How to raise a reader in the age of quarantine

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2017 Traverse City Children's Book Festival. Credit: Jim Barnes (CC0 1.0).

With California schools closed until the next school year, kids are getting antsy, and parents are doing their best to keep them occupied. So now’s a good time to encourage them to pick up a new book. 

Maria Russo, the children’s book editor at The New York Times Book Review and coauthor of the book How to Raise a Reader, tells KCRW that getting kids off screens is especially challenging right now. But, when you’re a parent trying to raise a reader, your role is to demystify books and create a positive attitude about reading in your home.

“You don’t want to create this idea that books are something so separate from all the other forms of entertainment out there,” Russo says. “You want to make books feel like another thing they can choose that will be fun for them.”

Russo says a lot of children’s authors are creating unique online content for children who can’t go out and get new books — in order to keep them involved and connected to authors and characters they love.

Maria’s Recommendations:

At Home with Dav Pilkey
Mac’s Book Club
Draw Every Day with JJK

“Yes, it’s online,” Russo says. “You’re not reading a book. But it’s one of the things that you can do as a parent to make sure your kids stay connected to their reading life, to the books they love, the authors they love, and the characters they love.”

For teenagers or middle schoolers - embrace technology

Russo says traditionally, she doesn’t encourage parents to give their children e-readers or tablets because research shows kids and teenagers absorb and retain less material from a screen than they would reading on paper.

However — desperate times call for desperate measures — so she’s suspending her “print first” recommendation.

She also says research shows rereading benefits the developing brain, despite conventional wisdom.

“Parents tend to think that means the kid is stuck or not moving forward and progressing,” Russo says. “It’s also emotionally good. It’s good for you. We call these books comfort books. The books that people — and especially children — go back to that make them feel comforted, and make them feel like they’re revisiting old friends.”

Maria’s Recommendations — Ages 0-7

Mac Barnett
Potato Pants, by Laurie Keller
Jon Agee

Maria’s Recommendations — Ages 8-12

Russo says middle grade readers overwhelmingly prefer graphic novels, which she suggests as a distraction from the pressure of online school and remote distance learning. 

New Kid, Jerry Kraft
“It’s a book that has won the Newbery Medal, so it’s going to become a classic,” Russo says. “It’s about a boy who is a great artist and is the only child of color at his middle school. He’s going to a new school, a private school, so how he adjusts to that new environment. And it has great artwork. He creates his own artwork alongside the regular narrative that’s being told.”

When Stars are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
“She co-wrote it with a guy named Omar Mohamed, who was a refugee,” Russo says. “So it’s about his story of being a refugee and then getting a chance to immigrate here to the U.S. It’s just a beautiful, adventurous book that really makes you understand the great human spirit that refugees have when they’re resettling and making a new life.”

Maria’s Recommendations — Teenagers

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang
“[It’s] about being an Asian guy who loves basketball, always felt a little left out of the sporting culture, becomes a high school teacher and then has a chance to coach the basketball team. And so it’s a year in the life of this high school basketball team,” Russo says. “It’s like everything he does, just fascinating and fun and great.”

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
“[It’s] about the plane crash that happened shortly after 9/11 in New York City that had a lot of Dominican New Yorkers on it,” Russo says. “It’s another just incredibly emotional but beautifully written book of verse.”

Finally, Russo says for a fun read, that lights up a readers’ eyes and sparks a magical moment of joy, she recommends Suzanne CollinsThe Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the popular bestselling Hunger Games saga.

-Written by Brian Hardzinski, produced by Sarah Sweeney