How I Turned My Kid Into a Reader

My friend and author, Andrea Montalbano texted me this photo of her son a few weeks ago from school pick-up, which, naturally, warmed my heart. A few days earlier, she told me she’d discovered the secret to getting him excited about reading — like voracious reading — and I asked her to share it with you all. Take it away, Andy!

Until recently, my 9 year-old son, William was what I would call an eh reader. Sure, he knew how to read, and he absolutely loved it when I read to him, but his enthusiasm was lukewarm, and getting him to sit with a book on his own was a struggle.

When it came to his nightly assigned reading from school, the struggle became a battle.

His reading level was fine, but his interest level was so low that he ended up with books that were really too basic – like My Weird School - which made him drag out the 30-minute requirement with fifteen trips to the bathroom or fiddling with his timer. He was bored. Then it got worse. I allowed him to start picking books that interested him. Naturally, we immediately ended up in the world of Minecraft. I rationalized his crappy choices by saying to myself As long as he is excited about reading something does it really matter what it is?

Yes, it does.

We reached an all-time low when he tackled some version of Diary of a Wimpy Zombie Named Steve from Minecraft. I might have that title wrong. I’ve tried to block it out.

It was time for action.

Several years ago at a used book sale, I found a pile of white, hard-back books with hokey pictures on their covers. They were part of a series called Great Illustrated Classics that had been published in the 70s and 80s. The titles were impressive – Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer – but the shelf appeal was zero.I bought five or six for my daughter and they had sat in her room untouched, ever since. Until now.

I flipped through a few pages. There were lots of illustrations. I remembered the stories from my high school English classes. They were classics!

It was worth a shot.

Which book to start with? I chose 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne and invited William to sit with me on the couch so I could read to him. This is always a home run — I’ve read to him nearly every night of his life, until ironically, he learned to do it himself. (That’s a whole ‘nother post!)

We started with the “About the Author” section, and he was interested, but skeptical. But then we were were captured. We went overboard. We met Captain Nemo! (No, not named after the darn Disney fish!) After about three chapters, he stopped me and said, “Mom, just give me the book.”

He was hooked. He plowed through 20,000 Leagues in one day. Next, he dove into Robinson Crusoe. Then we called him Ishmael. We moved on shore to White Fang, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Frankenstein and.honestly? I’ve lost count. He started trading with his friends. He brought them to school. He made his teacher happy. He made his mother very happy.

Some of the beauty of the books (for me, at least) is that while the language has been abridged, none of the plots have been sugar-coated. When White Fang goes after another dog for revenge, he kills the dog. The dog dies. Robinson Crusoe runs into quite a few cannibals. In Frankenstein, the monster Edward kills his wife on his wedding night, not to mention his brother, his father, his sisters.

So there’s that.

But, that’s how the stories were written. And, one of the many reasons they are considered classics.

We took a little breather after Frankenstein, but I have to admit, I appreciated a little step away from the participation-trophy mentality. The good guys don’t always win, and that’s an important lesson.

An added benefit? Connecting with older generations. When William told his aunts, uncles or great uncles what he was reading, they would say, “Oh I remember falling in love with those stories when I was a kid!” Plus, cannibalism can certainly get a conversation going.

To me, the classics are classics for a reason. The stories are timeless and exciting, and yes, sometimes harsh. I love the fact that my son adores books written hundreds of years ago — and I know there aren’t too many kids who walk around yelling “Call me Ishmael!” But there should be.

William is still making his way through the series — I think there are about 99 of them — but he’s on to other books as well. The 30-minute requirement is a breeze, and often completed three times on any given day.

Last week, he was out of breath when he got to the car after school. “Sorry I’m late Mom, I was in the library getting a book.”

No problem, William. No problem at all.

Thanks Andrea! Thanks William!

Andrea Montalbano is the author Breakaway and the three-part tween series Soccer Sisters, to be released this year by Jabberwocky Press. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Graphic Novel Classics for Kids
Guys Read, Jon Scieszka’s website devoted to getting boys excited about books
George Saunders’  favorite kids’ books, and why he, too, appreciates a little darkness in childrens’ literature (see “Dear Mili”)

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Hope the library has them, @Sally. (They’re old.) If they don’t, you can find them Used online for pennies.


Children’s librarian here! The illustrated classics might not be in the library but there’s a new edition called Classic Starts which has a lot of great titles (Oliver Twist, Odyssey, Junger book, A little princess, Robin Hood, Dracula) and the covers are very appealing and a little less dated. I’ve ordered several for my library! They are also for sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Indiebound.


You know, I think our culture tries a little too hard to protect kids from the reality of life, that the good guys don’t always win, that people do bad things, that pets die…and a lot of books for kids are rather boring and sanitized as a result. Sometimes you have to be aware of racism and gender stereotypes in those classics, but it’s a good opportunity for discussion as well.


