My kid hates to read and the world isn’t ending.

My middle son hates to read. He’s 11. He likes playing guitar, listening to music, skateboarding, building stuff, and being with friends. He’s not the kind of kid who sits quietly for extending periods of time. He gets decent grades and we never get notes home from teachers with any kind of warnings. He’s a caring kid who will jump out of a plane for you, or even just for fun, and when his younger brother’s hamster died he showed the kind of deep compassion every parent hopes to see in their kids.

He’s a good kid.

But he hates to read. I know! My child! You probably haven’t been inside my house, but there are more books here than spiderwebs and that’s saying something. This child has been surrounding by books since his time in the womb. He sees his parents and two brothers read often. We talk about books (and current events) at the dinner table. I get his opinion on covers we’re considering for books at Nomad, since he’s smack in our usual audience age group. This kid can’t bounce a basketball in the kitchen without a stack of books falling over, and yet…he hates to read. He tells me every night when I remind him it’s time for screens off and books open.

This year, it’s the worse it’s been. His teacher, like all teachers, is a fan of reading. She has her students set a goal of reading 40 books during the school year. When my older son had this teacher two years ago, he blew the goal out of the water without trying. I don’t think he even recorded half the books he read, just enough to get the grade. Luca is a different story. Luca not only hates to read, he’s a slow reader. He agonizes over this goal. Last week, the school hit the halfway through mark and students were required to take stock of their progress toward their reading goals: Luca has read eight books.

My poor kid. I hate that he hates books more than ever now. I don’t see a way back from this. Maybe, I hope, he’ll discover books that he can’t help but read in great big gulps, all day spent sprawled on the couch with a book to his face. But honestly, if that never happens, I don’t really care. He’s got great stuff in his life. The things he loves don’t have to be the things I love. We have plenty of other stuff to talk about.

Like teaching practices and how they can both help and harm a student’s progress.

I am tempted to write his teacher an email letting her know that my son won’t be reaching his reading goal this year and that’s just fine. I’d like to point out to her the damage this unobtainable reading goal has done to his relationship with books. I am a pro-teacher kind of person. I am almost always on the teacher’s side, because they’re the ones who’ve studied how kids learn, right? But this… My husband and I have already told our son that we don’t care if he doesn’t reach the goal, we don’t care if he fails reading because he didn’t read enough books. I’m thinking she needs to know, too.

I suppose there’s a request for advice in here. Do I tell this teacher we’re adjusting his goal to a more reasonable number? That he will read 20 minutes a night and if that means he finishes four more books by June, so be it? Or do I admit to my kid that sometimes teachers don’t know best and that it’s okay to be pleased by progress she doesn’t appreciate? Maybe there’s a valuable lesson in that very approach.

I think I need to read on it.

How to blame suckyness on others


Does reading bad writing make you a bad writer?

I remember an advisor from grad school wrinkling her nose and looking dismissive when asked this question. “How could it?” she said. “If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer. Reading bad writing can’t make you a bad writer, unless you were a bad writer to start with.” Or something like that.

And for years I adopted this as one of my (many) mantras. A good writer writes good stuff! Reading bad writing don’t make writers bad!

Apparently, I’m a highly suggestible person, because if I’m reading a bad book (and I read plenty of bad books. I’m a book reviewer. There are a lot of bad books out there.) then I definitely tap out some pretty lame paragraphs of my own when that bad writing is freshest in my mind. I write awful, terrible sentences until I digest the antidote: a really good book.

Like most creative weirdnesses, I don’t know why this is so. My job is not to question. My job is to make use of insight earned through years of trial and error and error and error and to change my mantra. Good reading breeds good writing.

So, how do I handle this as a book reviewer who reads bad books as part of her bid for supplemental income? I read more, and I read faster, and I make sure to read more amazing books than not amazing books. And that’s actually really easy. Except, of course, when I manage to rent the entire last season of Downton Abbey and have to, well, turn my attention away from the written word in favor of the digitized spoken word.

But actually, maybe this counts. There are movies that stand out as having taught me how to be a better writer: Four Weddings and a Funeral (thanks to Doug Glover at VCFA); 500 Days of Summer; Sliding Doors; even the TV series New Girl with it’s phenomenal bar scene dialogue. And podcasts are great, too. Stories are stories, and if you work at it you can twist the spoken word around in a certain way so it looks like the written word and then you can figure out how it clicks together to make something pretty great.

So don’t read too much bad writing. There’s a lot of it out there to avoid, but luckily, there’s a lot of good writing, too. It’s like light matter and dark matter–they can’t exist without each other.

(Full disclosure: I’m not a scientists. I have no idea the roles of light and dark matter or their rules for existence. The simile might not work at all. Sorry.)