The Bad Habits of Good Readers by Carol Jago

Does your child take his time picking out a book, and then even more time getting through it? Is she more than happy to read nothing, rather than a book she doesn’t like? This article on Nerdy Book Club made me appreciate the Slow Readers in my family, and made me wonder if my Fast Reading habits were akin to Fast Food.

I read this list of “bad habits of good readers,” and saw myself. I pride myself on my healthy eating habits, then treat books like junk food. I’m never without one, even at most meals. I even read BETWEEN meals. I was that kid with the book in the back of the classroom–whether I understood half the words or not, it didn’t matter as long as I was reading. I read Gone With the Wind three times before I knew how Scarlett got pregnant.

Thoughtful readers take the time to digest. They value quality over quantity. They can remember the plot of a novel days, even weeks after closing its pages–as opposed to the avid reader who stays up all night to finish a book in a mad, crazed, rush… much like eating an entire bag of Doritos. By morning, the experience leaves you wiped out and dyspeptic.

My husband, I have to admit, can be just as bad. He’s sneakier about it, preferring the stealth of an e-reader so I can’t track his progress. But many a morning he’s groggy and out of sorts, in that way that can only mean “What am I going to read next?”

Now even my Slow Readers are adopting our bad habits. They might take their time picking out their next book, but both kids read at breakfast and in the car. They complain at night when it’s time to turn the light off. “Just one more chapter!” is our bedtime rallying cry. So we read. Just a few more minutes, just one more page, and before we know it, we’ve left bedtime far behind.

We’d all be better off if we got more sleep. Slow Reading should probably be the next big movement, next to Slow Food and Plank. But at least when we binge on books, there’s no corn chip crumbs in the bed.

Source: The Bad Habits of Good Readers by Carol Jago

Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!

reading-log

Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

Does Timber Howligan pass the Bechdel test?

I believe in equal opportunity reading. Having both a boy and a girl, I’ve seen some differences in their preferences for certain kinds of stories…they’re gender differences, but is that a bad thing? When my daughter wants to fill her shelves with Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, I don’t make a big deal out of it. I know she equally enjoys Captain Underpants. My son will read anything, including The Princess in Black and Zita the Spacegirl, but he really enjoys Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an all boy story if there ever was one.

It’s all good…as long as they’re reading. Right?

Then, along came the Bechdel Test. According to Wikipedia:

The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) is a short test that is used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, and to assert that women are under-represented in films due to sexism. It was introduced in Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Okay, so it turns out the Bechdel test is not new. It’s been around for thirty years. Named after graphic artist Alison Bechdel, the “test” originally appeared in her graphic comic Dykes to Watch Out For. But I’ve heard of it a lot more lately, probably because the only comic I read when I was twelve-years old was Garfield, when I still thought a “dyke” was a large wall in Holland:

Bechdel

As a woman, and as a writer, I get it. I get why the test is important, why we should pay attention to it. The test sounds so simple, yet only about half of Hollywood’s movies pass it, and half of those because the women talk about marriage or babies (source: Wikipedia quoting writer Charles Stross, unverified). I totally agree that we want to give our daughters better models of what it means to be woman.

Then I went and wrote a story where the first female character of note doesn’t show up until half way through the book. Granted, when she does, she’s awesome. She’s a bit haughty, but that has more to do with being a cat than any inherent character flaw. But I’m sad to say that Timber Howligan absolutely flunks the Bechedel test. There are more than two female characters, and they’re all named. But they don’t talk to each other, unless you count a brief interaction between a dog owner and her slobbery companion. (This conversation, for what it’s worth, is not about a man.)

Of course there’s an opposite imbalance in children’s literature: More middle-grade books tend to be aimed at girls, more girls read than boys, especially as they enter their teenage years. There are whole websites devoted just to getting guys reading. Did this influence my decision to write a humorous middle grade action adventure that boys might like? No, I just like writing about secret agent cats. At the same time, the story wouldn’t have felt right without a few girls to balance things.

So it comes back to this: Is a good story a good story, no matter what? I say a cat who fights to save the day, surrounded by his friends—male or female—is totally someone to rally behind. Let’s not pick him apart because he’s got too many guys in his life, or because he’s not an equal opportunity hero. Especially, let’s not assume that girls only like reading “girl” stories or boys like reading “boy” stories.

I like the Bechdel test and the fact that it raises awareness to gender inequality in movies and books. But it’s not the only way, or even the most important way, to judge a book.

(The other way would be by its cover. Don’t you like this cover?)

 Front-Cover-(smaller)

Summer reading fun, device-free

We work hard around here to protect our reading time. It isn’t easy–those long summer days are great for swimming, bouncing on the trampoline, and once school ends, there’s the biggest temptation of all:

Device time.

When my son turned eight, he earned himself the right to an iPad mini by being a voracious reader of ebooks. He mastered the on-line dictionary. He installed OverDrive and figured out how to browse for appropriate library books. “This,” I thought, “is a parenting success.”

Two years later, our daughter turned eight and waited eagerly for her birthday, knowing what was coming. We didn’t disappoint…although we too knew what was coming. Sure enough, the next day she woke up early and snuck her iPad into her room to binge watch Shaun the Sheep on Amazon Prime. “This is the reason people say kids shouldn’t own iPads,” I thought.

Now we regulate device time a little more carefully. Inspired by this post from Hands Free Mama on saving summer from the screens, and this linked post from Narrow Back Slacker on how she limited her kids’ screen time by offering unlimited screen time, I immediately posted a list of “No Glowing Screens Until.” Knowing that if I included an unlimited screen time option, my daughter would see that and ONLY that, I retained the right to limit usage to the American Pediatric Society’s recommended two hours a day (which seems reasonable to me). I also told them there would be optional “device free days,” to be instituted at Mama’s Whim. We tried this list for a weekend, with success: Once the kids got started doing something creative, they tended to stick with it. Narrow Back Slacker’s momentum theory worked.

My daughter's "edited" (but unapproved) version of my checklist

My daughter’s “edited” (but unapproved) version of my checklist

I like devices. But I also love the time I spend doing other things…and like so many parents, I want my kids to grow up having real memories, especially of summer vacation. Remembering the smell of fresh cut grass, of sticky sap on their fingers and sweet tangy lemonade on their tongues, of hot sun and cold water and tired, tired bodies after a day outside. When they finally sit down at the end of that day, I want them to reach for a book.

Yesterday, we had a device-free day. We all needed it–the day before, my son had been home sick, and his entertainment of choice is “Smarter Every Day” or “King of Random” videos on YouTube. They’re great, though my parental opinion is they are best in small doses. That is largely based on their not-inconsiderable-potential to turn my son into an evil genius mad scientist. He watched them for four hours straight. That same day I spent converting “Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat” to ebook–I’d seen plenty of glowing screens. And my daughter, though she spent the day at camp running around in the woods and swimming in the river, still managed to level up on Hay Day.

So yesterday while my daughter was at camp, I took my son–still home recovering from his illness–to the library. We stocked up on books. He came home, plopped on the couch, and finished “Timber Howligan,” laughing out loud in all the right places. I even stuck to the “no screens” rule while my husband and I dragged my son to the lawyer’s office to refinance our mortgage. He played solitaire–with a real deck of cards–in the corner for an hour. And last night, we got out a card game we’ve had since Christmas but never played: “Zombie Run.” It’s ridiculously easy to learn and fun to play. All in all, a great day. I didn’t miss my iPad…much.

This morning, my daughter woke up and immediately asked if she could check on Hay Day. But we will take our successes where we can get them. And have another device-free day SOON.

With all these books, do we need one more? (Hint: We do)

Have you read every book in the library? Every one in Barnes & Nobles? Do you have any idea how many used book stores there are in the world? Even if the book industry collapsed today, we’d all still have plenty to read for the rest of our lives.

But our kids especially want the next new thing. The books we read as children, as much as we loved them, seem outdated by the time we pass them on to the next generation. Some books will always be classics (Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down), some books are instant classics (Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief), but for the vast majority of middle-grade authors, trying to get noticed by kids who spend hours a day streaming the world directly to their eyeballs is an uphill battle. Your intended audience has no buying power. Your memories of the books you loved as a child have nothing to do with what kids are reading these days—nothing. In children’s literature more than ever, the publishing industry’s editors and agents serve as valuable experts—they know what kids are reading, they know what kids want. Better yet, they know how to market it, package it, and make parents want to buy it for their kids.

Why on earth would anyone, like me, try to self-publish a middle grade novel?

I’m realistic. Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat isn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. First of all, Timber Howligan is a cat, not a wizard, so I doubt he could even get into Hogwarts. While I would love for the world to enjoy this book, my goals in writing it were simple: my eight-year old son needed something to read. He was an avid reader who had devoured the first three Harry Potter books, but wasn’t ready for the complex, dark themes in the rest of the series. He could read anything in middle-grade fiction, but had no interest in books about middle school drama. Kissing and crushes? Yuck. Bullies as villains? Not interested. He wanted something fun and funny, full of adventure.