I couldn’t agree more @Susan. It reminds me of this line from George Saunders, which I linked to above:
“I think one thing I look for in a kids’ book is an avoidance of a too-pervasive all-is-well outlook, mainly because it tends to be anti-literary. I mean, a happy ending is all well and good, but many of the books I recommend go at it in a more complicated way, and don’t flinch at ambiguity, assuming, correctly, that kids can not only tolerate complexity and ambiguity, but crave them, because in their hearts they know the world is big and scary, and crave sound counsel.”


I thought I was doomed to Minecraft books … but these stories move quickly and have really helped my William turn a corner. Good luck!


I started with Classics Illustrated Junior, handed down from my mom. They were paperbacks – magazines basically – and although they are now falling apart, I still have them and my son has read them all. I LOVED Classics Illustrated when I was a kid, and honestly – since my boys are pretty good readers, I hadn’t thought about them in a while. But now that I’m reminded I am definitely going to see if our local library has them.

Libby Monaghan

That is AWESOME! I’m not a parent, yet, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like to raise a lover of books in an age like this. I love that it was important to incorporate classics. So many of those, I’VE never read! And I was an English major in college. :D


I love how you found what worked for him. And how great is was a set of classics. I find the challenge for me and my kids is the fact there are so many options now. And much of it what I think of as more junk mindless reading. My oldest never had an issue. She just was always on it voracious from the start. She has opinions but she read a lot. Not always the most challenging books but over time and now that she is in 7th grade she has a great lit teacher that pushes each kid based on their ability.

My youngest though was never voracious. She is where she needs to be as far as reading level and sometimes ahead. But just never reading as an activity always only when made to or forced. Her teacher gave us a great tip and it has worked well for her. He suggested getting whatever book she is reading on and listening as she follows along. I know some people might not like this idea and I get that. But it has really sparked an interest in reading. She still has her literature books for school they read for lit groups that she reads as assignments. But then for her 30 minutes a night and free reading she has used this method for most of this school year. It has been a great idea and resource for her. I think the key is finding what works for each kid and it is always different. I am thankful for the amazing teachers at our school!


My son was a hard sell when he made the transition from the My Weird School level to middle grade chapter books. What I found that worked to get him hooked was to pick up the first book in a series on audio and play it in the car when we were going too and fro daily. When the book was over, he wanted to know what happened next so he was willing to read book #2! The biggest winner for him was Suzanne Collins’ middle grade series, The Underland Chronicles that starts with Gregor the Overlander.


I had the Heidi version growing up-great idea! Our somewhat reluctant reader fell in love with the Horrible Histories series, which I believe is out of print in the US, but still easily available for very cheap online. Some are are a little more gory than I might prefer, but they certainly kept my son coming back for more. I will keep an eye out for these classics!


If you like Horrible Histories, try the “You Wouldn’t Want” series. The one about the history of the toliet is always checked out of my library.


we started picking up those same exact books from the library after my son’s reading teacher suggested “the classics”! My 11 year old son loves them! I’ve also found a couple like White Fang from the $1 spot in Target. Good finds, and great post!

VA Lawyer

This is heartening to hear. I am a voracious reader; even working 60-80 hours a week, I still go through 5-8 books/month (mostly romance novels, but every now and then I read what we call in my family “smart people books”). To be fair, I also read the back of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles and pretty much anything that is printed in front of me. My husband hates reading (despite also being a lawyer). We do not yet have children, but we talk frequently about how to instill a love of reading in them (something my husband wishes he had). I loved the Great Illustrated classics as a young child, and will definitely keep a look out for them for our future children. I used to read them to my younger sisters as well. I fondly remember plowing through all of the Hardy Boys novels after I finished all of the Nancy Drew series, a foray into young adult historical fiction, eventually murder mysteries in middle school and early high school, and finally landing in the world of romance novels (which is my current genre of choice). My mother wanted to get rid of all of our hard-back childhood classics, but my sisters and I convinced her to keep them for her future grandchildren. Some of them I remember pulling out of the bookshelves at my grandmother’s house on family trips as a seven-year old – they were my mother’s childhood favorites as well.


I love this!!! I have a 17month old boy and am definitely saving this for later! I love how you read to your children and I think that most children don’t like reading, because they don’t see their parents do it. Parents should sit down and read with them. LOL to Call me Ishmael :) Sending love to both of you ladies from SLovenia*


I read all of those as a kid!! They are an amazing series, I had completely forgotten about them. Going to keep it them in mind when my son is old enough to read them.


My son is a reluctant reader and when I notice he stops reading a book, I read a chapter aloud together with him and it primes the pump and gets him going again. He’s an older reader and I hadn’t realized that reading aloud would still work until a teacher suggested it to me.


I remember arguing over these books with my siblings when we were kids. We had a pretty good collection, but it always caused tension when someone started “White Fang” before the original reader had finished it!

Catherine Beaudet

My Niece is the same with her voracious book appetite, but it was never a struggle to get her to read. It’s getting her to stop for meals or sleep or school that’s a problem. She’s now in grade 7 but reads at a College level. I’m beyond thrilled she is more into books than games or TV.


