Nurturing a young reader’s literary tastes

The Essential Calvin and HobbesParents with avid readers often find themselves with a dilemma: after my child has read all the age-appropriate books, where do we go from here? Progression to the next reading level adds to the scramble at the bookstore or library. What author should I try next? How can I get my child interested in a book I suggest? What if I don’t like the ones they pick out? Just because they can read it, are they ready for it?

I have suddenly found myself in this situation. My first grader has leaped from looking through picture books and reading by compulsion to devouring Calvin and Hobbes and Breakout Squad (Star Wars: The Clone Wars Secret Missions, #1)reading Star Wars. While I am personally a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, we have a house full of books. Somehow I want to steer his choices in directions that are better for his maturity level and that will nurture his literary taste. I know that this stage of reading is delicate. I want to entice him with stories that will engage his interest but not stretch him so much that he is discouraged. As his mother and lifelong librarian, I want to be an ongoing resource for him. How do I start? (In this post I am primarily thinking of my emerging reader who is reading above his grade level, but not yet delving into really thick books. I’ll address that situation down the road when we get there!)

Honey for a Child's Heart1. Ask the experts.

Janie, Emily, Betsy, Hayley, help! 🙂

While we cannot yet customize lists for every reader (but hope to offer that service in the future!), I can still browse Redeemed Reader and find recommendations old and new. I can also ask my local librarian if she has suggestions. (“These are some books my child has enjoyed. What else do you have?” Feel free to express your preferences, but also encourage your child to communicate with the librarian directly.) Also refer to lists like Honey for a Child’s Heart, and ask friends whose children with similar challenges because none of us have read all the books out there!

2. Give him room to choose.

I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so the Star Wars book doesn’t appeal to me personally. But from what my husband and I perceive from the book, I can’t raise any real objections, and I want to give my son opportunity to make choices. Sometimes I will have to say no to something inappropriate, but I want to say yes as often as I can, even if the book is not in my scope of interest.

3. Keep your expectations realistic and low.

By this I do not mean lowering your standards of what you want your child to read, but remember that just because he CAN read at a higher level, he will not necessarily have the attention span to take on challenges yet. Keep reading light and fun, and there will be plenty of opportunity to grow when he is ready.

Thomas The Tank Engine: The Complete Collection4. Don’t keep your expectations too low!

This point was emphasized by my husband: don’t underestimate your children’s ability to absorb language and vocabulary. We are very annoyed with the easy reader simplifications of Thomas the Tank Engine, because they are pathetic compared to the original stories (look for a collection at your library!). Thomas Goes Fishing is uninspiring compared to the descriptions and details in the original (including the fate of the fish that were clogging Thomas’s boiler!). Better to read the original aloud than settle for a mediocre imitation easy reader. (Note: there are some used copies of the complete collection available on Amazon; otherwise you can still buy many of the original stories together in one volume.)

5. Remember that predictable series fiction has a useful function.

While the “Children’s Literarian” in me winces at the thought of recommending formulaic series like the Magic Treehouse books, I remember the comfort of reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and re-reading some of the same books over and over (and over and over). Familiarity builds confidence.

6. Train his literary taste buds.

When he first made his own choices in picture books, we read a lot of Curious George and Amelia Bedelia. Classics, but tiresome. So sometimes I let him choose, sometimes I chose, and even if he wanted something else, he never turned down the chance to hear a book. Here’s the key: DON’T STOP READING ALOUD!!! Like learning to enjoy any new food, especially more nutritious varieties, literary taste buds must be developed. You may be able to read the first couple chapters of a book aloud while your child draws or plays with Legos, then stop and leave the book out when you reach a captivating part. 🙂

7. Motivate required reading.The New Way Things Work

I told my son that I wanted him to read any book besides Calvin and Hobbes or Star Wars for ten minutes a day, and gave him a punch card with two hours divided into ten-minute increments. When that is full, I will be happy to treat him to our favorite frozen yogurt place! What was his first choice? The New Way Things Work by David Macauley, which is highly visual non-fiction about inventions, perfect for a budding scientist. (Librarian’s note: Non-fiction is another approach to broadening a reader’s interests.)

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1: Tintin in America / Cigars of the Pharaoh / The Blue Lotus8. Build on his tastes and expand his horizons.

Comics and graphic novels offer visual reinforcement of the story to aid a young reader’s comprehension. Since I started writing this post a week ago, my son has discovered a classic Peanuts collection. What else is out there? I have a copy of Tintin on hold at the library that I think will also be a hit.