He read my first draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed out loud at all the right places. He’s already planned out my next ELEVEN sequels. I’ve drafted the next book, and he’s eager for me to finish.

You cannot, when querying an agent, use your own child as a reference. But when it comes to books, I trust my son—he doesn’t read anything he doesn’t like, especially if I recommend it, much less if I write it.

Having my son believe in me was reason enough to put this book out there—and reason to do it right. I’ve got the final copy edits, and will be working on incorporating those over the next month. I’ve commissioned an extra interior image because I was so happy with the first ten. I’m working with the artist on the final cover design, and I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it’s an adventure, and I’m enjoying it.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Timber Howligan likes to help animals in need, and so do I. I’ll be using the book to raise money for the American Humane Association (not, as I linked erroneously in a previous post, to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) or a similar agency. I’m going to do some more research and due diligence over the next month and report back—is the Humane Association the best charity to help animals? They have an A- from CharityWatch, but like any large organization, there’s overhead—not all funds go to their programs. Donating to a local shelter is always most effective, but that lacks wide appeal, assuming this book sells beyond my local region. Stay tuned!

What my kids are reading now

Trying to find something for your child to read? Yep, me too.

For great ideas for middle-grade readers, check out kateywrites, Nerdy Book Club, or Scholastic.com. Don’t forget about your local children’s librarian—if you know even ONE book your child liked, ask for something like it. The Internet is great, but a real librarian is all that with a frontal cortex, a master’s degree, and often a smile. Plus, they have a memory that goes back longer than six months.

We’ve got a nine-year old who reads to the exclusion of taking care of vital needs (sleeping, eating), and a seven-year old who mostly refuses to read independently, for fear we will stop reading to her. Finding fuel to keep both these kids’ fires burning is challenging. The avid reader is picky. The stubborn reader is too, and we’re tired of A-to-Z mysteries (she’s not). The first one was great, but by Q, the formula is…predictable.

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Oh, what could the quicksand question be?

Here’s some successes we’ve had recently:

The Seven-Year Old Emerging Reader

—Trying to duplicate the success of Captain Underpants (the first book she read on her own at home), I’ve tried many tricks, but mostly I resort to arguing.

“Just read one paragraph!”
“No. It’s too hard.”
“You can do it!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Just try it!”
“No.”
“Please?”
“No.”

Yeah, I know how ridiculous that sounds. My other trick is getting to the good part, and then saying, “Sorry, I’ve gotta go feed the cat.” (Really, I have hungry cats.) Only I come back ten minutes later to find her staring at the same page.

So what finally worked?

I was trying to get her to read things that were too hard. It turns out she really likes those A-to-Z Mysteries for a reason—they’re exactly at her reading level. Right now, she needs that confidence boost. So one night I read her a chapter, and then went to bed. In the morning, she got up and finished the book on her own.

I should have listened to her instead of argued with her.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

Same old Nancy, Bess, and George, but with laptops and cellphones.

—The second success was reading her a real novel: We bought her the first Nancy Drew Diaries by Carolyn Keene. She usually balks at longer chapter books, so this was momentous. Some of the words were too complex for her to read on her own (some seven-year olds wouldn’t have a problem with this, but she’s not quite there yet). She loved it, as long as we were reading it TO her. Because I had learned my lesson (see above), I happily read her the whole book, and she happily listened.

Maybe it’s something about those cliffhanger chapters…My son saw us reading to his little sister, and wanted in on the action.

The Nine-Year Old Emerging Reader

Few would consider a nine-year old who can read way above grade level an “emerging reader”, but this article reminded me that reading aloud, even to older children, is still important.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don't mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

A great book to read aloud to a younger reader, if you don’t mind a few swear words and a lot of dead bodies.

So I bought my son Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Sure, I could have set him up with a dictionary. His friend tackled the same book this way, and it’s how I probably would have done it at the same age. There’s nothing wrong with letting kids read complex things, as long as they are given the right tools.

Occasionally, one of those tools may be you reading aloud.

Reading this book to my son gave me a chance to do something I hadn’t done in years—reconnect with him at bedtime. He’d been reading by himself because he could and his sister couldn’t. By reading to him again, I was able to check in: “Did you get what they meant by that?” This book was set in a foreign country almost eighty years ago—there were many things he THOUGHT he got (the words were the same) that meant something else entirely.

