always had a bent for storytelling - she once had a toy whose arm snapped off and she "made up a story of how [the toy] got bitten up by a dinosaur" - she was nine years old when she learned to read on her own.

"I was so excited … and I couldn't stop. I became a bookworm. Every day, I would run home after school just to get back to my books.

"I read this book called Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and it really spoke to me. I was worried about so many things - growing up, going to a new school, having a friend - and the book talks about all these things and more. I found a real friend in its main character, Margaret, at just the right time in my life."

Her parents also played a pivotal role in her growth as a writer, reading her stories to encourage her.

"They read me a book called Leo the Late Bloomer [by Robert Kraus] about a little tiger who did things in his own time. It was very reassuring to me at the time and it's a story that I have always remembered."

If you want your child to be a successful reader, you should read to them for pleasure
Pam Macintyre

At the age of 12, Webb started writing short stories. In college, studying English, she wrote a novel about three Dublin girls in their 20s. Her first published book Kids Can Cook came in 1997, followed by many more books for both children and adults sold in different countries including Britain, the US, Italy, Poland and Indonesia.

"Reading can be life-enhancing and some books, like those I've read, can make a lasting impact. The right book at the right time can change a child's life," says Webb.

The author's suggestions are sound ones based on research, according to Pam Macintyre from the University of Melbourne, who also joined the festival this year. The editor of review journal Viewpoint, Macintyre teaches language, and literacy among children and young adults.

"Home environment is key to successful reading experience for children," says Macintyre who is the co-author of Knowing Readers: Unlocking the Pleasures of Reading.

"Children seeing their parents read has a positive effect on them," she says, adding that parents should stock up on books at home.

"A parent is the best person to select the right book for children, especially when they're small," Webb says. "And I'd advise starting very young - as soon as a child is born, you can sing nursery rhymes and lullabies to them. You can pop a book in their crib or put a bath book in their bath.

"As they get older, they should be surrounded by different kinds of books. The library is a wonderful place to bring young children to - a trip to the library should be part of every child's life," Webb says.

Macintyre cites the experience of a friend, whose father read the newspaper to her. "When she was a child, she used to listen to her father reading. It was a request by her mother who wanted him to read to the children while she was preparing dinner. Until this day, my friend still remembers the fond moments. She has picked up the love of reading since then."

When a parent reads to a child, it is an intimate experience involving a strong emotion, she explains.

In Hong Kong, many educated parents are keen to read to their children. However, they tend to force the habit or use it to teach - or sometimes test - the child's English vocabulary.

This may not be the most ideal and effective strategy to foster a love for reading.

"Experts have agreed that reading for pleasure and for its own sake is the most beneficial for children," Macintyre says. "If you want your child to be a successful reader, you should read to them for pleasure. Let the school do the teaching. It should be pure pleasure when you and your child read together. You can laugh over a story or cry over it together."

Another golden rule for parents is to allow their children the freedom to choose books that interest them.

"The worst thing a parent can do is to be critical of a book which means a lot to the child," she adds.

"When my son was four years old, he loved reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea [by Judith Kerr]. Every time, when I asked what he wanted to read, he'd say that one. To him, there's something magical about the story. It's OK to let children read a book they love again and again. The important thing is they're free to choose their own books."

For children who are not keen readers, it helps to find out what sparks their imagination and use that as a motivation.

"Many boys aren't into reading novels, but they love non-fiction. I know some boys are interested in skateboard magazines. Reading such material requires an understanding of sophisticated language and vocabulary and should be encouraged, too," Macintyre says.

The goal is to help children develop a lifelong passion for reading, which is beneficial to them and society, she says.

"Stories are crucial in our lives; we communicate with others using stories all the time. They're what we tell others about ourselves. They teach us how different people handle different circumstances."

For example, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a view of Nazism in the Netherlands through the eyes of a Jewish girl after her family goes into hiding, "helps us learn about understanding and tolerance. We start questioning why things happened and read to find out more."

"Reading helps us make sense of our world and it changes the way we see it," says Macintyre.