Raising a Family of Book Nerds

blythe Confession: We scheduled our family vacation around the release of Harry Potter. We were originally going to leave later and come back later, placing us in the wilds of Montana on July 15. “We can’t do that,” my husband said. “None of the theaters in Bozeman are going to be good enough. We’ll have to be back here.” So we were back in Denver in plenty of time for the midnight showing, sitting in reserved seats in our favorite theater, It was, after all, a special occasion. All of us are fans of the books and movies. All my children have read all the books. They are all – to one degree or another – readers.

I’m not entirely sure that this has anything to do with me, other than genetics and the huge towering stacks of books lying available all around my house (I’m sure there are people who have more books than we do, but I’ve never met them). When the kids were little (they’re 19, 17, 14, and 11 now) I used to read parenting magazines all the time. They were full of helpful tips about raising a reader, the most obvious being to read to them every night (we did). My favorite, though, was the suggestion that you, the parent, should try to model reading so that your kids would see that adults read for pleasure. The idea that this required effort was always hilarious to me (what I really needed to hear: “Lady, put Outlander down and feed your kids something besides pizza.”) Whether it’s because I read Angelina Ballerina, Brown Bear, Go Dog, Go!, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble something like thirty billion times or not, all the kids read now.

My oldest and youngest read the most. Scarlett chews through books like a very hungry caterpillar, and reads way faster than I do. If you don’t trip over her clothes when you enter her room, you’ll trip over the books; they’re everywhere. Finn likes The Hardy Boys and various fantasy series that I can’t really bother to keep straight. Abigail prefers literature (she has a snobbish streak, but so did I at 17). Duncan just started the Game of Thrones series.

It may help that they have parents who buy them whatever book they want, take them to midnight showings and release parties, and let them stay up reading on school nights. But then I’m not convinced that’s what makes a reader either. I can’t imagine my parents taking me to a midnight anything. Most of my books came from the library until I started earning my own money and buying them myself. And I still manged to read like there was no tomorrow as soon as I was old enough to hold a book. Granted, I had plenty of children’s books, my parents read to me, and I saw my dad read every night (he was probably modeling this behavior on purpose, on advice from whatever parenting magazine they had in the seventies).

Assuming basic literacy and access to books (which certainly in some areas of the world is still a big assumption), I think you either are a reader or you’re not. A friend at work was admiring my nookcolor, and said she was thinking of asking her husband for one. She reported back that he said it would be like giving a gym membership to someone who never worked out. “I guess I don’t read much,” she said. “But I’d like to be known as a reader.”  I hope I didn’t sound too condescending when I said that readers need books almost like they need air. It isn’t something we try to do; it’s who we are.

What say you? Are readers born or made?

- Blythe Barnhill

29 Responses to “Raising a Family of Book Nerds”

  1. Leigh says:

    I think a little of both. Some of us get hooked at a very early age, and like you said need books like we need air. I suspect that if we were on an island with no books we would write our own stories. Others get pulled into different direction with their own type of hobbies, like sports, television, or handwork. But if their circumstances change so can their relaxation.

    My grandmother always had a piece of crochet in her hands. Not that she wasn’t a reader, but being raised in a rural town, living on a farm she didn’t have a lot of free time. When she did, then she did handwork. After she lost her sight, books on tape provided her entertainment. A cousin was sent to prison, and became more solitary, reading in his room rather than watching television in the community room.

    My mother and I were the big readers in our family. I think I only saw my father pick up a book once and read it. My brothers read but also were active in sports, etc. After growing older, they both read a lot more today then they did when they were younger.

    I do run across people who actually volunteer (after they ask about my kindle) that they haven’t read a book in ten, fifteen years or since high school. I can’t imagine not reading at least one book a week.

  2. DabneyAAR says:

    I’m a big believer in the made part. I grew up in a family of readers where TV was frowned upon. To a certain extent, I’ve raised my kids the same way. My mom’s a librarian as are two of my sisters in law. We give books as birthday presents and all read constantly to the next generation. My husband grew up as a non-reader and believes that the way he was raised has a lot to do with his siblings’ lack of interest in books. He firmly feels the way we’ve raised our kids has made a big difference in their love of reading.

