Raising a reader: my experience as a bookish mum so far!

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

As an editor who adores books, raising a reader is really important to me and I’m super lucky that my six year old, Caeden, loves books. But it’s not really down to luck – it’s because I’ve put the hours in! Since the day he was born I’ve been sure to surround Caeden with books as an absolute priority because seeing him grow up to be passionate about language and stories was hugely important (and exciting!) to me. There are so many reasons why a love of reading gives children a brilliant start in life

Because of my job, people often ask me for suggestions for getting their young children excited about reading for pleasure, so I thought I’d put together a brief overview of my experience raising Caeden as a passionate reader. It’s important to note that Caeden is not some super genius who reads Dickens and Shakespeare: he would almost always prefer to draw monsters or have a disco in his room or play Sonic on the Megadrive than sit down with a book – I mean, he’s six – but at bedtime when the choices are 1) sleep or 2) read he is very enthusiastic about books and he does occasionally choose to read instead of watching TV which is a win as far as I’m concerned.

So what did I do to foster a love of reading? Well, I’ll start by saying it was deliberate. I didn’t just hope he’d pick up on my love of books or that he’d figure out how great they were by himself. I intentionally set out to show him how amazing reading is and why getting a book for Christmas instead of Lego isn’t always the worst thing in the world.

Filling the house with books

Since he was born, we’ve visited libraries once or twice a week – sometimes to join in story time, sometimes to load up on bedtime books and sometimes just for a change of scenery – and he got his very own library card at six months old.

I bought as many books as I could afford, from classics and my own childhood favourites all the way to new releases and titles that were receiving buzz online. I read blogs about picture books, followed authors and publishers on social media, read reviews in magazines and rifled through friends’ bookshelves. I got as much as I could second hand: one of my best buys was a box of 100 random preloved picture books, mostly ex-library stock, for £30 on eBay. Then a local charity shop started up a summer holiday deal where you could fill a bag with books for £4 and I practically cleared their shelves. I checked out the book swaps at train stations and cheap bundles on Facebook marketplace. Find your local Little Free Library

I tried not to push reading on Caeden but books were always there in his eye line, next to his bed, on the coffee table, next to the toilet. We read him three picture books every night, maxed out all four library cards (mine, Steve’s, Caeden’s and another card he got from school) every week and had a box for special ‘books of the week’ in the living room that we could grab any time. I filled his birthday and Christmas wishlists with books so friends and family could feed our habit.

I do really want to acknowledge upfront that surrounding children with books is not always easy. Research suggests that 1 in 5 children in the UK don’t own any books of their own and one of the biggest factors is cost: lots of families simply can’t afford to fill their home with books. Luckily there are lots of other ways to encourage a love of reading and to raise your child as a passionate reader and I’ve posted about 6 ways to collect books for free.

Reading is reading!

I made sure to seek out exciting, beautiful, interactive books that weren’t just about the stories but about the books themselves: books that played music, lit up, opened backwards or upside down, had things hidden in envelopes and behind flaps. I wasn’t snobbish or selective about the things he read or I read to him: anything went, whether it was a bedtime story, a comic, a choose your own adventure, gross facts, a Pokemon guidebook, an animal encyclopedia, a joke book, a poetry collection or a Toy Story adaptation.

And now, after six and a half years, I still do all these things!

He reads by himself every night, mostly graphic novels, and we still read him three pictures books at bedtime. I still take him to the library at least once a week and we’ve just taken part in the Summer Reading Challenge which I volunteered on a few times over the holidays. We’re very lucky that all our local libraries have beautiful themed children sections with toys, distorted mirrors, slides and floor games but I know not everybody has access to places like this, particularly in the UK where libraries are disappearing left, right and centre. I really recommend shopping around for a good library and going further afield if your local one isn’t too inspiring. Even if you’re not allowed to borrow books, you can hang out, join in story time sessions, read while you’re there and find books you like the look of and hunt them out elsewhere. Don’t forget libraries usually have loads of free events and kids’ clubs open to everybody. 

Caeden’s into comics and graphic novels so I got him a weekly subscription to the Phoenix comic. This isn’t cheap and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll keep it up but he’s loved it so far and has the pull-out posters on his wall. You can find lots of free children’s web comics online

Rewards and incentives: more reading!

I’ve started a ‘reading passport’ where he earns one sticker for every ten pages he reads of a book by himself (for pleasure – not school books) and each page of stickers in the passport equals £1 he can spend on more books (usually second hand so he gets more bang for his buck). If you’re thinking of trying a similar system, try not to reward them with actual money or sweets. It could be a trip to the library or an extra story at bedtime. For me, the rewards should be something book related so that reading doesn’t feel like a chore they have to complete in order to get something better, like racing through a book in order to get a new toy or packet of Haribo. Research has shown that incentivising reading can be detrimental in the long term as reading should be seen as its own reward. That’s why if the incentive is more reading, they’ll learn that reading for its own sake is FUN! I’m not a fan of rewarding children based on how ‘difficult’ or high brow a book is: that’ll help kill their love of reading for sure! All reading is good reading and the ‘best’ book is whatever book they enjoy. 

I invented the ‘Clever Cat Book Club’ a couple of summers ago which involves Caeden earning badges for book-related activities, like writing to a favourite author, collecting illustrated barcodes, finding pretty endpapers or completing an entire series. Sadly joining Beavers and getting beautiful fabric badges for slightly more adventurous activities like archery and making fire somewhat eclipses the appeal of Clever Cat Book Club and my DIY paper badges these days!

Reading role models

Perhaps most importantly, he sees me reading and hears me talking about books a lot. I’ve always got multiple books on the go – fiction and non-fiction – and I’m always super happy to tell him about them. My office is full to the brim with middle grade, YA and writing craft books. I get very excited about visiting new libraries and checking out the children’s section. I volunteer at his school library and set up book displays. 

I’m absolutely not suggesting you should do all of these things. I’m a children’s book editor so of course I’m surrounded by children’s books! I know the things I’ve listed here all take time and energy (and sometimes money) that we don’t always have. I promise I know it’s not simple. I happen to be passionate about reading so it’s easy for me to share this with Caeden but if you don’t have that same natural enthusiasm it can be much harder to find the motivation to do this work! And trust me, I know it’s hard to find the time to read. I’m a slow reader so it takes me ages to get through a book and I have a terrible habit of reaching for the TV remote instead of a book when I have a minute spare. But I try! 

If you can just do one thing to help instill a love of reading in your child from a young age, you’ll be giving them such an incredible advantage in life. Plan a trip to the library, look for your nearest Little Free Library, grab a couple of books at a charity shop, read them an extra story at bedtime, look at some free comics online. 

I’ll be diving deeper into all of the ideas I’ve outlined above in future posts and I’d love to hear what things you do at home to support your young reader!  

Thanks so much for reading, lovely writer! Want empowering, feel-good writing chat and fairy dust in your inbox? Plus receive a PDF of my recommended writing craft books for children’s and YA writers (including go-to genre guides and Children’s Lit MA reading list) AND £20 Wolf Credit to spend with me! Sign up today!

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes