Orthodox Publishers and Non-Orthodox Books

In the years since I’ve been involved in Orthodox publishing, I’ve seen numerous writers who hoped to publish a book that would reach the non-Orthodox. This isn’t unique to us. Christian publishing in general has this hope, and it is not entirely unfounded. But the vast majority of people who read Christian books of any kind are already Christian, or well on their way to becoming so.

This is not to say that when you write for an Orthodox audience, you should be inward looking and lean heavily on references and thought lines only your fellow Orthodox would understand. Clarity and kindness are always essential.

It is to say that if you want to write a book that is not intended for an Orthodox audience, you need to think seriously about why you are sending it to an Orthodox publisher.

Let me say that again.

You need to think seriously about why you are sending it to an Orthodox publisher.

Orthodox publishers have Orthodox customers. Their distribution network and marketing apparatus are designed to convey Orthodox content to Orthodox people, or to those strongly interested in Orthodoxy.

People who are not Orthodox and not currently interested in becoming Orthodox do not buy books from Orthodox publishers.

But there are other, larger flaws in the belief that covertly Orthodox and overtly noncommittal books are good publishing, or good evangelism. I’m reminded of that interesting period when many mainline churches in the USA instituted “contemporary worship” to attract young people and newcomers. In parishes, and in publishing, this amounts to bait and switch.

The religion itself is unchanged. Whatever you felt should be hidden or glossed over to make it more palatable to the uninitiated has not gone away. You’ve simply moved it further down the line, and when it reappears, you’ll face uncomfortable questions about why you felt the need to hide it.

Sincerity is a moral imperative, but it’s also a best practice when creating faith-based media. With that in mind, let’s drill down to four basic questions to ask yourself when considering an Orthodox publisher for your book.

  1. What is this publisher’s target audience?
  2. What is my target audience?
  3. What about me as an author makes me appealing to this publisher?
  4. What makes this publisher appealing to me as a writer?

The Publisher’s Target Audience

In the age of niche marketing and boundless content propagation, publishers excel when they serve a well-defined market. (This is true for other types of business as well.) They may publish books on a variety of topics, but you’ll be able to see common threads, a worldview or mindset, a branded look, that indicates who they expect will purchase and value their books.

Orthodox publishers publish Orthodox books. Some will be straight theology, some will be applied, and some will be fiction. But all will assume an Orthodox worldview, or at least awareness of that worldview, in the reader.

It’s absolutely possible for a publisher to reach readers outside the target audience. But this is more by the workings of providence than anything else. I remember reading once that the only way to expand beyond your niche market is to fill it first. A cup overflows when the water has filled every available space inside.

There are several ways to determine the audience a publisher hopes to reach. The simplest is to look at their website or catalog. What kind of books are there? Who are the authors? What do the submission guidelines say? What books seem to be getting the most attention and space on their website?

Think about the book you have in mind. Can you imagine it on their website? Would it fit in with the other books there? Would the publisher agree that it fit in?

All of these questions should be asked for any kind of publishing submission, not just those to an Orthodox publisher. But the answers should clarify whether your book is actually the type they would publish.

Your Target Audience

As you consider the publisher’s target audience, you’ll also be thinking of your own target audience. When you wrote your book, who were you talking to? Who will enjoy your book or benefit from it? Who buys books that are similar to yours?

Side note: If you believe there are no books similar to yours, ask yourself why that is. It’s a complex question. Does your book meet an unmet need? Or, does nobody publish books like this because nobody wants them?

The more specific you can be, in your own mind, about your target audience, the better. Again – you have to fill a niche before you can reach beyond it. Your writing will be stronger, more insightful and directed, if you know exactly who wants to read it.

Second side note: Remember, a target audience comprises people who want to read your book. You may think they need to read it, but yours is not the opinion that counts.

Once you’ve identified your target readers, compare them to your chosen publisher’s target audience. Are you trying to reach the same people?

If you are trying to reach Orthodox readers, an Orthodox publisher is the way to go. Orthodoxy is itself a niche in the Christian world, especially in the United States. Religious publishing is segregated by faith group, and most religious publishers are unlikely to publish materials espousing a different faith or denomination, both for marketing and for missional reasons.

