When Adrienne Kress was a child, she didn’t like to read. She was what we would call a reluctant reader today.
It greatly irked her parents, both of whom were high school English teachers. (Cool fact: her dad was my creative writing teacher!)
They definitely had cause for concern. According to research, reading motivation is correlated to student growth and performance. Lack of motivation for reading can have dire consequences on academic success. For instance, one study showed that elementary-school aged boys perform significantly lower than girls on standardized tests. It’s no coincidence, then, that boys tend to be more reluctant readers than girls.
Luckily for Kress’s parents, Kress grew up, became an actress, and yes, even a writer. She is now hard at work on her third book in a series called The Explorers, an exciting Harry Potter-esque series of adventure books for middle grade readers. (Another cool fact: it’s been optioned by Disney.)
It’s meant for readers exactly like her: reluctant readers.
“I’m not the kind of person whose idea of a perfect day is to curl up with a stack of books,” says Kress, taking time out of writing her third The Explorers book to chat. “It’s a romantic notion, but I’d rather watch a show.”
It was worse as a child. “I didn’t feel an attraction to books when I was a kid,” she says. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me and there was a lot of pressure to read.”
Her words struck a chord. I know a thing or two about reluctant readers. I have two of them. No matter how much I read to my boys, ages seven and eight, or how many trips to the library we make, they are not interested in reading for fun.
I know they can read, because they do well in school, but they don’t enjoy reading on their own. I’ve tried sticker charts, incentives, rewards . . . nothing works.
It’s frustrating for me because I love to read and write. I want my kids to enjoy it too and I can’t figure out how to turn my reluctant readers into readers.
Luckily for me, Kress has spent the last 10 years—since her first book was published—writing children’s and young adult novels, speaking with kids at author readings, and well, reading.
In addition to writing The Explorers, which is deliberately fast-paced, funny and filled with dialogue (perfect for reluctant readers), she’s provided me with some advice to help parents approach their reluctant readers with more success. Kids are afraid of books that look intimidating and that they fear are boring.
“I used to judge books by their covers,” says Kress. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A cover should look appealing to a child and spark their interest. It’s the first thing they’ll notice.
Once you look at a cover, Kress suggests flipping through the pages. Is there a lot of white space? Is there dialogue? How long are the chapters? (She used to count the pages.) Are there illustrations and larger fonts? “If there’s lots of dialogue and short chapters, the book will appear less intimidating,” Kress says. “If a book looks less scary, they’ll be more likely to open it.”
Kids like funny books. Read a couple of pages and see if it makes you laugh. “Those that are action-packed and funny will be more appealing,” says Kress. She points out that some boys tend to be more drawn to non-fiction books, so if you’re shopping for a boy, you might want to consider looking for a non-fiction book that is funny and not intimidating.
Even graphic novels are a good way to get kids into reading. “If you’re unsure of whether a graphic novel or comic book is a good choice, go for it anyway,” advises Kress. “Reading a comic enables kids to practice sitting still for a while. They are physically practicing reading.” If grammar and spelling in these books are deliberately incorrect (which is why I try to avoid graphic novels), Kress suggests discussing these “mistakes” with your child. “Talk to them about why the author might have spelled ‘cat’ with a ‘k.’ You’ll be surprised when they understand why words and grammar are wrong.” It’s also a great way to practice spelling.
Get recommendations from someone whose opinion you trust, whether that’s a teacher, librarian or older cousin. “This is a great way to find an author you like and who won’t let you down.”
Though it can be frustrating for parents of reluctant readers, it’s important to keep encouraging and trying. “There’s a book out there for everyone,” says Kress. “I feel like there's never a moment where we learn ‘I have grown to love reading despite being a reluctant reader.’ That I am an example that there is hope for such readers.”
The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, by Adrienne Kress, is available in hardcover. The second book in the series, The Reckless Rescue, is scheduled for release in April 2018. For more information, visit her at adriennekress.com.