A Review of
How to Raise a Reader
Pamela Paul and Maria Russo
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
As editor of a book review periodical, and as an employee of a neighborhood community development corporation, I’m particularly curious about the role of literacy in placemaking. (Some of my reflections along these lines were explored in my 2016 book, Reading for the Common Good). One crucial piece of this puzzle, of course, is the work of helping our children cultivate joyful habits of reading. I was excited to hear about the new book How to Raise a Reader, co-written by two editors of the esteemed New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. If anyone would know what it takes to cultivate a culture of reading, and invite our children into it, Paul and Russo would certainly be in that group.
The focus of the work of raising a reader, the authors observe, falls squarely in the home. “School is where children learn they have to read,” the authors write. “Home is where kids learn to read because they want to. It’s where they learn to love to read” (viii, emphasis in the original). I’m inclined to agree with the authors, but these assertions do raise some crucial socioeconomic questions – which I will return to later. The wisdom that Paul and Russo offer on raising a reader is spot on, but not earth-shattering.
I was raised by two educators, and am now married to a middle-school English teacher, whose mother was also an elementary school teacher. My wife and I have partnered in raising three children who are now teenagers, and we have found that the recommendations in this new book are basically the wisdom we received and the wisdom we have tried to live by in raising our kids. We also live in community with a thriving pre-school – where our children attended and my wife worked in past years – and the recommendations in this book dovetail nicely with the prevailing thought in early childhood education. For readers who might not live in families or communities so saturated with educators, How to Raise a Reader offers a decidedly helpful compendium of wisdom on sharing the love of reading with your children.
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But this book is more than just wisdom about parenting to cultivate readers; more than half the book consists of a broad range of annotated reading lists for children from birth through the teenage years. Again, living in a world dominated at work by the publishing industry and at home by educators, I was familiar with most of the books that were recommended. (Though I was just a wee bit saddened that although there was one brief tip-of-the-hat to Madeleine L’Engle, none of her books were included on the book lists).
For parents who are not embedded in the worlds of publishing or education, the lists that the authors have compiled here are top-notch guides to some of the best books for younger readers. I suspect that with a little bit of online searching on any one of these categories, one could compile a similar list of high-quality books in that category, but the authors save us the work of doing so, and given their notable roles with the New York Times, I suspect that these lists may in due time become a sort of canon for the categories they cover.
One of the steepest challenges of this book lies in its premise that the home is the hub of raising kids who love to read. In the twenty-first century, there are many socioeconomic forces that have laid siege to the stability of home life, from divorce to overwork to poverty and so on, and which may pose significant challenges to the work of raising readers. It would not be impossible for a parent hard-pressed by one or more of these forces to instill a love of reading, but for many others, it may not be as much a priority as other basic human needs like food, housing, and healthcare. I would love to hear more from the authors about how community organizations like pre-schools, schools, libraries, and after-school programs can do to collaborate with families in raising kids who love to read. (To be fair, the authors do include brief sections on the virtues of libraries – e.g., the superb sidebar on page 25 “Libraries are Great for…”) My experience in an urban neighborhood with more than its share of social and economic challenges is that the premise that the home is the locus of cultivating a love of reading is a bit naïve. Here it is truer that it takes a village – working together – to raise a reader.
My quibbles aside, How to Raise a Reader is an important book for the vital work of cultivating literate places. It is a book that libraries should keep multiple copies of in circulation, and that should be purchased in bulk and freely given to parents by schools, churches, or community organizations. Its wisdom on raising kids to be readers is sharp, and its recommended reading lists will be very helpful as parents seek to provide their children with high-quality books that befit their age and reading skills. I hope that this book will spark a broader conversation about the societal virtues of reading, and what it takes to cultivate a love of reading, even in situations where the home life is less than ideal and cannot sustain many of the practices recommended here.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He has authored a number of books including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks.