As a children’s librarian and former bookworm, I’ve always felt a bit of a fraud as a mother. “Read to your toddlers for twenty minutes a day!” the posters behind me at the desk proclaim. “Be a reading role model, let your children see you reading!”
Ah, ADHD. Easier said than done.
It pains me to say this, but my kids—MY kids—are not really readers. Not the way their mother was at their age. They’re good readers, as far as process goes, but they have little desire to pick up a book and are even less likely to get sucked into it. I take that back: my third grader has developed slightly more interest in reading over the past few months, but it still doesn’t occur to her that, if she’s bored, reading might be a great way to spend her time.
And you know, maybe that is my fault. That whole “reading role model” thing—it’s true, my kids rarely see me reading for fun. I’ve discussed this whole Bookworm Paradox here before. But I don’t recall seeing my own mother read to herself for fun all that often (not counting the newspaper), and I picked up the habit anyway. Besides, my kids do strongly associate books with me. They’ve listed books among my favorite things in every “tell us about your family” questionnaire thing they’ve ever done at school. My daughter had even, unbidden, identified a picture of books in a preschool assessment at the age of three with, “My mommy knows a lot about those.” So maybe it’s not a matter of my failure at role-modeling.
Since before they could talk, I tried to read to them, but they could never sit still long. They could only handle short books with lots of pictures. A long, wordy picture book? A story from an anthology? A chapter book? HAH. I used to scoff at tales of parents reading complex middle-grade novels to their four-year-olds—”Don’t rush it! There are much more age-appropriate books out there!”—and while that’s true, maybe their four-year-olds were ready for complex middle-grade novels. Mine were not. And I was a little sad about it.
I hit a surprise winner with My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett when my eldest was five, and this is still my automatic number one Baby’s First Fantasy Novel recommendation. Seriously, if you’re anxious to get your youngsters into fantasy reading, there is no need to start your three-year-old on Tolkien. My Father’s Dragon all the way. Inventive, eventful without being scary, short chapters with pictures: perfect. And it worked on my little bundles of Attention Deficit, so it should definitely work for yours.
Then I took what turned out to be a brilliant piece of advice: read to your kids while they’re taking a bath. Captive audience, multitasking, and—this is important for ADHD kids—they can quietly play while still listening. To this day my kids can still not just listen to a story. They’re playing games or watching YouTube videos (without sound) or drawing pictures, and as strange as this may seem, they are still listening to the story. It’s just the way their brains are wired. They can hear better if their hands and eyes are busy.
So that was when I finally hooked my kids on being read to, at any rate. Now we read every night, me out loud to two kids who, yes, are perfectly capable of reading to themselves, but find it far more interesting to listen while they fidget with other things. And the best part is, I get to read, too.
But when I read to myself as a young bookworm, I would read for hours on end, hundreds of books a year. When I read aloud to my kids, my voice can only handle half an hour at a time (45 minutes at most), so it takes much longer to make it through a book. And should that book be in a series, we’ll be in the world of that book for, at least in last year’s case, thirteen times as long. A Series of Unfortunate Events and related books have monopolized at least half of our reading time for the past twelve months. Right now, as I mentioned in my last article, we’re reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a very long book in the middle of a highly addictive series of very long books. I love both these series and can’t imagine not sharing them with my kids, and am so glad they now love them, too… but I can’t help getting a little antsy.
Yes, yes, Harry Potter is great, but when will we get on to something new? Since our family bedtime story is the only time I consistently carve out to read, I’ve been using it to satisfy my own reading cravings, at least when those cravings overlap with books my kids would also enjoy. There’s a pile of books at the library I’m waiting to bring home, as soon as we make it through Hogwarts in a few more months.
Here’s a short list of relatively recent books I am dying to read with my kids:
- The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson: When all the reviews of a book can’t help comparing it (and favorably) to The Westing Game, which my kids (and I) love, I’m in. Nothing like a good puzzle mystery. When one of my favorite reviewers additionally compared it to Holes, which my kids (and I) absolutely adore, I am totally completely in—get me this now. And if it gives me the opportunity to discuss racial issues with my lily-white children, that’s a useful bonus.
A couple other books made this list thanks to reviewers invoking The Westing Game:
- Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford: The former has been out long enough that it made my want-to-read list even before my kids were old enough to appreciate it read to them. Now the sequel is out. Still on the list.
- York: the Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby: I actually won a copy of this epic steampunk puzzle mystery from a blog giveaway, but immediately donated it to my library because I was out of budget that month, and the library needs it more than I personally need it. I’m just going to borrow it back… when I actually have time to read it.