    I would also say that I have read along side my kids as they have grown and that has kept them on the reading path. As my kids have hit the teen years–the oldest is now 20–I read a lot of what they read. It gives us something to talk about and to connect over.

  3. Jane AAR says:

    I learned to read by looking over my mom’s shoulder while she read my sister and me the Little House on the Prairie books, or the Boxcar Children books.

    Reading is a really important part of my family. Our house has thousands of books– pretty much every single room has at least one bookshelf. My dad was raised as a reader, too, but my mom’s heritage is more easily traced: her father taught English at New England prep schools; my grandmother worked in a library at one of those schools. Now, of the four children, three (my mom included) are librarians.

  4. Wendy says:

    I think there’s only so much you can do to “make” a reader, with my own children as evidence. My children are 1.5 years apart in age, but years apart in reading choices. I read to them equally as from infanthood, they’ve both seen their parents reading more often than watching TV, and they’ve heard “no” a million times in regards to toys but never in regards to a book.
    Yet, my oldest is never without a book and treats them as treasured possessions, while my younger feels put upon to read a comic. It has to be genetics.

  5. MarySkl says:

    I also think it is both. I am a reading addict. My kids call my reading spot my nest because I am surrounded by books I have just read, am reading or am about to read. I started reading about 3 1/2 years of age. My mother had been reading us a book and stopped to begin making dinner. I was upset because it was a good part, so I decided I would just read it myself. I distinctly remember looking at the words and them being jibberish. I was determined to read from that moment on. My mother taught me and I never looked back. We moved several times when I was a child and I always thought it interesting that the moving boxes contained more books than any other household objects. My mother was a reading addict too. I think readers can be both born or made. I was born to read. I think my husband was too, but he had difficulties with phonics when he was a child because of a subtle hearing loss and other than comic books, he rarely read for pleasure as a child. However, he married a reader and I think I encouraged his inner reader to come out.

    Blythe – your house could have been my house. There were/are books everywhere. I read to my children constantly during the day and my husband and I took turns reading books to them at night. My kids know that I hate to shop…except when it comes to books. We would spend HOURS in bookstores when they were children sitting on the floor and building our piles that we would eventually take home. While I lived in the library when I was a child, my children did not get that experience. I learned as a child that I hated to give books back. I was a re-reader even then. So we haunted bookstores, new and used.

    My kids are grown now and only one of them is an addict like me. The other two are readers, but I am not sure they would have gone that route without the reading atmosphere we provided. In any other family, I think my son would be one of those people who reads a book every year or so while my youngest daughter spends most of her summer job money downloading books on her kindle. My oldest daughter reads a lot, but she also writes and draws or paints. That spreads her obsessions over several categories, so she reads less than her sister and I do.

    I am not being facetious when I say that I need books like I need food. I get very antsy if I don’t have something to read. I have been known to pick up “Field and Stream” in the mechanics waiting room because it was the ONLY thing there to read. I think this aspect of my personality is definitely genetic. I think I would have been a reader regardless of my own upbringing. I also think that my son would be a non- reader if he had not grown up surrounded by literature. We all bear the title of “nerd” proudly and my books will be taken from me when they pry my cold dead fingers from the bindings.

  6. Susan says:

    My mother was a big reader, and so am I. My brother reads, but he doesn’t have the book-a-day habit that I do.

    Mom always encouraged my reading and even introduced me to science fiction (her favorite) during my early teen years.

    She never censored what I read, either. I remember picking up The Graduate at age 12. She looked at me and said she wouldn’t stop me from reading it, but that I wouldn’t understand it. For the most part she was right.

    Only downside was that mom was a bit of a book-snob and sneered at romance novels. So I didn’t really get into them until the 90s after she had passed away. I read a few used paperbacks, and didn’t really get into them in a bit way until I bought my first Kindle. Now no longer having to explain the book covers, I read all that I want, when I want, as much as I want. :)

  7. DJ says:

    Couldn’t say for sure, but I suspect genetics are the root of most things. Having had twins, raised them the same way, and seen them display different personality traits from day one.

    I was an avid reader, but my parents didn’t read much to me as a child and, in fact, discouraged me from “reading too much” as they called it.

    My husband and I read every day for hours to our kids, and they love to read.

  8. SandyH says:

    I guess in my case a reader is born. No one in my family were big readers except me. I remember my Mother taking me to the library so I could load up and then having to recite all the plots so she would believe that I had read them all so quickly. To her credit she supported me when I was 12 and wanted to read Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and the librarian thought I was too young. Today one of my sons is an avid reader, the other does read just not as much. We always had books for then. Recently I was discussing winnowing the pile of books around the house but my son and his wife pleaded with me to keep the until they purchased a house – they want a library!

  9. Barb in Maryland says:

    I come from a long line of readers. My name is Barb and I am a book-aholic, in that I must have a book handy to read. I married a reader. So when we had a child, we read to that child from the get-go. In one of those flukes of fate, our child is intellectually disabled (I think that’s this year’s buzz phrase for mentally retarded) and unable to read. However, we continued to read to him and have surrounded him with books. And he loves them. He knows all the stories and has favorites that he drags out every day for us to read to him. Woe betide us if we go on vacation and don’t take at least a dozen of his books along! So we have managed to raise a ‘reader’ after all. And yes, he will take down his books and carefully page through them even if he is not being read to.

    • maggie b. says:

      Barb in Maryland: I come from a long line of readers. My name is Barb and I am a book-aholic, in that I must have a book handy to read. I married a reader. So when we had a child, we read to that child from the get-go. In one of those flukes of fate, our child is intellectually disabled (I think that’s this year’s buzz phrase for mentally retarded) and unable to read. However, we continued to read to him and have surrounded him with books. And he loves them. He knows all the stories and has favorites that he drags out every day for us to read to him. Woe betide us if we go on vacation and don’t take at least a dozen of his books along! So we have managed to raise a ‘reader’ after all. And yes, he will take down his books and carefully page through them even if he is not being read to.

      Thank you so much for sharing this. I got teary eyed just hearing about your special little “reader”.

  10. Xina says:

    I read to both my children equally. We had piles of children’s books of ou own and we were frequent visitors to the library, most times taking out 8 to10 books a time , and reading them all. My son reads all the time as an adult ( also loves his Kindle) and too when he was younger, even though he played baseball and hockey from 4 yrs. Old through college. He married a girl who is a reader too, which thrills me to no end. Now my daughter is a reader, but not glued to her book like my son and I are. She takes weeks, and sometimes months to finish a book. She does better with “have to read” with her college reading and now reading for her job. She doesn’t reach for a book for entertainment. It just isn’t her thing right now. I’m hoping as she ages she will see the light.

  11. Marianne McA says:

    Mixture, I think. None of my daughters are readers proper, though they all can and occasionally do read books. And frankly, you couldn’t find a home where that was a more modelled activity. And they were read to, read with, bought books, and not allowed tv’s in their bedroom, because reading was the only permissable activity after bedtime.
    The non-dyslexic older two are perfectly literate – but not readers.

    Of course, I say that as a reader’s reader. My middle daughter usually has a (non-fiction mostly) book or two she’s reading, but it takes her months to work through them. (Unless something dreadful happens simultaneously to her phone and her laptop.)

    I do think that’s an interesting thing about that generation – that even though they don’t read, they’re reading and writing all the time. Different sort of literacy, perhaps.

