A Writer Talks About Reading

The other day I was looking in my closet for something and came across something else stashed back in there: my notes from a writing conference I attended this past spring. Specifically notes from a talk New York Times best-selling author Tim Myers gave at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. He was there to give his audience tips on how to write children’s books that kids would actually want to read. I think I kept the notes because my special education students and I were heading into a new remedial reading program, and his words about getting non-readers to pick up a book struck home with me.

Myers, a former middle and high school teacher, is a senior lecturer at Santa Clara University. He writes short stories, books, songs, and he’s been doing so for years. “I’ve been writing for just damn forever,” he said. Myers is even a professional storyteller. He is married to a reading specialist and has a pack of highly educated children. Myers, it would seem, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to kids and reading.

“A quality manuscript is everything,” Myers told us. He dismissed the notion that young children or new readers cannot handle “big” words. It depends on the context, he said.

“Millions of American kids knew what a Snuffleupagus was,” Myers noted, referring to Big Bird’s shy friend on Sesame Street. “We don’t know exactly what they can and can’t read.” Don’t limit a child’s vocabulary, he advised.

Instead, rope children in with good stories. “Story is what drags young kids’ butts through,” Myers said.  Kids must learn how to sit quietly, listening to a tale, and losing themselves in that story, before they can learn to read, he said. He encouraged adults to answer kids’ questions as they read so that kids interact with the text. Re-read the text as it improves reading comprehension. Each reading, Myers said, children will use the text in a new  way, e.g., understanding it on an emotional level or gaining information.

The story must be of interest to kids to get them to want to hear it again, ask questions, and re-read. “Story has to be where we live or it doesn’t have any meaning,” Myers said. “Disney gets that we have to through the dark before we get to the light.”

Interestingly, these are the techniques we reading teachers learned in professional development trainings over the past several months. Re-reading. Interacting with the text. Ask questions and discuss. These are the activities my high school remedial reading students are going through, sometimes unenthusiastically, but more often spontaneously as they become more engaged with the text’s message. And, this is what the new Common Core standards are asking of our students. No more passive students.