Oh my, you are speaking my language. I have a 7 year old who can read but doesn’t like to. I totally agree with you on some of the books that are out there today… not true story telling. I am going to go back to the classics and hope that he gets excited. I appreciate this post so much. Thank you!!!


Wow. What a total eye-opener. Thank you so much for this post, this is just what I needed for my 7-year-old 1st grader who is starting to read “older kids’ books”! (Thank you, Andrea and William! :-)


The Great Illustrated classic is what started a lifelong love of Sherlock Holmes for me. (Speckled Band, featuring a killer snake, was of course a great gateway drug.) I know we also had Treasure Island, which I loved. The illustrations are so beautiful. The versions I had had fully illustrated covers, so they had much better shelf appeal.


My three children were all great readers. We read to them and they read on their own. Until high school. As the amount of homework increased, they read less and less for pleasure. In college, they read virtually nothing not required for classes. It makes me sad that at 30, 26 and 20, my children read things only online and I don’t mean ebooks.

Elle 2

PS: I became a serious reader after a concerned aunt and uncle found me perusing “Motor Trend,” acutely bored, because that’s what there was. They gave me a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics — far more suitable for their 7-year-old niece. When I got older and realized the books were abridged I had the pleasure of reading the full-length versions all over again. Nothing can expand and illuminate a child’s life like reading. Lucky you, lucky son!


I remember being told as a child about my uncle getting to love reading by reading basically the graphic novel version of classics like those mentioned above. He was born in 1948.

Also for parents who are avid readers: your child might not love or even like your favourite childhood books. That is a hard pill to swallow but as long as your kids have their favourites, does it really matter?


Love this! It totally worked with our 7 yr old. Something else I’ve done is leave a flashlight and a book under his pillow so he could “secretly” stay up and read..our guy is now reading books like “peter and the starcatchers” and “a christmas carol” Every kid is different but it’s fun watching them get it :)


My nephew is 4 years old. I’ve started reading Paddington to him and he loves it. Apparently, he’s been telling everyone that he and I are reading grown-up, adult books. We talk about how naughty Paddington is and we discuss how we imagine each scene looks. And I enjoy as much as he does…


I legitimately read those exact books as a kid, I’m 32 now and still remember them fondly

Kirsten Larson

I could have written this post! We found an illustrated version of MOBY DICK at a garage sale, and my 9-year-old declared it one of his favorites. We started on this series in earnest a few months ago, also with 20,000 LEAGUES because I had just finished reading ALL THE LIGHT. Right now he’s loving SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON.


I grew up on these books- White Fang was the first one I picked up and I’ve been a reading addict ever since. If only there was an equivalent for mathematics…


I loved reading those books! We had a few, and they were so fun to read. The Time Machine was a favorite, also spooky one. I remember reading a lot of Nancy Drew/Hardy boys back then too, and a lot of books by Gary Paulsen and Robin McKinley. I’m so glad he’s found some good books to read, I’ll keep them in mind for when my kids are at that stage!


The first book my less than excited third grade reader finished was one of these – The Wizard of Oz. She was wowed to learn (and share with everyone) that Dorothy’s slippers were actually silver and not red! They really are hidden treasures. I remember reading Great Expectations in a day 30 years ago.

Another great series is the “Who Was…” for kids. Great primers of historical biographies.


I read a few of those when I was younger. Some of them do a better job than others of making the story as interesting as the original work. I will say that it did encourage me to go out and find the source novels and read them.


Thank you for this! I ordered 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for my 7-year-old right after reading your post and he’s hooked! I would love to hear recommendations of other books your son enjoys.


He also loved Moby Dick, White Fang, and Robinson Crusoe. He was captivated by Frankenstein, but as I mentioned, it was a little more violent than I recalled. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn (“this kid is a troublemaker!”), Swiss Family Robinson. The only one that he didn’t love was Last of the Mohicans, but that was a slightly tougher read, I think. Some of the books are harder than others, which is why I generally read the first chapter with him. So glad to read that your 7-year-old enjoyed! Right now … he’s looking for the Headless Horseman. We’re waiting on Dracula. He also has started some graphic novels (thank you Phoebe) and adores them, too. Best of luck!


As a voracious childhood reader, I read the Illustrated Classics even into junior high and early high school. My reading level wasn’t low, I was using them as previews to choose which “grown-up-actual-classics” I wanted to spend my time on. Some of the unabridged versions were challenging reads, but had far more detail and intricacy that I enjoyed if I liked the basic plot. That series was my bridge to reading Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, and many other classics.


Wow, seeing that Monte Cristo cover throws me straight back to first grade. That and Great Expectations were some of the first Illustrated Classics I encountered. I remember my mom reading them to me and while I didn’t understand the full scope of human nature enraptured in the stories, the draw of criminals and revenge and mysterious old ladies drew me in.