If you are trying to reach non-Orthodox readers, your target audience probably doesn’t align well with an Orthodox publisher’s target audience. If your work is evangelical, you might find you’d be preaching to the choir. If the people you want to reach are truly “outside the dome,” there’s a good chance they’re also outside an Orthodox publisher’s community of readers and customers.

Appealing to the Publisher

When a publisher acquires your book, they’re also acquiring a professional relationship with you as the author. Don’t forget that you and your credentials are reviewed in any acquisitions decision.

It’s common for Orthodox publishers to publish Orthodox writers, but it’s important to understand the ways that Orthodoxy is and is not a credential for publication. The quality of your writing is the first criteria for publication. You won’t be published simply because you are Orthodox and other Orthodox people aren’t writing on this topic.

However, if you are a good writer and you’re writing on a topic that hasn’t been covered by other Orthodox writers, that’s a selling point. Maybe there are thousands of books on improving your marriage, but if there are only a few Orthodox books on improving your marriage, you have something unique and valuable to offer.

That said, if you are trying to write a book that would be unique in the Orthodox world, remember that it may not be unique in the larger world of Christian or secular publishing. An Orthodox worldview isn’t usually a valued credential “outside the dome.” The very thing that makes you a good prospect in Orthodox publishing may be a handicap with other publishers.

Appealing to the Writer

As an Orthodox writer, it’s tempting to submit everything you write to an Orthodox publisher. Perhaps you’ve published other books with them, or you know someone one staff. It feels like home, like a safe place. That’s understandable.

There’s also a temptation to feel that you’re more likely to be published by an Orthodox publisher than by a “real” publisher. Let that thought go.

Orthodox publishers ARE “real” publishers. They’re not operating from a place of desperation, whatever may have been true in the past. Every year, they receive more submissions than they can publish. Readership and sales are expanding. Many of the books published 20 years ago wouldn’t make the cut now, or would undergo a lot more editing before they did!

It is what it is

These questions and answers all add up to the same thing: Orthodox publishers seek to publish excellent Orthodox books. If that’s what you have to offer, your chances are good. If your book is excellent, but not really Orthodox, it’s time for some soul searching.

Not every book has to be Orthodox, or even about faith at all. As an Orthodox writer, your faith will always be part of your lens, part of your consciousness. But how much it shows in the finished product depends on many factors.

The important thing is to be true to your purpose. Pick a side. Take a stand. If you want to reach people for Christ, don’t hide Him.

Little Lost Nun: Video Interview

This conversation was such a joy! Watch me visit with Katie Reetzke from Park End Books, unpacking the stories within and around the story that became Little Lost Nun.

We touched on so many big ideas – the definition of real tragedy, the importance of representation in books for Orthodox children who don’t live in a majority Orthodox culture, the spirituality of children – so many things! I especially loved hearing about the little girl who keep’s her home-made nun paper doll under her pillow. All the ways that children cherish their imaginative memories and bring them into life are precious.

I hope you’ll enjoy watching this interview as much as we enjoyed making it. You can find a copy of Little Lost Nun wherever books are sold.

What we want from Orthodox children’s books

Almost always, an adult is the starting point for a child’s exposure to a book. We choose the books, we purchase the books, we pack our offspring into the minivan and herd them into the children’s section of the library. They can’t obtain books without our help, so we play a large role in their encounters with literature.

That being so, it’s interesting to reflect on the assumptions and wishes that prompt an Orthodox grownup to reach for a particular book. What do we expect from “Orthodox kidlit”? There are many specific answers to that question, but here are three underlying ideas that I suspect are present when a book is invited into your child’s world.

It’s trustworthy.

If a book purports to be Orthodox, it must meet certain standards. You would be stunned to discover it was championing heresy, of course. But there are other, more subtle expectations. You expect it to support your child’s faithfulness, to offer good theology in simple terms, to help you out as a parent. Sometimes we offer a book to our children because we hope it will do a better job explaining than we could, or will at least make a change from our own voice constantly telling them how to be good. We expect the author to be “on our side,” sharing our motivation to pass on the faith to the next generation. If you’re writing Orthodox kid lit at all, you must be a member of the team that walks each child from the baptismal font to a fruitful Christian life when they reach maturity.

IT’S ENGAGING.

To be honest, parents are constantly being let down by books. Sometimes this happens because parents and children are human beings, and what they find appealing and compelling differs. Your child might not see what you see or hear what you hear in the story. But sometimes a book lets you down by failing to present concepts or adapt packaging to meet the needs of the target age. A child’s heart can’t be engaged if you’ve failed to accommodate her developing brain.

I’ve also learned, in recent years, that we adults can frustrate children by overexplaining. They quickly perceive that we don’t see them as capable of perception and discovery. The old advice to writers, “Show, don’t tell” could be a motto for adults interacting with children. I’m thankful for a recent conversation with my friend Sarah, who spoke eloquently about the importance of approaching a child as a full human, a whole person. Drawing on this wisdom, I believe a good book brings the child into experience directly, sparing them the tiresome process of being prompted to enjoy second-hand knowledge of someone else’s transformative delight.

It’s well done.

By this I mean something other than the quality of the book’s content. Like many new things, Orthodox children’s literature as a genre began life looking a bit “home-made” and frankly unprofessional in some instances. When you begin to do something no one has done before, your early attempts will be amateur and faulty. It’s the nature of new things, and it’s an honorable kind of failure, in my view. You have to start somewhere, and you have to make all the mistakes to propel the endeavor to higher levels of achievement.

But I’d posit that the exemption for new effort has expired for this genre. Our readers and their parents have the right to expect expect high-quality illustrations, well-crafted and well-edited text, good paper, durable covers, and the like. Children learn something from every facet of their daily life, and they will notice if the “church” books always look a little shabby next to the secular books.

KEep trying harder!

With no degree programs and only the beginnings of professional development or support for creators of Orthodox children’s books, it may seem presumptive to demand excellence in this field. But still – we should demand it. Any creative process thrives on concentration and persistence. We should be willing to push ourselves, to ask hard questions of our work and welcome honest answers. There’s a temptation to settle for second best, assuming that because there aren’t many Orthodox children’s books, it’s acceptable to put out work that is “at least better than nothing.” We may unconsciously expect that with smaller publishers and a market defined by our faith group, we don’t have to meet the same high standards that would be applied if we were submitting work to Random House or Harper One.

I reject that mindset.

Orthodox publishers in the United States are growing and changing. Higher standards and the ability to be selective are the natural consequence for companies that are thriving. This is an opportunity for sacrifice, or almsgiving. We can give our first fruits to the Lord, a gift that reflects the best of our ability, a gift that is, to the extent possible to a human maker, without blemish.

Kathryn Reetzke: Orthodox KidLit and God’s Saintly Friends

A warm welcome to guest poster Kathryn Reetzke, who’s sharing some reflections on her upcoming board book, God’s Saintly Friends, illustrated by Abigail Holt.

As a mother of four little ones (6 and under), Church School Director at our small parish in Bowling Green, KY, and a part-time history professor, my passions are rooted in education. Within these roles, I am constantly seeking curriculums and educational resources to use both at home and in Church School. There are a growing number of hands-on and engaging resources for Orthodox families, making it an exciting time to be a parent and Church School teacher. I appreciate all the resources being created by the many individual websites like Orthodox Pebbles, Draw Near Designs, ByziKids, and Sparks 4 Orthodox Kids. Even with the growing number of materials, I believe there are still some gaps that can be filled with meaningful and thought-provoking printed books for kids.

GETTING STARTED

At the beginning of the pandemic shut-downs, I was asked to join an Orthodox Children’s Writers and Illustrators group by Melinda. I was curious to see what ideas were circulating in the behind-the-scenes author and illustrator world of Orthodox publishing. I didn’t realize that by seeking what was missing in the market, I would be called to write a book of my own.

The idea for the board book God’s Saintly Friends came from thinking about available Orthodox books on friendship. I was familiar with some that have characters that are friends, such as Charlie Riggle’s Catherine’s Pascha and the Philo and the Superholies series, but I wanted to think of something that also brought in historic examples of Saints who were friends (history professor hat on).

SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP

The pandemic also pushed me to reflect on the importance of holy friends and how we can care for each other while apart. From there I thought, surely saints like St. Perpetua and St. Felicity became friends in prison, both being young mothers and strong in their faith in Christ. I researched and got suggestions from friends about sets of Saints who were friends (such as one of my favorite stories, St. Sophrony and St. Porphryios, from illustrator Abigail Holt). I asked myself: How can I write something that gives both a historical precedence of Saints who had healthy friendships, while also teaching basic values of friendship? After writing my draft, getting editing advice, contacting my friend Abigail about artwork, and two denied submissions, I found a supportive publisher in Park End Books (Summer Kinard), who was equally excited about making this resource available to families.

I love that the availability of Orthodox toddler board books is growing, so that the littlest ones have books to look at during church and more importantly at home. I pray that this book helps parents engage with their children both about the Saints’ lives featured in the book and also about spiritual friendships. The growing experience of friendship through the lens of social media makes early childhood development of healthy friendships key to having healthy future leaders in the Church. This board book is written to appeal to a wide range of ages as the illustrations and text allow for extended discussions about the Saints with older children.

I hope you and your children, grandchildren, and/or godchildren enjoy God’s Saintly Friends together!

NOTE: You can preorder you copy of God’s Saintly Friends HERE.

ABOUT KATHRYN REETZKE

Kathryn is blessed to be a mother of four children 6 and under, an avid reader of both children’s books and adult literature, Church School Director and founder of the nursery program at Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Bowling Green, KY, and Adjunct Professor of History at WKU.  She also coordinates the yearly “Room in the Inn” program to help house the homeless in our sanctuary overnight during the Winter months. She has a passion for both education and almsgiving and prays her first book will bring both to our future Orthodox leaders.

Little Lost Nun in England

This review of Little Lost Nun comes from Anna-Maria. She is 10 years old, and she lives in Oxford, England. Here she is reading the book with her dog, Dodger.

Reading in the garden with Dodger

Anna-Maria writes:

Little Lost Nun is a book about feelings, actions and prayers. You can see how what the characters do relates to their feelings, and relates to what their personal experiences were and are in life.

It makes me think more about my actions and forgiving people who have done something wrong.

It makes me think about how prayers can be answered. God hears them but you can’t always tell that they are being answered.

The story is misty. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. At the same time the story is bold. All the characters are different from each other and I can imagine them very clearly.

It’s a really good book. I like it. At the end I turned the page to see if there was more. I was hoping there was.

#littlelostnun #summerofthelittlelostnun

Clever Myths and Eyewitness Accounts

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16

This verse is part of the Epistle reading from this morning’s liturgy for the Feast of Transfiguration, and it sparked a shower of ideas I feel are directly related to my ongoing study of Orthodox children’s literature.

If you read my post from yesterday (7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books), you know I’m studying Orthodox children’s literature as a genre, a mission, a product, an experience – everything about it that I can learn and ponder. This research quickly touched on another ongoing quest of mine, to envision and create truly faithful, truly literary work. It’s possible the principles of this effort are fundamentally the same, no matter the age of your expected readers.

But what struck me with such force in this Bible verse is the question of clever myths and eyewitness accounts. At first glance, you’d think that was a reference to fiction and non-fiction, wouldn’t you? And that is true in a literal sense. Peter is explaining to his readers that he didn’t make up all that stuff about Christ. It happened. He was there and saw it.

Hold that thought.

TWO CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN FICTION

In my observation, “Christian fiction” can be divided into two categories: books about people “being Christian” and books in which the inherent Christianity of creation shines forth. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive in their natures, but they don’t often appear together. There are plenty of instances in the human attempt to infuse faith in fiction in which the agenda left no room for anything to shine, not even the writing. It strikes me now that while immature literary skill is certainly a factor in such cases, lack of faith might be the greater fault.

I don’t mean that the writer is not Christian enough to write well. Not at all. I mean that the writer, perhaps unconsciously, assumes that the reader won’t see the truth, won’t be converted, unless everything is blatantly spelled out. The reader must be convinced by the writer. Persuasion must occur, and the more urgent your personal conviction, the harder it is to trust persuasion to anything but your own arguments.

PERSUASION AS FAILING FAITH

This reflects a two-fold faithlessness, in my view. First, it assumes that the reader is not intelligent enough to detect or appreciate nuance, or symbolism. When the murderer makes a point of turning off the lights so he can commit his foul deed in darkness, the reader won’t realize that spiritual darkness is also indicated. Are our readers actually so dense? Do they really need us to explain everything we’re doing? Do we need to hear them say, “I see what you did there”? I doubt it.

In fact, I believe readers bring a wealth of meaning to our words, drawing on their own thoughts and memories. The author is not the only one able or likely to infuse a text with meaning. We give birth to our stories, but their lives extend beyond us when we send them into the world. Like children, we must let them grow into the life God made for them, even when they travel beyond our horizons, even as we acknowledge we’ll never know all the people who read them, all the ways they’ll be misread, reconstructed, and understood.

Bringing the Man Downstairs

The second faithlessness of the over-explained Christian novel is the assumption that God is not everywhere present, filling all things. I’ve recently encountered fascinating scraps of the “re-enchantment” discussion swirling in theological, literary, sociological, and other circles. The primary value in the conversation, to me, is the startling reminder that God IS everywhere. Several years ago, Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote a book called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, in which he takes on the worldview behind calling God “the man upstairs.” The man UPSTAIRS. Not the man down here with us. Not a presence in the air and earth and human life around us. The man somewhere else.

We enable a seismic shift in Christian literary art, for children and adults, when we bring God back downstairs. DO you believe God is EVERYWHERE present? Then you will be able to write Him into your fiction simply by manifesting the patterned loveliness of His works. Metaphors work because God is downstairs. Symbol is inherently, intrinsically spiritual. It’s our second language, the code of our invisible dimension, and God made it and speaks through it. With His merciful grace, sometimes we can, too. Sometimes, with sweat and prayer and those holy, euphoric bursts of inspiration, we can write the story of realization, our small visions of the miraculous reality.

And that’s why in 2 Peter 1:16, I see an affirmation of well-made Christian fiction. The father of lies will always provide us with clever myths, and his myths may masquerade as light. But fiction crafted from keen awareness of that magnificent Presence? That kind of fiction needs only symbol, finely observed, to become an eyewitness account.

7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books

The database of Orthodox children’s books in English and currently in print now has over 200 entries. In addition, there are catechetical resources available from archdioceses and other organizations that are not included on the list because I see them as a separate genre. For the moment, I’m not studying curriculum. I’m not qualified to do so, and my primary interest is kidlit. But I qualify that with my strongly held belief that children learn from ALL books, not just the ones adults consider educational.

Research philosophy

Right now at work, I’m researching various aspects of Orthodox children’s literature. It’s a thought-provoking adventure, let me tell you. Questions arise at every turn, and there are moments when I struggle with the wild urge to know everything and fix everything immediately! But as my mama used to tell me, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I’m not the solution to everything, and it’s important to remember that people are different. What one person perceives as a flaw is a great strength in the eyes of someone in other circumstances.

Regardless, I believe it’s important to raise and ponder each question. Orthodox children’s literature as a genre is relatively new and still inventing itself. It’s not a field in which you can earn a degree or any kind of standardized credential. It’s still subject to widely divergent opinions, amateur efforts, the absence of substantive data on its efficacy, and the urgency of love – love for the faith and its children and the urgency of their need as an underserved minority in a complex cultural landscape.

Therefore, I offer 7 questions for your consideration. There are others, but in my view, these 7 are starting points for reflection and discussion. You’ll realize quickly that not one of them has a simple answer.

7 Questions

1 – Who is the “customer” for a children’s book: the parent buying it or the child reading it?

2 – Do we hold Orthodox children’s books/curriculum to the same standards that we have for secular children’s products?

3 – Are we evolving from what you might call “informational” catechesis to experiential catechesis, or aren’t we? What’s going on with that and why?

4 – Why is fiction such a complicated thing? Are we able to conceive of children’s fiction as both Orthodox AND engaging? Can we only see or trust faith in fiction if it is OVERT?

5 – I suspect question 1 and question 4 are linked. What do you think?

6 – What do children learn from the ways we create and interact with their “church books”? What are we telling them about their faith that we may not realize we are telling them?

7 – What besides books are/should/could we be creating? What other media might also provide entry points to faithful, imaginative, loving encounters with a child’s spirit?

Share your thoughts

My research is ongoing, and I value glimpses of as many perspectives as are offered to me. If you’d like to share yours, use the Contact form and get in touch!

List of Orthodox Christian Children’s Books

I was thinking of writing an article encouraging homeschool teachers to include at least one Orthodox children’s book in regular language arts curriculum each year. This led to the idea of making a list of children’s books by grade level. And that led to my best effort at compiling a master list of Orthodox Christian children’s books written in English and currently in print.

No doubt I’ve missed some. The world is a big place, and so is the internet. It wouldn’t be hard for a little Orthodox book, or even a little publisher, to escape my notice.

This list will need constant updating if it is to become a lasting and useable resource. But it is at least a beginning.

CLICK TO SEE THE LIST.

The list is housed in a Google spreadsheet. At this writing, there are 182 entries, and I am aware of at least 6 more titles that will release before the end of 2021. That’s a lot of books!

The spreadsheet makes some attempt to include notes on what’s in the books, what they could be used for in a Sunday school or homeschool classroom, or for family reading. That part is very incomplete for the simple reason that I’ve read or even seen only a fraction of these books.

TRENDS I NOTICED

Without reading every book on the list, my insights are limited. Based simply on the covers, blurbs, and other readily available details, I noticed several things.

1 – The number and quality of Orthodox children’s books appear to have increased greatly in the last 10 or so years.

2 – Orthodox children’s literature is largely catechetical.

3 – Fiction is rare.

4 – Books of any kind for older children are rare.

5 – The quality and style of illustrations varies widely.

6 – Board books are relatively new in this market, but they are popular and more are being published.

WHAT I THINK

People want good books to support their children’s faith. The number of newer publishing houses and their offerings suggests an active effort to fill the holes for this market. The larger Orthodox publishers in the United States have expanded and improved their children’s line in the last decade. Also, with the evolution of technology and publishing resources, smaller companies can form and produce professional-quality books for niche markets in ways that were not possible in the past. I saw some books and companies I felt were a direct result of this evolution. This is encouraging. I love to see people spend fruitful effort on what matters to them.

One question kept recurring to me as I worked on the list. How many of these books would a child read spontaneously? Are these books children would choose for themselves? Are we simply producing the kind of book an adult makes you read?

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with reading books you were told to read because you need to learn the information they contain. This is a healthy life-long discipline we should acquire as children. Every aspect of our spiritual life can sometimes require self-compulsion, and the care and love that has gone into creating the books on this list make them accessible and valuable.

That said, I freely admit I was a child best reached through her imagination. Even as an adult, I often find myself most drawn to things I’ve encountered first in fictional settings. Stories are the way I find and remember meaning.

The books I’ve written for children are all either fiction or creative non-fiction (for example, an incident from the life of Saint Ia, told imaginatively in simple language). I don’t feel qualified to write instructional non-fiction.

I say these things to be clear about my perspective. In my mind, the height of excellence in children’s literature is achieved when some great truth shines directly into a child’s heart through a beautifully crafted, genuinely engaging story. In that context, the distinction between what is and is not Christian literature fades. If you are a Christian wherever you go, you can encounter and ponder your faith in fiction as well as non-fiction.

I know not everyone is like me. I know that many child THRIVE on non-fiction reading. I believe Orthodox children need and want more of every kind of book. When you consider how many secular books a child can read in the course of a childhood, 182 Orthodox books is not many at all.

For my part of the effort, this list urges me to keep working on Orthodox-infused fiction for children. It’s a craft that takes practice. A weak story wobbling under the weight of a catechetical agenda accomplishes little. God grant me strong stories that carry something essential with love and grace.

#TeachersTalkKidLit – Jane Johansen

Hello, readers and fans of Melinda! My name is Jane Johansen, and I have known Melinda for many years as our husbands went to West Point together. Melinda and her husband are two people whose friendship we value deeply. 

When Melinda put the call out for teacher friends to help, I quickly raised my hand. I am an avid reader and love to share that passion with my students. You know those people who wake up early in the morning to work out and everyone is like, “No way, I could never do that”? You should see the looks I get when I tell my students that I get up early so that I have time to read! It is true. I treasure the quiet with a warm cup of coffee and my book in my lap every morning, possibly with a cat or two by my side.

At the beginning of each school year, the first reading assignment I give my class is to write letters to me about their personal journey with reading.  In turn, I also write a letter to them explaining that I was a late reader. I remember being stuck at the same reading level all through 1st grade until my mom found me a book that I truly connected to, Hooray for Pig, by Carla Stevens. (Flashback, I was terrified to learn how to swim.  Lake Champlain is enormous, dark, and frigid, and I was having none of it until my mom found this book.)  If you could see my copy of this book and turn the love-worn pages, you would see that it was read hundreds of times throughout my childhood.  This book makes an appearance on my textual lineage time and again. 

Connection

Connection is one of the keys to finding books that children want to read, and it is a lesson they are taught as readers from their very earliest reading instruction. Look for the connections: to yourself, to the world around you, to other books you have read, to current events…these are the invisible strings that pull readers in and keep them immersed in books. When I have my students think back and reflect on books that they loved when they were younger readers and create their own textual lineage of books, a common theme in their choices is that they felt connected to the characters in these books in some way. 

Characters

A second key is to find characters that are likeable or unlikeable, for that matter.  A character that kids can root for or against. Characters that speak out and up in unjust situations- kids are all about good versus evil and a fair and just outcome. Books like Wonder, by R.J. Polacio, or Because of Mr. Terrupt, by Rob Buyea, both with casts of characters in a common setting where they can imagine themselves being there, too. A setting where characters have space to make mistakes and are given the time to fix them in a realistic way.  Reading to understand the world from a perspective other than their own provides young readers with a wider lens on which to focus their gaze while they are lost in those pages. 

Worlds

Finally, in my experience, as readers grow in their abilities, they like to experience worlds that are different than the one they inhabit every day. Fantasy is a great way for readers to escape the mundane and possibly a genre that parents may shy away from – I know I did with my own children.  My own deeply rooted dislike of being scared kept me away from prompting my kids toward this genre. However, their teachers and librarians did a fine job of encouraging them, so they are both huge fans.  Being a fifth-grade teacher, my students are just crazy about this genre and I have had to grapple with joining the bandwagon, but I have done it.  I am just finishing up reading Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always with my class. When I started it, I was nervous and agitated that it was going to be too scary, dark, or upsetting to some of the class. However, it’s been the complete opposite reaction.  They are begging me to read more each day than what our allotted time allows for. They are diving so deep into the plot and character development they are blowing me away with their analysis.  A good point to remember is that just because you might not like a specific genre doesn’t mean you should not let your kids try it if they are curious; to each their own, as they say.

Learning to Love Reading

Throughout my years as a teacher, no matter which grade level, I have encountered anxious parents who worry about their child not “loving” reading. The advice I have given you here is parallel to what they hear from me. Keep trying a variety of genres, go to the library, talk to your school librarian, check in with your child’s friends’ parents and ask what they are reading, or, better yet, create a book club for your child with friends.

Finally, the most valuable advice I can give you is to never stop reading aloud with your child. Choose a favorite book from when you were young, or take an expedition to the library together to choose a book.  Reading aloud creates a bond between us as readers who are sharing a character’s journey. Dive in, snuggle up, and start building memories together one page at a time.

About Jane

Jane Johansen is currently a 5th grade teacher at Renbrook School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has also taught Kindergarten and third grade; don’t ask her which is her favorite…she cannot decide. Jane enjoys spending time outdoors, gardening, hiking, running, and of course reading on her front porch. She is also a passionate nature photographer in her free time. Jane lives in Avon, Connecticut with her husband Eric and their two children Emma Kate and Eli, along with their many furry family members.