Saturday, January 14, 2017

Guest Post by Mary Patterson Thornburg

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Today's guest post is from Mary Patterson Thornburg. She's had stories in Cicada, Zahir, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange, Weird, and Wonderful, among other places. Two of her short stories earned honorable mention in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (2006, 2008), and "Niam's Tale," in the July/August 2010 Cicada, won the SCBWI 2011 Magazine Merit Honor Certificate. Her first fantasy/romance/adventure novel, A Glimmer of Guile, was published by Uncial Press in 2014. Her second book for Uncial, The Kura, came out in April, 2015. An Uncial Novel Byte, "Ghosts," was released October 14, 2016, and a second Novel Byte, "Battle Royal," is scheduled for release in January, 2017. Both "Ghosts" and "Battle Royal" are set in the Kura universe.


I have in my mind's eye a memory of one of my stepdaughters at about age eight, kneeling on the basement stairway, lounging on her elbows a few steps up, chin resting in one hand, nose in a book. Her love for reading had overtaken her there; if you wanted to get down to the laundry room, you'd have to go around her.

Now that same little girl is (gasp!) the grandmother of an almost-three-year-old, and she's hoping the same thing a lot of readers hope for their children and grandchildren, that a love of reading can be passed down to a new generation. We know that people who read for pleasure are on average more successful academically, and therefore economically. But for us book-lovers, the hope is more personal. We want to share our great joy in reading with the people we love.

Sadly, that hope isn't as easily fulfilled as it once was. Distractions seem to multiply by the day. When my stepdaughter was little, "screen time" meant TV time only, and her parents put limits on that. Back when I started to read, we didn't even have a television set. (Yes, I hasten to say, TV had been invented, but the signal from the nearest station didn't reach us.) And it's not only that there are more distractions, or even that our lightning-speed media have shortened attention spans. I don't know if any studies prove this, but talking with students for many years makes me pretty sure that, for a lot of young people, the process of turning words on a page into scenes, pictures, voices, a kind of reality, has never been learned. What for me is the magic of stepping into another world through the pages of a book is, for them, simply not possible. They see words, they know what the words mean, but turning those meanings into vicarious experience, the way a film becomes vicarious experience, is something that just doesn't happen. No one taught us to do that; we learned it somehow on our own. But these kids haven't learned it. This makes reading a chore, sometimes necessary but never pleasurable. They can read, if they must, but it's no fun. It's not something they'd choose to do if they didn't have to.

How can we overcome this? How can we share our love of books with our children?

An internet search for phrases like "motivating kids to read" brings up millions of suggestions. Some of them seem fairly obvious, others not so much. I've chosen three to list here:

1. Start early to read to your child. This sounds obvious, but it deserves discussion. Early means early. Even very young infants are soothed by the sound of your voice, by the rhythm of phrases and sentences. We know that babies are busy from a few months old, learning to recognize words and speech patterns long before they start to speak. They're fascinated by funny and unusual sounds, like rhyme. Take advantage of that fascination! Babies are natural lovers of words, even before they know what the words mean. And reading out loud to them establishes a tradition, something they look forward to in the relationship between you and them.

Children of any age like to be read to. On a very basic level, it means your attention is focused on them, and children – as parents know – are little attention hogs. The reading session is an intimate moment, strengthening the relationship bond. This means that the story you're reading is the medium of the bond. It's part of the intimacy, which is one reason children love to hear the same story over and over. Remember this, when you're bored to tears with Good Night, Moon for the forty-seventh time: repetition takes your child back to a good, comfortable place they'll associate with a book, with reading. But more than that, being read to releases a child to enjoy the story or poem without having to struggle with the printed words. This, believe it or not, is true even for older children and teens. When you read to them, they can get into the story itself, without printed words standing in the way. This is exactly what you're striving for.

2. Take the child's interests into account. If your child is interested in dinosaurs or pirates, give them stories about dinosaurs or pirates. Make the stories age-appropriate – which means, make them a little older than what you think is age-appropriate. As you've probably noticed, kids' minds are stretching, almost always a bit faster than their parents guess. Don't hold them back; pull them forward, a little at a time.

Under this heading comes something more than any obvious interests the child has expressed. You know this little person. You know what will appeal to her delight in magic, or to his sense of humor. When I was about ten, my mother gave me a book she'd loved when she was about ten – an adult book, but one a ten-year-old could get into. How did she know I'd love it? Because she recognized things in me that she knew about herself. Share your own reading enthusiasms with your kids, and pay attention to what sets off a spark.

3. No Fighting, No Biting! This is the title of one of my favorite kids' books (by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak), and it's also very good advice. Remember, your goal is a child who loves reading. You won't get there by bribes or punishments or rules. Reading should be a reward, not a chore – and certainly not a bone to fight over! If they don't like a book, don't force it on them. If they don't feel like reading, let it go until they do. This can be hard, and there's no law against offering enticements – talking to them about a story they really liked and tempting them to reread it, or putting an interesting book in their line of sight when they're tired or bored or feeling not quite up to snuff. But do not set an hour each day for reading and hold them to it. That makes you a dictator, and kids don't like being dictated to any more than you do.

Also, other than observing obvious no-no's (for instance, not giving erotic romance to a nine-year-old), don't worry too much about content or form. What they read doesn't matter so much as the fact they enjoy it. When I was a young teen, I read my way avidly through a whole series of really silly, old-fashioned love stories. I know my mother sighed, thinking they were stupid and "a bad influence" on me. But I loved them, I was evolving as a reader, and if it hadn't been for those books I might never have moved on to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Comic books and graphic novels are fine, no matter what your own parents' taboos may have been; in fact, the presence of pictures probably helps bring a visual reality to the written word. Give your child access to as many different books and kinds of books as possible. Fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, adventure, mystery, poetry, biographies, great literature and the literary equivalent of junk food – they're all grist for your mill, widening the reader's potential horizons and increasing the chances that a child will hit upon something he or she doesn't want to live without.

As a reader, whether you're a parent or sibling, grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle, you're doing your best to pass along your joy in reading. If you have a suggestion I haven't mentioned here, leave a comment to share with the rest of us!
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Accepting guest posts. Email me if you are interested in submitting.


  1. Kathy ~ Thanks so much for posting this! As people who share a love of reading, we know what a lovely and important gift we have to give. :)


  2. What wonderful advice, Mary. Let's hope a lot of parents take it so we have a new generation of young people who love to read.

    1. Thank you, Jana! I was really amazed at the amount of advice available on-line, some aimed at teachers, some at parents. I'm guessing there are a lot of parents, grandparents, etc., who do love to read and are really baffled when their youngsters don't. For most of us, it's a connection we made so early we don't remember making it. It seems like something we were born with, so we don't know how to pass it on.