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Text by Santa Buchanan. Photography by Corbis.

Source: This article is taken from the July 2011 issue of Living and Loving.

Encouraging your child to discover the pleasure of reading isn’t difficult at all. Just start early, using any book, anywhere, anytime.

The joy of readingOne of the only birthday presents I remember receiving as a child, and still have to this day, is a selection of short stories by the Brothers Grimm. I was eight and can recall how I almost gulped the whole book down in one sitting, my legs swung over the backrest of the couch. I can still remember the feel and smell of the new pages. It transported me to other worlds and I loved every word.

I passed my love for reading on to my children without consciously intending to do so. It just happened because I continued reading as an adult and then started reading to my children.

When I was in one of my darker moods, after a “not-so-easy day” with my children, my husband kindly said, “You know, even if you make some mistakes as a mom, you gave our children the gift of reading and that’s something they’ll always have.” Yes, I thought. At least I got one thing right.

Why must I read?

Usborne Publishers in the UK publish some of the most popular children’s books. According to one of the Usborne Parents’ Guides, Entertaining and Educating Young Children, studies show that it’s important for children to get used to looking at books as often as possible and to have “book time”. Reading also develops their language, life skills and general knowledge, and it cuts down on the amount of time they spend watching TV. Most importantly, books will transport your children to the unknown, offering them unforgettable experiences, lovable characters, and libraries of knowledge and information.

When should I start reading to my child?

It’s never too early. Even little touch-and- feel books with one word per page count as reading. My youngest daughter Grace who’s now eight years old, had her own library card when she was just six months old.

She moved from reading tactile books to Roger Hargreaves’ Mister Men series and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. These were followed by Beatrix Potter books, which surrounded us with Flopsy Bunnies and a “very bad rabbit” indeed. Then she got lost in Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, and next we were entranced by the rhyming adventures Dr Seuss dreamed up. If you don’t enjoy reading books like The Cat in the Hat, The Sneetches, Horton Hears a Who and Green Eggs and Ham, well, then I’ll eat my hat!

Have I left it too late?

Don’t be concerned if your child is a bit older and you haven’t been able to squeeze in reading time. I managed to lure my book-wary son James into loving words by exposing him to more interactive material. Try introducing books like the I Spy series by Wick and Marzollo to your child. Hundreds of small items are hidden on the pages. It’s great fun and you can do this together or alone. James also enjoyed the Where’s Wally? books.

Older children may also be drawn to more educational books like Do Not Open by John Farndon, which explores the facts behind mysteries. He was especially taken with a section on interpreting body language. He thought he’d be able to get the better of me by manipulating his body language whenever he told me a lie!

How to read

When your children are young, read aloud to them, and let them handle the book. Encourage them to turn pages or spot things in the pictures and ask them questions about the story line or characters. Let them explore each page. Children enjoy the pictures as much as the story.

If you’re worried your child may damage library books, buy some second- hand books that she can touch and explore to her heart’s content, without you needing to worry. Your child is meant to relax and get your undivided attention during story time. If you can’t have separate reading time with your children, let them take turns to choose which story to read. Try to make story time fun and interactive.

Where and when to read

The most obvious story time is at bedtime; a quiet treat to settle kids before they sleep. It’s a lovely ritual that can become part of your routine. Just be forewarned: some nights you’ll be exhausted and your child will threaten mutiny if you try to wriggle out of story time.

Books travel easily and can be enjoyed anywhere and at any time. I love cuddling on a couch in a sunny spot in winter with a pile of books surrounding me and the children. In summer, we often sprawl on a blanket under a shady tree with a favourite, like The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. My children squeal with delight as the mother bunny keeps outsmarting the little bunny in his yearning to hide away from her. Words like: “If you become a crocus in a hidden garden, … I will be a gardener”, soothe us just as much as the cool air under the tree.

If you don’t have the time to read or you’re travelling long distances with children in the car, why not try a story CD? I still have wonderful memories of lying in front of our old record player listening to The Adventures of Noddy and Big Ears. If you can’t afford CDs, join your local listeners’ library or swap between friends.

A recent dreary trip through the Karoo was made highly entertaining by John van der Ruit and his book, Spud, although this book is aimed at teenagers, not tots. This trip created a special memory for me and my children that cemented a love for books. My son immediately bought the next Spud book and devoured it. He later went to see the movie and proudly declared, “The book was better!”

What should I read to my children?

The short answer is simply: a book. You and your children will go on a journey of discovery together. Don’t worry about reading the same stories or poems over and over. Old favourites are comforting to children. Familiar poems or stories become like old friends. My daughter Isabella, now 13, insisted on reading the same nursery rhyme book for years. It’s now dog-eared and the pages are falling out, but I’ll never throw it out. A lifetime of happy memories is contained in those torn, finger-stained pages. Its value is beyond measure. “Rain on the green grass, and rain on the tree, rain on the house-top, but not on me!” still pops out of her mouth from time to time.

Buying new books can be expensive and few of us can afford to buy them every week. The place to go is your local library. Help your children apply for their own library cards. Children love the magic of having a card of their own and to have hundreds of books to choose from.

Most importantly, children love being able to stamp their books at the librarian’s desk.

Let your children choose their own books; you can still take out a few extra ones that you prefer for story time.

Make them feel in charge of their reading. I learnt the importance of this when I tried to push Isabella into reading all the classics I was never exposed to. She still berates me for forcing Anne of Green Gables onto her when she was eight. She stubbornly continued reading her My Pony books. By now, the Narnia, Harry Potter and Twilight series are surely under her belt.

Don’t worry if your little ones only want to read fairy or dinosaur books; at least they’re showing an interest and the books will encourage their curiosity in the subject. Some children can’t sit too long, so it’s fine if they prefer paging through picture encyclopaedias which show space stations, solar systems or underwater wonders. These vivid images may capture their attention like no story can.

Set an example for your child

Set an exampleIt’s important for your children to see you reading books, magazines and newspapers. Make sure that your boys see their dad reading as often as possible, so they don’t get the idea that reading is only for girls. Keep some books in your child’s room that she can reach for at any time.

My children’s school librarian once told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty if the house is a bit messy because I’d rather read than clean. She said it’s more important to show your children you love books than it is to have a super-clean house. I take her advice to heart every time I snatch a break on the veranda with one of my old favourites and a lovely cup of coffee.                        |

The best reward of all is to see one of my children lying on the couch, her legs swung over the backrest, lost in an adventure of words.

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