  12. Carrie says:

    My parents read to me and always had books around the house. My dad taught me early on to always “finish the day with a book” no matter what time it was. My dad used to say that even if I only read two paragraphs, it was a habit worth developing. My husband is also an avid reader. We’ve most often spent “date nights” at bookstores. We homeschooled our five children using a literature based history curriculum. I taught each of them to read and then read aloud hours a day to them for years and years. All my children enjoy reading, but they seem to go through phases, sometimes reading leisurely and at times getting caught up in a series and reading for hours a day. During my main child-rearing years, I read 30-40 books a year, not counting the juvenile and YA fiction I read aloud for the kids. In the past few years (my youngest is 14) I’ve begun reading much more, over 250 books last year. I definitely think nurture has a big part in the raising of readers, but there is something to say for nature, as well. One of my sons reads quite a bit, but it’s almost all manga and graphic novels. One daughter reads more slowly and is more likely to get bogged down in longer books, while another son might go without reading for several weeks, but then reads incredibly fast once he picks up a book. Another daughter read a lot for pleasure through high school, then switched to audiobooks almost exclusively for pleasure “reading” once she got to college. Now, graduated and married, she still spend much of her reading time on audiobooks because she can listen while playing World of Warcraft or “RPing” (role playing) with her husband. ;-)

  13. Lynn M says:

    I agree totally with Wendy above – I have two kids and the oldest is a book lover like me while my youngest has to be bribed to read books for school. I read to both when they were babies and toddlers, will buy them any book they ask for and have at least one book shelf in every room of the house, yet I can’t seem to turn my boy into a reader. It’s killing me because I see love of reading as a real gift.

    However, my husband is not much of a book reader. He reads magazines, work-related journals, newspapers and billions of on-line articles. But for him to read one novel a year is an accomplishment. He just can’t sit still that long. I guess my son is taking after his father rather than his mother.

    • farmwifetwo says:

      Lynn M: However, my husband is not much of a book reader. He reads magazines, work-related journals, newspapers and billions of on-line articles. But for him to read one novel a year is an accomplishment. He just can’t sit still that long. I guess my son is taking after his father rather than his mother.

      Lynn, my husband wasn’t a reader when he had his desk job in the city. After reading all day, reading at night didn’t appeal. Now, on the farm I keep him supplied with a steady stream of books. He doesn’t buy his own but is happy with whatever I give him – and I know his preferences. He doesn’t read as much as I do, but he does read a little for pleasure every day.

  14. Heather says:

    I also think both. I got to kindergarten able to read at about 2nd grade level, and had read (not necessarily understood) David Copperfield and Jane Eyre before 6th grade. I MUST have 3-8 books going at the same time, and read an average of 5-7 books a week. If I can do more, I will. However, I was not born to readers. My dad reads for pleasure, but isn’t avid about it. My mother ‘can’t waste that much time,’ and didn’t see the use of us kids doing so, either. When I was a kid, I would hide books under the bedclothes, in the dirty clothes pile, in the barn, in my school bag, in my dresser. I also stashed flashlights. I was very grateful that I had my own library card (walking distance to the library), so that I didn’t have to get permission for all the books I wanted (20 a week, which was the limit).

    I married a non-reader, but he became one. We were in a network marketing company that shall remain nameless, and while I hate the memories, they did have one thing: a book of the month, always in the self-help/positive thinking category. Naturally, my husband had to read it, since his upline would quiz him on them. It started a habit that he has not broken in 20 years. Now he reads every night, and when he has time, even reads for pleasure!

    Our kids saw us reading, and they wanted to as well. My wonderful husband would read aloud, using silly voices and great drama, and they still (at 20 and 17) love his renditions of “Captain Underpants.”

    They both read, but one is a reader, and the other is not so much. I hope that the older one becomes a reader. I don’t think anything is better than that!

  15. Blythe says:

    Thanks for sharing your reader stories – I’e enjoyed them!

    I forgot to add that the picture is of Scarlett and me last summer at a family reunion. My other daughter thought it was funny that we mirrored each other exactly, so she sneaked in a shot.

  16. Diane says:

    Well neither of my parents were readers, in fact you never saw books in our house until I was old enough to start reading on my own. I however read like mad and even read to my unborn kids and continued at night just before bedtime until they were old enough to read on their own; both my kids read constantly. But I will never know where my love of reading came from.

  17. farmwifetwo says:

    I have 2 boys on either end of the autism spectrum and both read above their grade level – 7 (mild), 5 (severe). You’re probably going “how does a severely ASD child read??” easy, teach him to read out loud and then be careful b/c since his spelling keeps up he’s discovered the joys of google. Yes, he has sensory issues and flaps. Yes, he’s barely verbal. Yes, he has a terrible time answering wh questions BUT, he loves books.