- The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon and Dean Hale: I am a huge Shannon Hale fan as it is, but between the Princess in Black, her Ever After High books, and Real Friends, she’s probably my daughter’s favorite author, period. I’m also a huge Marvel fan even though I’m terrible at reading comics. So how can I not want to bring this one, and its recent sequel, home to my kids? I can see my daughter actually adopting a Squirrel Girl persona afterward. On second thought, maybe this one would be dangerous.
- Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi: I greeted the news that Rick Riordan was starting his own imprint to share Percy Jackson-esque books by other authors who could draw from the mythologies of their own cultural backgrounds with the hugest joy. And when the first book released under the imprint turned out to involve Hindu mythology, a mythology I’d been fascinated with for decades ever since—well ever since I learned George Harrison had also been fascinated with it… DON’T JUDGE—anyway, that made me do that little squealy foot-stomping dance one does when one can’t contain one’s excitement. So, yeah, I’m reading it to my kids. Eventually.
- Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King: A.S. King writes surreal YA, some of which I’ve read, and while I loved the surreality, sometimes the YA-ness was a little much for me. But here she’s brought her brand of surreal to middle grade (under her full name, and I make it my duty to support other writers named Amy just on principle), which I would love to see. And it’s an environmental cautionary tale about a garbage-mutant creature. I come from a long line of environmentalists, and I could totally use surreal garbage-creature stories to bring my children into the fold, couldn’t I?
- The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, by Mark Twain and Philip and Erin Stead: In other family history motives, family legend holds that the character of Huck Finn was actually based on one of our ancestors, so we have collective fond feelings for Mark Twain. But his work is generally iffy for sharing with young kids, being that even his children’s stories are now tinged with not-so-acceptable language. That’s why bringing this book home is so exciting. The Steads have by all accounts successfully adapted this unfinished bedtime story of Twain’s into something not only appropriate by today’s standards but also so seamless you can’t quite tell where the Twain ends and the Stead begins. And Twain’s words—or, something closely mimicking Twain’s words—are delicious to read out loud.
- The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman and Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood: Look, obviously I’ll have no trouble getting my kids interested in stories of mages in training. And these two have both been called “delightful” in more than one review. So I want in on these possible post-Harry splurges, too!
But not only will it be awhile before we get to anything new, I still have other OLD favorites that I need to share. I’m torn between my desire to read something new and my need to indoctrinate them in my own old loves so I can reference them and they’ll know what I’m talking about!
Here’s a list of books I’ve already read myself that I’m dying to read to my kids:
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: I’ve always thought my daughter is remarkably like Anne Shirley, but the other day she tried to balance on the top of the shed roof so now it’s inevitable.
- The Inquisitor’s Tale, or, The three magical children and their holy dog by Adam Gidwitz: I actually just read this early last year, but then I didn’t think they were ready for the level of violence. Now that they’ve made it through Voldemort’s rebirth and an entire Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m pretty sure they can handle the few magically gruesome encounters here, and it’s such a mind-expanding adventure, I can’t wait.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: It’s going to be a little while longer before we can tackle The Lord of the Rings, the one with my favorite underappreciated underdog hero in all of literature, whose stubborn decency inspired me to name my son after him, and truth be told I’m really dying for that, for my son to meet the original Samwise* and make a proper role model of him. But until this household’s executive functions grow to handle that epic, we might at least dip our toes in a simpler look at Middle Earth, so they understand a little of my references, and the background of the Dungeons & Dragons worlds their dad introduces them to, and exactly who the very handsome Bilbo Baggins on the poster hanging above Mommy’s desk is. Not that the book version is all that handsome. But still.
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: I’d always considered Jones’ Chrestomanci series good Harry Potter read-alikes, but my kids couldn’t get into Charmed Life when we tried it. Well, it’s this fractured fairy tale that’s my true favorite DWJ, and I always get the urge to read it again this time of year, right between May Day and Midsummer’s Day, and I can see it as a bit of a Wee Free Men read-alike, which my kids also recently enjoyed, so maybe? Maybe they’ll appreciate it more in a year or two, though, anyway.
- The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan: Seeing as I’m already planning to read them the spin-off series, and it’s clearly a great read for Harry Potter fans, but most of all I know they’ll appreciate a universe in which having ADHD is actually a sign that you’re probably a demigod.
- A Wrinkle in Time. Yes, I’m serious. I cannot get them interested in listening to this one. They enjoyed the movie, but we’ve only gotten two chapters into the book before they got distracted by other books they wanted to read more. It might be one of those can’t-handle-Mom’s-enthusiasm-so-we’ll-avoid-it-so-as-not-to-disappoint-her-if-we-don’t-like-it things.
So we need a lot more time in a day, or at least I need a much stronger read-aloud stamina.
PS: Before this article went up, the third grader did indeed pick up a book to start reading on her own: Squirrel Girl. So now when am I going to read it?
*Don’t worry, his name is not legally Samwise, it’s Samuel, but who calls him that?