Surely you’ve gotten the memo: Read to your baby. Read to your toddler. Read to your 6-year-old, even if he can read to himself. Read rhyming books, fairy tales, short stories, long ones — heck, read People magazine if that’s what keeps you reading.
Here’s what we know: Reading to your child helps him learn about language, objects, people and places. It nurtures the bond between you and your youngster and sends the message that books are really awesome things to have around. Eventually, kids realize books open up entire new worlds and experiences for those lucky enough to become engrossed in their pages.
Here’s what you might not know: Reading fosters writing. In fact — and I’ll go out on a limb here — you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader.
Now, not everyone who picks up the latest Harry Potter book intends to pen the next best-selling fantasy novel. And few of us recite Cat in a Hat to our little ones hoping they’ll one day one-up Thing One.
But think about it. Can you compose music without hearing the masters perform it? Can you paint without feasting your eyes on glorious works of art?
We need models because we learn from them, digest them and integrate their vision and creativity into the recesses of our minds. Good music, art and writing are infectious. The more we’re around those sounds and images, the more they seep into our pores and elevate our tastes until we come up with new definitions of what we consider “good.”
As a child, I’d fashion little sheets out of cardboard, scribble a few sentences on each page and add a doodle here and there. I’d patch the collection together to create a primitive yet highly original “book,” although I’m certain I borrowed heavily from some early reader and poached a line or two from Dick and Jane.
These days, when I crave inspiration or face a writing task and come up utterly empty, I turn to Dave Eggers or Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen, and they invariably get me back on track. My poaching days, however, are over.
Can you awaken the writer in your young reader or even younger future reader? Yes, you can … with a little thought and some out-of-the-book thinking.
Once kids can draw, they can begin “writing.” Read them a picture book — say, Goodnight Moon — and ask them to think about the toy house, toy mouse or other knickknacks they spot in their own room. Using crayons, pencils or paint, they can illustrate those objects. The picture need not be a masterpiece … the idea is to tell a story that reflects the one they’ve been told.
As they get a bit older, help them use their drawings to build a sequential story. This might include story elements such as a beginning, some kind of plot or action, a “what happens next” component and an ending.
The next step? Have them describe what happens on each page while you record their thoughts and words below their art. Bind the pages together — use tape, staples or ring binders — and present them with their first personally created work of fiction.
Explore different genres
Grade-school kids benefit from family discussions about books, writers and contrasting writing genres. Maybe they’ve read a book about Helen Keller. That would be a good time to talk to them about biographies. Visit the library and check out some biographies and autobiographies for children (there are some terrific ones; see sidebar), then ask them what they’d like to include in their own autobiography.
Feeling ambitious? Write your own brief autobiography — then help your kids begin theirs. Sample chapters: My Favorite Vacations; Why I Liked (or Didn’t Like) First Grade; Birthday Parties and Other Celebrations; Friends, Relatives and Other Special People.
Show them a newspaper (yes, a real paper, not a virtual one) and describe the life and times of a news reporter. Then set up a mock interview. Help your child come up with questions, morph into Cinderella or Spiderman or Hannah Montana and then — here’s the fun part — invent the answers (don’t feel guilty, real-life people in high places do that all the time). Then help your child craft a simple “article” about his or her celebrity subject, using a real, published profile as a model.
Kids go wild for poetry — especially the rhythmic, rhyming kind. From an early age, they warm to the verses of Sandra Boynton, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Older children enjoy collections by Jack Prelutsky, a writer who knows how to make poetry fun. His animated, witty books include It’s Raining Pigs & Noodles; The New Kid on the Block and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, and Other Poems.
Read the rhymes out loud and don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of sounds and styles. Talk to your kids about where writers find ideas for their poems. Then take a walk together and jot down cool things you see. Or plant yourselves at a Starbucks or a park and look around. Maybe you’ll see a girl wearing a crazy hat or a puppy sipping a double-tall cappuccino.
Poetry can be serious or silly; it can revel in grand, important things or in nothing at all. Encourage your child to pick a topic or two and play with words and phrases, using a favorite poet’s style as a template.
Then go ahead and give it a try yourself. You just might enjoy it.
Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor and education writer, is a former writing instructor.
For ways to boost your teen's creativity with reading, click here.
Great book suggestions for kids
Want to help teach your child to write stories? Here’s a book for you:
How to Write a Story, Grades 1–3 by Jo Ellen Moore