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.
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”)