    The eldest reads under duress which I think has a lot to do with the poor auditory and visual recall. Both are coming along nicely but he still only reads b/c he has to for school.

    The youngest has discovered Dh’s books here beside the computer. How much he reads, flips the pages, but he’s now looking at them too so I let him. He prefers Geronimo Stilton for his reading.

    I asked the youngest’s teacher why kids couldn’t read. If I could teach 2 autistic children to read why can’t the “normal” one’s do it. Her answer “you read all the time, they have access to books they enjoy and you decided it was a skill they had to master”.

    I don’t know if the elder will ever become a reader. For now, he prefers not to but he knows he can read without difficulty and that’s important. The younger isn’t as big a reader as his Mother at the same age. But he enjoys books even if it’s looking at the pictures and you can hear him talking about them to himself or actually reading the words. Doesn’t matter in the end. There will always be books – fiction, non-fiction, pictures, without and maps – for them to read, when they decide that is what they wish to do.

  18. Karen White says:

    I love this post! I think making kids readers must be a combination of both nature and nurture (when will we ever tease those apart). But I like to think that modeling reading and restricting “screen time” to the weekends has helped to give my girls the reading habit. I will never forget the summer that both girls were able to read on their own and all three of us were able to indulge in long afternoons of reading and lounging together. Heaven!
    I do think that reading can be developed as a habit. I started a Read-a-thon at our elementary school several years ago, which has given us lots of anecdotal evidence that you can “kick start” a lasting reading habit with incentives. (In ours, kids set individual goals for the amount of time they’ll spend reading each day outside of school for 3 weeks. If they reach their goal, they get a tee shirt.)

  19. Laura says:

    My parents are non-readers, my brother is a non-reader, but I’m a bookaholic.
    Why? I don’t know. I learned to read in elementary school, not before like a lot of you. I fell in love (I think about 2nd grade) with the book One Hundred and One Dalmatians and never looked back.
    I remember discovering science fiction when I was about 12, and that has always been my love; I hated romance in the 70s and 80s (couldn’t stand those jerks) and only started reading it about 6 or 7 years ago.
    I’ve always read to my kids, and shared some of the best science fiction stories with them. They are readers too, and so maybe I influenced them, but who influenced me?

  20. Ellie says:

    I think it’s both. Even tho I have a Nook (which I use for travel) there are books all over my room and stuffing my closet. My daughter reads a lot when she has time and her daughter gobbles them up. My son had to be coaxed to read growing up but as an attorney and now a judge he has to read for professional reasons. But I have noticed that he now does read for pleasure. His older daughter is also an avid reader but the younger definitely isn’t. She is required by school to read 20 minutes a day and that’s what she does. I have always read to all of them and the girls still like it when I do, even at 10 and 12. Interestingly, the most avid reading grandchild is hearing impaired and started reading around the age of 4. I volunteer at our local library and work in children’s books. It gives me a good sense of what their age groups are reading and I feed the readers every time I see them.

  21. Liz says:

    I have identical twin girls. One is a fluent reader at 7, the other is still on Hop on Pop and other “younger” books. I don’t worry too much, as everyone says by 3rd grade they usually catch up. But I think in this case, one started reading to the other at night and so she just had more practice!

  22. Sonia says:

    Good post! This question posed is something I think about a lot. I’ve been a big reader since I could read. My mother was also, but she didn’t read to me out loud too much- hers was the modeling method, I suppose. My father wasn’t a big reader of books although he read the newspaper each day.

    I have two children myself who are adults now. My son is a big reader and my daughter is an occasional reader. I read aloud to my son, who was almost insatiable in want to hear books read to him. I tried to read to my daughter but she wasn’t really interested- one or two picture books were always enough for her. Once we got to chapter books she lost interest pretty quickly. But if you asked her I think she would say she was a reader. She takes after her father who also reads books sporadically.

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