Of course, even a nine-year old is too cool to let his mom read to him every night. So he’s back to his usual routine, reading the Guinness Book of World Records, the I Survived series, the Infinity Ring series, Origami Yoda, and anything else that gives him an excuse to stay up long after we tell him to turn off his light.

"One more chapter. I promise....." (Next thing I know, he's on the next BOOK.)

“One more chapter. I promise…..” (Next thing I know, he’s on the next BOOK.)

“Just let me finish the chapter.”
“Okay.”
Turns the page.
“Wait, you just started a NEW chapter!”
“Hee hee.”

Though my son hasn’t returned to the mystery genre, reading aloud let us explore something new together: a complex story with mature themes and many new words. My daughter continues to gobble up the whodunits.

It’s no wonder why. They’re usually quick, the tension is high, and there’s always an answer at the end. Kids love a good mystery!  To find more:

Children’s Mystery Series Authors – a list of traditional series

Top Ten Middle-Grade Sleuths – more literary heroes

And though not on either of these lists, Agatha Christie is the Queen of Mysteries for a reason!

The Literary Festival–How to do it right

As a parent, school fundraisers aren’t usually something to look forward to. But every year, I can’t wait for our school’s Literary Festival. We held it last weekend at The Regulator bookstore, and it was a huge success.

It’s not just because I’m a writer, although that helps. It’s not just because this is the one time each year I allow myself to spend however much I want on books—it’s for a good cause! And it supports a local business, too! Even my kids love the Literary Festival.

What does it take to make a successful Literary Festival?

School-wide excitement and participation. Boy, does our school do it right.

Weeks before, there was a school-wide vote to select this year’s “theme”. Each class voted, and the winner was “Enter the Kingdom of Reading, Where Books Rule!”

Then there was a drawing contest–everyone could enter, as many times as they liked. The winners were selected to be on posters advertising the festival. Winners for each grade were also announced. All of the drawings were on display at the bookstore during the festival!

My daughter's drawing of a "Knight book."

My daughter’s drawing of a “Knight book.”

The week before, book-related trivia questions were given to each class (grade-appropriate), for example…
1.    In the novel “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio, fifth-grader August Pullman has a hard time adjusting to his new school. What is unusual about August?
a.    He has severe facial deformities
b.    He is hard of hearing
c.    He has only been home-schooled before
d.    All of the above

(Answer: D.)

The Festival itself

The Festival took place Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Thursday and Friday classes walked to the bookstore. There they browsed books, made “wish lists” (for parents to buy for home or the classroom), and listened to “Mystery Readers.”

"Wool E. Bull", the Durham Bulls Mascot, acting out "Ferdinand the Bull"

“Wool E. Bull”, the Durham Bulls Mascot, acting out “Ferdinand the Bull”

Friday was “Dress as your favorite literary character” day. Last year my kids went as two characters from my book—a mom’s biggest dream. Unfortunately, they wanted to be something else for Halloween. But how could I refuse?

"Timber Howligan" and "Lester McMuffin"

“Timber Howligan” and “Lester McMuffin”

Friday night was “Bedtime Stories” and “Scary Stories”—the main event. Parents bring kids in PJs. Snacks are served. Kids listen to stories while parents shop! My new favorite read-aloud was “The Dark” by Lemony Snicket (it’s wonderful). We also went home with “The Book with No Pictures” by B.J. Novak. (If your child, like mine, is resisting transitioning from picture books to chapter books, this is the book for you.)

My seven-year old daughter reads this out loud three times a day. In her mind, this is the book of the year, hands down.

What’s better than reading a book?

This year was special. My son’s class WROTE a book. They’ve been studying the Great Depression, so during the last week of the first quarter, they planned, outlined, and wrote “I Survived the Dust Bowl” (in the spirit of the very popular “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshis). Each kid wrote one chapter. I helped edit and publish it over their three-week break.  At the Literary Festival, they had a “Meet the Author’s” table, where they signed and sold copies.

Cover

My daughter saw this and immediately started writing “I Survived the Dog Stampede.”
It turns out, there’s nothing like writing a book to encourage the love of reading.
We’ve got armfuls of new books to read. The school raised a few thousand dollars for their library. Success all around! This may well be more intensive than having Scholastic come in and hold a book fair (for more on that, check out kateywrites’ great post), and it does require the  cooperation of a local book store (We ❤ The Regulator). But a Literary Festival is another way to raise funds for your school, have fun, and cultivate a love of reading at the same time.