9. Leave magazines on his level in the bathroom.

Okay, I admit it. That’s where I like to snatch a few minutes to read, too. Since I don’t want books getting wet and germy, I’m willing to risk a few magazines like God’s World Early Edition and Kid’s Answers.

10. Make alternatives readily available.

Covers are more interesting than spines, so leave a couple books tantalizingly face-up on the coffee table or in the van. I know from personal experience that a bored reader will try almost anything!

Now I’d love to hear from our readers. What has enthralled your emerging readers? Any suggestions for a first-grade boy with an active imagination?


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Megan Saben

Megan is Associate Editor for Redeemed Reader, and she loves nothing more than discovering Truth and Story in literature. She is the author of Something Better Coming, and is quite particular about which pottery mug is best suited to her favorite hot drinks throughout the day. Megan lives with her husband and five boys in Virginia.

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  1. Janie Cheaney on January 9, 2014 at 8:58 am

    These are some great tips! Eager moms can always access our “books for boys” posts (it’s a separate heading under our book reviews tab). If he’s interested in in Star Wars, you might look at the Jedi Academy books by Jeffrey Brown (review: Also, as you mentioned, don’t neglect non-fiction. One thing I used to do when we went to the library was require the kids to choose one book a week from a different number of the Dewey decimal system (100s, 200s, 300s, and so on). They didn’t necessarily have to read it, but they had to at least browse and try to find something interesting. Boys tend to like real stuff and most kids at this age enjoy learning facts, so take advantage.

  2. Erin Livingston on January 9, 2014 at 11:39 am

    My kids, especially my two sons, have LOVED these books. Large print, easy chapters and a great story. She does a great job editing and getting kids excited about The Odyssey.

  3. Megan on January 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Great ideas, Janie! Thanks!

  4. Vanessa on January 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    Lucky Luke is similar to Tintin (my husband used to read them in Dutch as a boy) and Rupert is part comic style, part traditional story.

  5. Betsy Farquhar on January 9, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Hear, hear!

    My kids–all three–have loved nonfiction. That seems to be their first choice when they begin to bridge the gap between true picture books and longer text. I’m betting part of this is because they can easily pick a book on a topic they enjoy (tornadoes, sharks, etc.), and also because much nonfiction doesn’t have to be read linearly. They can read a couple of pages, put it down, come back and read from a totally different section, etc. That probably helps in the early stages of building fluency (fluency is what you’re calling familiarity–that ability to easily cruise through a book and you’re right… formulaic fiction is so good at this. Everyone seems to go through a “Nancy Drew” stage–or Magic Treehouse or Hardy Boys or what have you.)

  6. Megan on January 9, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Good observations, Betsy. Thanks for sharing your recommendations, Erin and Vanessa! We’ll look for those at the library.

  7. Melissa Deming on January 10, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    I love the punch card idea. I will certainly incorporate that into our homeschooling schedule this Spring! Thank you!

  8. Melinda Speece on January 12, 2014 at 7:02 am

    We’ve been bit by the Calvin and Hobbes bug over here (Dad’s collection). We also have the Tintin bug (Dad’s collection). If your son likes Tintin, try Asterix and Obelix . . . two indomitable Gauls living in the time of Roman rule.

    I know it has been written about on redeemedreader before but we have found audio books a great way to have the kids “read” advanced books. Our favorites: Lord of the Rings; Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood, Otto of the Silver Hand, and King Arthur; and The Chronicles of Narnia (read by Shakespearean actors).

    Great suggestions!

  9. Steph on January 23, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Ha, my six year old loves Rainbow Magic Fairies and does it ever drive me bonkers! Talk about formulaic and stupid. But I tell myself she is building confidence as a reader and also learning about plot lines and how to predict and engage in the story that way. She will be emotionally ready for older things soon enough, and I don’t want to push her into territory she’s not really ready for, even though she can “reAd” it easily enough. So our big reading problem is, what to encourage a sic-year-old to read when she’s reading at a Grade 4/5 level!

  10. Steph on January 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Melinda, our daughter loves to read Asteix but doesn’t get any of the historical references or puns, so it’s pretty hilarious wen she tries to tell us about them.

  11. Megan on March 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Thanks for the input, Steph and Melinda! We’ll definitely have to check out the Asterix books. And we’ll do our best to address the needs of Grades 4/5, and above and below, here on Redeemed Reader in the future…

  12. Sarah on May 19, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m in the exact same position as you with my little 1st grade man. I learned some valuable tips, and you reaffirmed my hunch about continuing to read aloud.

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