The University of Iowa

Ignite the Love of Reading from Within

Boy selecting book from shelf

Letting children chose books they want to read can help foster a love for reading.


Kristina Hart

Librarian, Excelsior Middle School, Linn-Mar Community School District

Posted on: July 12, 2016


Kristina Hart
Whether you are a teacher, librarian, or parent, you have probably heard this a million times: “I hate reading,” “I don’t read,” and—my personal favorite—“I am a hater of all books in general!" What is it that makes children have a love of reading? What makes them hate it? Can you ever change their minds?  

One of my favorite quotes from James Patterson is, “There's no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.” My years teaching and serving as a librarian tell me that this is true. So, how do you help children find the right books? How do you “ignite” their love of reading so that it will become a lifelong skill, not one that is fleeting and only practiced through the school years?  

Let Them Choose

One day, I found a student standing and staring at a book in his hands, looking like he was going to cry. When I asked if I could help, the response was, “Oh Mrs. Hart, I am just dying to read these Dog Tag books, but I can’t.” I was confused. These books by C. Alexander London are great for students in the middle grades. He went on, “I have to read only the books that are on my level, and I need 17 points by the end of this month.” He was devastated, and I was saddened. Why couldn’t he choose what he wanted to read? Why couldn’t he choose the books in which he was interested?  

There is a place for computerized, reading management programs and a reason to use leveled books. If students are required to read leveled books for a class, I provide them with a list of available books in their range so that they can choose what interests them. But I can’t stress enough how vital it is that students have choice in their reading materials that extends beyond a specified ability level. After I spoke at a conference, a lady approached me to ask, “All my grandson reads are the Bad Kitty books by Nick Bruel, so are you saying I should let him read them?” Absolutely!! If children are reading, let them read. As long as the material is appropriate for their maturity level, it really doesn’t matter what it is.  

Certainly, there are ways to encourage children to explore new books and genres. For example, one student told me she never reads because she hates books. I asked her what television shows she watches, and she told me “Castle.” Imagine her surprise when I told her there really were books from the actual show! I had another student who told me his favorite TV show was “Walking Dead,” which is about zombies. I got him hooked on reading again by recommending Deck Z: The Titanic: Unsinkable, Undead (by Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon) and the Rot & Ruin series by Jonathan Maberry. The student became one of my strongest readers.  

Make It Relevant

Mike Mullin
How do you help the students find the books they will like to read? Besides asking about their interests, find ways to help them relate to books. When I was a librarian in Anamosa, I had two boys who would refuse to read anything because they “hadn’t read since fourth grade.” After weeks of building a relationship with these patrons, I challenged them to try the Ashfall series by Mike Mullin. It was ideal for them because it is an end of the world survival book that not only takes place in Iowa, but the majority of the second book (Ashen Winter) takes place in Anamosa in the huge state prison.The boys could relate to the context and even go see places mentioned in the book. In addition, the book dealt with hunting and survival, which were interests of the boys. They came back the next day having read the entire first book and anxious for book two! They ended up creating a wooden book tree in their building trades class that I could display in the book fair. More importantly, the boys continued to read. To continue encouraging them, I was able to get the author to come visit and talk about his books. It was an experience I hope my students never forget!

Students often do not know how a book relates to their experiences unless we talk about it. Delia Ray has written a wonderful book for middle school students called Here Lies Linc. It sat on my library bookshelf for months and was never checked out. Finally, I did a booktalk on it and had over 100 students put it on hold because I only had two copies. Why did it all of the sudden become the book to have? This story is about a boy in Iowa City who lives by the cemetery and becomes intrigued with a legendary statue there called the “Black Angel.” The statue really exists and there are so many secrets and crazy stories about its curse. The students could relate to the story and go visit the statue if they wanted to.    

Power in Booktalks

I consider one activity I do in library essential for helping students to find what they are interested in and what they can relate to: booktalks. This visually enthusiastic presentation is intended to hook a child on reading a book and can be especially important in the middle grades. I regularly use book and movie trailers as part of my booktalks because I find they bring the book to life.  

There is a wonderful book called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs that has what I considered to be off-putting cover art of a girl levitating. I did not read it for a long time because, as reluctant as I am to admit it, I judged the book by its cover. The book was never checked out, so I finally made myself read it and loved it! It is so unique, especially because the author used authentic old photos that he gathered from flea markets and other places. Then he wove an incredibly brilliant story around those photos. It subsequently was made into a movie, and the trailer was phenomenal! Once I showed that to my students, the demand for the book increased. There is power in promoting books and especially showing the students a visual presentation.  

There are other ways of creating visually appealing presentations. For example, when the new “Jurassic World” movie was released, I seized the opportunity by making an eye-catching display with all my dinosaur books. In practically no time every book was checked out. And, when the new “Everest” movie was released, I developed a cross-curricular unit with the seventh-grade social studies teacher on Nepal. I generated excitement among the students by giving booktalks on relevant books such as Peak by Roland Smith, No Summit Out of Sight by Jordan Romero and Linda LeBlanc, Within Reach: My Everest Story by Mark Pfetzer and Jack Galvin, and Conquering Everest: The Lives of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: A Graphic Novel by Lewis Helfand and Amit Tayal. The students were hooked!   You can change the minds of children who claim to hate reading by giving them choice in the books they read, using visual displays, and sharing how books relate to their lives or experiences. These are some approaches that I have found successful in helping spark students’ interest in reading.

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