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!


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:


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?)


The Latest Fight Against the Machines

Me versus device time...

Me versus device time… (All image rights to the current holder)

No, this has nothing to do with Terminator Genisys. But yes, it is a rehash of a familiar plot—not sending robots back in time, but my perpetual battle against my children and their “device time.”

Why do I have to be the bad guy? Yeah, I’ve got something in common with Arnold, and I’m proud of it. Did you know he wanted to play the hero in the original movie, and James Cameron talked him out of it? (Saving his career, and the world, from a worse fate: OJ Simpson as the Terminator. I kid you not.)

It’s summer. PLAY OUTSIDE. I don’t care if there are ticks. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees out. I don’t care if you get poison ivy, sun burned, or eaten alive by mosquitoes—they won’t kill you. Well, okay, I forgot about West Nile Virus. Here’s some bug spray.

No, I’m not having “device time.” I’m WORKING. Okay, technically it’s not “work.” No one pays me for this. But it’s NOT EASY. Now go outside.

It’s raining?

Play in your room. Build a fort. Draw a cat. Throw pillows at each other. Something. Anything. Just let me have five minutes to myself, or this household is going to fall apart because I haven’t paid bills since school ended. Plus, I haven’t had my coffee yet.

I am such a good mother at the beginning of the summer. I have a calendar. I have a chart. I have a checklist of “Things You Have to do Before You Can Look at a Screen.” There’s a stack of library books in a ridiculously hopeful plastic bucket, next to their beds.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

At the beginning of the summer, this was probably alphabetized.

Six weeks later, I’m standing at the kitchen sink screaming “When I say go upstairs I mean it! Turn off the iPads now!” (For the record: I was looking at my children as I threw this tantrum, not randomly hurling my vitriol at a helpless wall. Not that I haven’t done that too.)

I hate using the big voice, but it worked. Two little heads popped up. Four little eyes, wide open, stared at me. Then drifted back to their screens. . .

Oh no. I’m going to win this fight, whatever it takes. This fight is for the future of humanity.

“I am having a conversation with you. Right now. Who is more important—me, or that iPad?”

“Um . . . you?” my son says, though his eyes are still darting downward, and his fingers are twitching.

“You,” my daughter parrots. She does a better job of faking paying attention—she snaps the device off. But her eyes go upstairs. She doesn’t want to be here either.


They weren’t expecting that. They look at each other. They look at the iPads. Finally they look at me.

“Because you’re a parent?” my son guesses.

“No. Because I’m a person. And. . .”

They should know the answer. They totally don’t. They shrug, unconcerned.

“Real people are more important than . . .” I prompt.

“Devices!” They remember the mantra. I’m wondering if it’s accomplished what I hoped it would.

Relieved that they got the answer right, they run upstairs—finally!  I should feel great. I won this battle.

Instead, I start preparing for the next one. Should I hide the iPads? Accidentally run them through the dishwasher? At the very least, I’ll just implement a device-free weekend. My work isn’t over—those little vulnerable minds have a lot to learn, and the machines are relentless. They are everywhere. And compared to playing outside when it’s 100 degrees out, they are way too much fun.

I’ll be back.

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.

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 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!”

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.”
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.


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.

Blame the screen?

We are a family of readers, so when my seven-year old daughter announced, “I just don’t like to read, Mama,” I didn’t know what to do. She’s in a year-round school, so for weeks I’d been struggling to get her interested in her obligatory “thirty minutes” of reading before bedtime. She was fine if I read to her, but had no interest in doing any part of it herself. Any attempt to get her to read so much as a sentence ended in glares and huffs and a battle of wills that I inevitably lost.

Had I failed as a mother?

I looked back on my life, seeking something to blame. Too much coffee during pregnancy? Letting her eat too many cookies? Maybe she was living in the shadow of her older brother, who started decoding words when he was three and read independently by kindergarten. It was entirely possible she was normal—I suppose I realized not everyone had to LOVE reading the way I did—but come on, she didn’t even want to read MY BOOK. The one I wrote for my children. Or any chapter book, for that matter—she kept picking out picture books she’d read since preschool, and which I was getting tired of reading over and over again.

Something was at fault. I had to find it.

I scrutinized the issue with my husband. “She does watch an awful lot of TV,” he pointed out.

Ah ha. I had my culprit.

The next day, we instituted a major change in policy: Cutting screen time in half. The kids’ hour a day on school days was down to 30 minutes. My son offered that, to be consistent, we should really decrease it on weekends too. My daughter did not take it so well.

“But that’s only ONE EPISODE of My Little Pony!” she wailed.

My explanation of childhood before Netflix and cartoons on demand was met with the expected response: “But that only leaves me less than 10 minutes to check my Sims!”

I was strong. I stuck to the new plan. And something amazing happened.

That night, instead of watching TV, she offered to help me make dinner. Nope, it wasn’t reading. But while I was instructing her in the art of combining sauce, noodles, and cheese, I said, “You can never have too much cheese on lasagna. Hey, that would be a good name for a book.”

She said, “I’m going to write it. Right now.”

Half an hour later, she had the draft of an illustrated children’s book. An hour after that, the meal was done, and so was her manuscript. She read it to us at dinner.

There are many paths to literacy in childhood. Not every child is going to love learning to read or be an avid reader. What I was doing with my daughter wasn’t working. But when I created the space for her, she filled it with writing. Writing is available to children long before reading is—all they need is the alphabet and a crayon.

One of the things I did was cut back on screen time. It would be easy to say that was the most important intervention. But the other thing I did was stop pushing my daughter. In too few years, she won’t let me read to her at night. Why am I in such a hurry to see her grow up? She’ll do it all too fast, before I’m ready.

My daughter is finding her own path to reading. I can’t lead her there. But if I pay attention, I can follow.