Secret to Getting Children to Read

By Dan Gutman

My main character A.J.—the narrator of My Weird School, my series for six to 10-year-olds—says at the beginning of every book, “My name is A.J. and I hate school.”

Every so often I receive an email from a parent who objects to me using “the H word” in books for young kids. But I’ll tell you why I do it. There are a lot of kids out there who don’t like to read (especially boys) and they don’t like school either.

When a kid like that opens up a My Weird School book and the first sentence says, “My name is A.J. and I hate school,” that kid is going to think to themselves, “Hey, that boy A.J. is just like me! This book is written for me. What else does A.J. have to say?” And BAM! I’ve hooked that kid with the first sentence. They just might read the next sentence, and the next paragraph, and the next chapter. They just might finish the book and become a reader after all.

I get weekly emails from parents who tell me their son or daughter hated to read, but then discovered My Weird School, and now they are hiding under the covers at night—way past bedtime—with a flashlight reading. It makes me so happy to know that I can just write some silly words on a page and make such a positive impact on a child’s life, turning a reluctant reader into an enthusiastic one.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like to read either. I thought reading was really boring and hard to do. My mother was
worried about me, and she used to buy me audio books hoping that would get me interested in reading. It didn’t work. Comic books about superheroes never did it for me either.

But one day I was sick at home from school. My mother came back from the supermarket with a Mad Magazine for me. I devoured it from cover to cover. The silly humor and snarky attitude reached out and grabbed me. I asked my mom for a subscription to Mad Magazine and read it for years.

As I got older I graduated to reading National Lampoon and authors like Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Woody
Allen, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, who used a lot of humor in their writing. And I grew up to become a humor writer myself.

Every My Weird School book has a silly rhyming title like, Miss Daisy Is Crazy! Mr.Klutz Is Nuts! and Ms. Hannah Is Bananas! With 54 books, I’m running out of words that mean “crazy!” This series probably wouldn’t have happened if my mother hadn’t brought home that copy of Mad Magazine when I was sick in bed as a 10-year-old.

You can do the same thing. Maybe your son or daughter hates to read, but loves sports or music or art—or who
knows what? Every child is interested in something. Whatever it is, there are books and magazines about that topic.

Casually leave one in the bathroom or slip it under their pillow. That just might be the spark that will ignite a lifelong love of reading. And once your child realizes that reading isn’t such a chore, they may be open to more challenging material.

Sometimes as parents, we have to use a little gentle reverse psychology on our children. But here’s the most important part: Don’t let your son or daughter see this article! If kids find out that we’re tricking them into reading, it will totally blow our cover. They won’t read anything.

Just get some books about their favorite thing in the world, and act like you have no idea where the books came from. Leave one in the garbage can. Pretend that the dog brought it home. Use your imagination. I bet your kid will pick up that book and start leafing through the pages.

The next thing you know, they’ll turn off the TV, shut down the computer and start reading that book. They will read in the bathroom, on the way to school and during dinner time. You’ll have to wrestle it away from them, while trying not to smile.

 

Dan Gutman is the author of My Weird School, The Genius Files, The Baseball Card Adventure series and other books, published by Harper Collins. 

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