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Opinion: In the digital era, how do you raise your child to be a reader?

Bookseller Lorraine Levis advises parents on how to raise a book-loving child in a screen-loving era.

Lorraine Levis

THE QUESTION OF how to raise a reader is anything but straightforward.

When discussing my choice to go into a career in the book trade, my mother likes to tell the story about how when she had my older brother, she tried everything to get him to share her love of books. He was quickly surrounded by them and so when I came along two years later, I was too.

But as what often happens with the second child, the same level of parental pressure wasn’t applied to me and the worry that I may not be able to read Joyce before I could walk was thankfully retired. Fast forward 20-something years and you would be hard-pressed to get my brother to pick up a book for pleasure and yet I’ve worked in a bookshop since I was 17.

So how do you raise a reader in today’s digital era? Here’s what I’ve learned, through being a children’s bookseller.

Make sure books are on hand

When I think back on my formative years, it is not my parents putting books into my hands that are my most prominent memories, rather books were just always there in the background like a TV extra being used in every scene, not overly important but obviously making enough of an impact to warrant being there.

And I do think there lies the most important part of raising a reader: the ever-present nature of books in the child’s life.

I often read the same books as my mum and I couldn’t wait for the next morning so I could talk to her about the plot twist or to find out what something meant.

Don’t force children to read books

A book was never forced into my hands with a stern command to read it, but reading and sharing stories was part of my life. It was an interactive medium that I shared with those close to me and meant I also had to have a book in my hands.

The difficulty now of course is that books have even more competition thanks to the ‘screen culture’ children are being exposed to from such a young age. When I was a child, we had TVs, gaming consoles and (extremely slow) internet but it wasn’t as all-consuming as it is now.

Before, reading wasn’t seen as being in direct competition with technology, it was just another part of how you could choose to spend your time.

Now however, you have the added pressure of being able to live so many areas of your life through the internet; interacting with friends, playing games and accessing new information can all be found in one place and so the idea of moving away from that and picking up a book, which is such an active pursuit compared to being presented with information passively on a screen, is much tougher and doesn’t seem nearly as enticing.

Don’t make them feel like reading is something confined to the classroom and that by reading in their spare time that they’re doing extra work, let them read what interests them and just revel in the fact they’re enjoying themselves.

Change your idea of what ‘reading’ means

Because young people’s rules of engagement are different to the ones we had growing up, our perceptions of what the joy of reading actually “is” needs to change too.

Reading is no longer a hobby to pass a few hours between work and bed or while you wait for a meeting or a friend to show up. We have phones for that now.

Reading needs to be about the joy of a good story, about characters that we root for or hate so passionately you don’t think for a second that they’re not real.

The books need to be something to put the phone down for and not because of some notion that we are going to melt our brains if we stare at a screen for too long – but because we can create a culture where kids can’t focus on the screen for the need to find out what happens next in their book.

Be a reader yourself – and talk books at home

And the biggest tip? Read some of their books yourself! Start a conversation around what they’re reading – whether it’s a classic work of fiction, a funny illustrated book or a Pokémon encyclopedia, it doesn’t matter.

Let them know you think their interests are valid and that reading is a great way to engage with their passions. You will be amazed at what they can retain when they have an interest in what they’re consuming.

The point is that they read and enjoy it, don’t allow it to become a chore or something to be done like homework.

Approach it with joy and wonder in mind and reading can become an all-consuming virtual reality experience… except this one doesn’t need batteries.

Lorraine Levis is a children’s bookseller for Dubray Books. The inaugural Dubray StoryFest family book festival will take place at Airfield Estate on Saturday 29 September: a unique creative festival for children aged 0-12 and their families. For more details or to book tickets, visit the website.

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Lorraine Levis

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