An Open Letter to Parents
An open letter to parents trying to interest their children in reading
The train car swayed gently from side to side as I stared at my three children occupying all the remaining bunk beds.
None of them were looking back at me. None were glancing out the window. None were talking. All were gazing at phone or tablet screens, their ears plugged with earphones. In the evening dusk, those screens were illuminating their faces with a lifeless, electric glow.
As if they were zombie children.
I was traveling from Zurich to Saint Petersburg in the company of three zombie kids, ages seven, ten, and fourteen.
“Hey, guys,” I said. “Who wants to read my latest story?”
No one reacted. Perplexed, I studied the neat Swiss countryside passing by our window.
After a minute or two, I whistled for attention. “Who wants to read any story with me?” I pulled my Kindle out. “Mary Poppins. Nasreddin Hodja. Long John Silver.”
My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, shot me a sidelong glance from across the car. She popped an earbud out of her ear and said, “Dad, I need to tell you something.” She glanced around for support, but the others didn’t seem to be listening. “We’re done reading with you.” She sat up and punched the bottom of the bed above her. “Right, Ivan? We’re no longer that small.”
“Yeah,” my teenage son mumbled from the dusk above. “No offense, Dad.” Apparently, he had been paying attention.
Maya, my youngest daughter, kept quiet on the bed above me. She always kept quiet when she felt the tension rising between the members of our family.
“Oh.” My heart rate accelerated a little as I watched Naomi stick the earbud back in, cutting the conversation short.
This was sort of bad.
Okay, I admit it — this was really bad.
I write children’s books for a living. This couldn’t be happening to me. It made me feel like the biggest fraud since Enron.
True, I know lots of parents who struggle to get their kids to read, but … me, of all people?
I had to face the facts staring me in the face. Or rather, staring at three little electric screens.
I had to do something. But what?
I said nothing. I sulked on my bunk bed, wondering what the heck to do about it.
You see, whenever people asked me what to do if their kids hate reading, I was always ready to answer with perfect advice. Usually, I had a lot of right words. But now the words escaped me.
How could an author of children’s books even begin to fathom that his kids had become nonreaders?
Facing the Horrifying Truth
As I lay there listening to the rhythmic rattle of the train’s wheels, I started to calm down … slowly. The question on my lips remained, “What should I do?”
All sorts of ideas raced through my mind, but not one of them seemed right. Hey, perhaps I wasn’t as great a dad as I had thought. Perhaps I sucked as a father. Perhaps … perhaps I spent too much time writing, editing, and illustrating my books for other kids to read and love, instead of spending time with my own children.
Perhaps I was done being a writer.
Maybe being a railroad engineer was my real calling in life.
The “Aha” Moment
I knew how important it was for kids to read. I didn’t need a child psychologist to tell me that.
So how was I going to turn my nonreader kids into passionate devourers of books?
Then an “Aha” moment hit me right in the gut. And yes, my poor racked brain had something to do with it, too.
Up the Ante
I know it sounds a bit odd, but I needed to up the ante — and my game plan too.
I realized right there and then that I, Max Candee, an author of children’s books, had to start involving my kids in my world — my crazy kid’s world. I had to take them along for the ride. Hey, other kids were enjoying my books, so there was no reason that mine shouldn’t get even more involved with them.
The Ultimate Team Effort
We continued on our Saint Petersburg vacation, going to the countless museums, palaces, restaurants, and boat rides. My wife soon joined us on her return from Japan, and we had a wonderful time together.
As I watched my children participating in this adventure, studying the freaky collection of oddities in Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera, interacting with a huge toy model of Russia in a children’s museum, dancing to the music of street orchestras in the city’s parks, my plan matured.
Back in Switzerland, I started to act.
First, I brought Maya to my man cave — my sacred writing room. She was allowed to join me there for the first time. Ever.
She seemed overwhelmed by being able to visit my secret place hidden under the roof of our house. She gazed at various souvenirs I’d brought from my travels around the world: silver warriors from Mexico, colorful masks from China, wooden statuettes from Africa… For her, it was a live museum of creativity.
“Why do you no longer like reading?” I asked.
The seven-year-old’s response startled me. “Dad,” she said. “I just can’t find any books that I enjoy. They’re all so boring.”
“Okay,” I said, treading carefully. “What sort of book would you enjoy?”
“Something funny and cool.” She picked up two paper ducks I’d brought from Japan and began acting out a simple story on my writing desk. “Like this!”
I smiled, feeling smug.
Right there, I had my solution.
The Big Brainstorm
My wife made us a pizza. I sat down with Maya and told her, “You’re going to help me write my next book.”
She gave me an incredulous look. “What?”
If I had thought to take a picture of how her face lit up, I’d be sharing it with the world … but I didn’t have a camera anywhere near me, so that was that.
“Yep,” I said. “We’ll write the next book together.”
She smiled at me.
And I gave myself a little pat on the back: from a sucky father to a rock star in an instant.
We stood before a massive corkboard that I use to outline my stories. She spewed out all the things that she enjoyed. I added to them, and together, we came up with the next book’s plot.
But it didn’t stop there.
Now we had the outline, but she was determined to make sure this book would be perfect. My other books had done well, but this was a special project. It had to do even better.
The Big Book Affair
So my daughter and I wrote our first “together” book. She gave me the words, and I typed them.
She wanted to write about a duck who liked to live on top of a girl’s head.
She wanted to write about her bedroom turning into a pink adventure castle after lights out.
She wanted to write about hiccups, cupcakes, an unlimited supply of sugary drinks, and funny and strange people.
I swallowed all my “Eh,” “But wait,” and “This just doesn’t make any sense” comments and typed on.
I’ll tell you a little secret: Her ideas were pretty darn good.
And here’s what I learned and what I want to share with you: If I wanted kids to read my books — any books — I needed to get kids involved.
And if my kids made my books better in the process, who was I to complain?
The book that my youngest daughter and I created together is, to my mind, one of the best books I’ve ever written.
Did this change my life?
Things just snowballed from there, and over two years, we created more than twenty books that we published under different pen names.
These days, every book that I write involves my kids. If their eyes don’t light up — well then, I start again, with their help, of course. If they love it, to market it goes!
And the coolest part?
Each of my three kids has asked for a Kindle as a birthday present. They asked for Amazon gift cards for Christmas so they could fill those Kindles with books.
And every day, they read. They read in all the languages that they speak: English, French, Russian, and Japanese.
The Moral of the Story…
I’m not sharing this to show you what a cool dad I am (well, that too).
I’m giving you a few strategies to help your kids enjoy reading.
It’s quite simple, really. Find their passions and tap into them. If they aren’t passionately engaged, you’ll have a dusty book or Kindle sitting in the corner of the room, untouched.
So read with them. Better still, write with them, even if you never intend to publish what you create. Go out into the world together and note everything that fuels their interest. Observe them.
If you are able to tap into those passions, to co-create, your young stars will be reading in no time at all.
Reading can be seen as a private, quiet affair. But it doesn’t have to be.
Find the passion, and you’ll find the reader!