We all know how important reading to kids is for their literacy, but what do you do if your children—particularly school age and older—aren’t naturally eager readers? We spoke to New York Times-bestselling author Michael Northrop, who has penned thirteen books, including a middle-grade adventure series, TombQuest, a YA survival tale, Trapped,about how to engage children in books, particularly beyond the baby years.
How many years have you been reading to kids, tweens and teens?
I have been reading to teens and tweens for 10 years as an author. Before that, I worked at Sports Illustrated Kidsmagazine, where we regularly talked to and surveyed our young readers.
I began reading late. I am dyslexic and had to repeat second grade. Reading seemed like a chore to me for years after that—and I am still a slow and deliberate reader—so I definitely understand where reluctant readers are coming from. I was coaxed into reading for fun in small steps, beginning with comic books and games like Dungeons & Dragons.
What is the biggest challenge for each age group you write for, in terms of getting them interested in reading?
I write for both kids and teens. With kids, some of them may not see themselves as readers, may be convinced that they don’t enjoy reading, and of course they might just by busy and prefer other activities, like video games. All of the same things can be true of teens, only with more activities and more options, and the added challenge that, especially with boys, they may see reading as uncool and boring.
For school age and older kids, what are some strategies for getting them hooked on reading?
I think finding the right book is key for any age. There are all kinds of books out there: horror, humor, sports, art, whatever. Young readers often equate books with what they’re assigned in school, but a young basketball player might be surprised how much they connect with a middle grade hoops novel. Or a teen who likes scary stories and horror movies could find the same appeal in a YA thriller.
For some kids and teens, the right book might not be a “book” at all. It could be a graphic novel or a text-heavy game. I spent hours scouring the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks without realizing I was, in fact, reading books for fun. I was tricked! Sometimes these things will lead to novels. (It was a natural step for me from sword & sorcery games to swords & sorcery books.) But it’s important to remember that these forms are all valid forms of reading on their own, not just as stepping stones.
There are also more and more diverse books that reflect the specific backgrounds of almost any young reader, from immigrant kids to mixed-race teens. Sometimes these books resonate as mirrors of the reader’s own experience, and sometimes they resonate as windows into the lives of the kids around them.
What are your best tips for reading aloud to kids?
A little interaction goes a long way. If you are reading with your head down and your eyes on the page the whole time, it’s hard to maintain a connection. Even looking up and saying, “Uh oh,” at a key point can make a difference. Speaking of which: Be animated! Dramatic pauses, raised eyebrows… If you have fun and get into it, there is a better chance the reader will. Just don’t go overboard and undermine the story.
Is it true that boys tend to be less enthusiastic readers or is that a misconception?
People can be a little patronizing about it. Boys have the capacity to be great, enthusiastic readers. You don’t want to treat teen boys like little kids who need a lollipop or assume that they can’t handle more complex material. Boys are busy, have tons of options for their free time, and may think of reading as boring, uncool, or not for them. But they’re not dumb. It’s important to give them a full range of options: novels, stories, fiction, nonfiction, comics, whatever. You just need to find that one book that matches their interests and allows them to reconsider reading.
How can people buy your books and what’s next for you?
My newest book, Polaris, just came out in paperback. It’s a scary Middle Grade novel with tension and stakes that rise as the book goes on, so that hopefully even reluctant readers will keep turning the pages. All of my books are written with reluctant readers (and young me) in mind. You can order them from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your local independent bookstore. I’ve also got a graphic novel coming out this summer from DC called Dear Justice League.
Michael Northrop is the New York Times bestselling author of the middle-grade adventure series TombQuest, the classic YA survival tale Trapped, and other books for kids and teens. He is originally from Salisbury, Connecticut, where he mastered the arts of BB gun shooting, tree climbing, and field goal kicking with only moderate injuries. After graduating from NYU, he worked at Sports Illustrated Kids for twelve years, the last five of those as baseball editor.