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Vol. LXII, No. 2
 
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
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Disney, Comics, and Neanderthal Moms: They’re All OK, According to the Experts

Ellen Gilbert

What’s the most frustrating thing in the world? According to teacher/librarian/children’s author Lisa Mullarkey, it’s having a child who is a “reluctant reader.” Speaking Monday evening at the Princeton Public Library to a small, thoughtful group of parents, Ms. Mullarkey insisted that all children “have a secret desire to read; they want to know what the buzz is about but they don’t think it’s worth the effort.” For most of them, she suggested, it’s just a matter of making reading seem less like a chore.

Categories of Readers

Ms. Mullarkey identified four kinds of reluctant readers: those who are intelligent and interested in reading, but have difficulty doing it (“they stumble a lot”); those who are also intelligent, but completely disinterested (they would rather watch television); those who have learning disabilities that schools must address, and, perhaps “the most frustrating group of all,” those who are “ fabulous readers” but have no connection with the written word: “they couldn’t care less about books.”

Why do some children dislike reading so intensely? “Teachers kill books,” Ms. Mullarkey observed. “They ask question after question after question,” making the reading of a book seem “like a test.” They don’t discuss books with children, who consequently don’t know the names of favorite authors and have no sense of what they themselves would like to read. Also damaging, she said, are teachers’ arbitrary requirements: biography reports, for example, are supposed to be based on 96-page books when briefer, more engaging biographies are available.

“What do you want to read?” may be, perhaps, the most important question the parent of an unenthusiastic reader can ask his or her child, according to Ms. Mullarkey. She admits her own mistakes: after she made a Disney book verboten in her house (“I didn’t want a Disney chick”), her daughter proceeded to want to read nothing else, and Ms. Mullarkey was won over to the idea of the anything-that-gets-them-to-read-is-good camp. If that means one “girly-girl” book after another, she says, fine; books about gross body functions, joke books, cookbooks, crafts books — all fine, although Ms. Mullarkey and several parents concurred that it’s important to limit children’s access to books with themes that may be beyond their years.

Noting that getting children who don’t want to read interested in reading is a full time job, Ms. Mullarkey suggested setting them up, using everyday life events — getting a new pet, creating a Halloween costume, going on vacation to a new place — as an excuse to go to the library or bookstore for more information. Although she herself was a librarian (as well as a first-grade teacher), Ms. Mullarkey expressed a preference for book stores over libraries. Unlike libraries that have accumulations of dated titles, bookstores have strategic displays of attractive new books; and besides, there’s that cup of hot chocolate waiting in the cafe.

Ms. Mullarkey emphatically gave the lie to the notion that books shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Kids most certainly do look at the covers of what they themselves and their peers are reading, and this can be a problem for children at below-grade reading levels. Who wants to walk around holding a babyish-looking book? The solution, she suggested, are “hilow” titles: “high” interest books with “low reading levels.” Books in The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, for example, have larger margins and larger typefaces, but don’t look like they’re for little kids. Series books have particular appeal to hesitant readers, who enjoy finding the same characters and place names in volume after volume.

Do’s and Don’ts

Ms. Mullarkey’s prescription for parents who want to encourage their children to read more included allowing them to read books below their grade level (“fluffy books are okay”), and, perhaps not surprisingly, limiting time spent on television, video games, ipods, etc. Keep books all over the house, and be sure, she advised, to read (or listen to) the same books and magazines your kids are reading; that way you can be one step ahead of them in pointing out stories you know they would like. Purists who feel compelled to finish a book once they’ve started it may be interested to know that Ms. Mullarkey says it’s all right (for you and/or your child) not to finish a book — as long as it’s not for a school assignment. Reading during the summer, she added, is crucial; experts have documented slippage in reading skills among students who don’t do any summer reading.

New “Ambassador”

Relucant readers were also on the mind of popular children’s book author Jon Scieszka (prounced SHEH-ska), who was recently named the country’s first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress (LC). Like LC’s poet laureate, Mr. Scieszka will travel around the country, speaking to groups of children, parents, and teachers, to, according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, “evangelize the need for reading.”

Mr. Scieszka is the author of many books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! (the wolf claims innocence), as well as the Time Warp Series Trio (Your Mother Was a Neanderthal, is among the titles). His appointment as ambassador for children’s literature is for two years. The Cheerios division of General Mills is providing $50,000 to fund the program; Mr. Scieszka will receive a $25,000-a-year stipend.

Comics Rate

In addition to subversive fairy tales and “fluffy books,” comics — long the bane of educators and parents — have recently found favor among a growing number of reading experts. A recent New York Times story (“Superman Finds New Fans Among Reading Instructors,” December 26, 2007) and a subsequent editorial (“Comic Books in the Classroom,” January 3, 2008) described the Columbia University-based Comic Book Project, which encourages children to create their own comic strips as an “alternative pathway to literacy.” Apparently, the program works: since its inception six years ago in one Queens elementary school, it has expanded to 860 schools across the country.

Ms. Mullarkey’s website is www.lisamullarkey.com; Jon Scieszka runs a literacy-based website aimed for boys at www.guysread.com/. Information about New York City’s Comic Book Project may be found at comicbook project.org/index.html.

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