Want kids to love reading? Authors Grace Lin and Kate Messner share how to find wonder in books

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Just because a kid rebuffs esteemed literature, it doesn’t mean those books should be thrown out or given away. Messner recommends putting them in kids’ vicinity. When her son only wanted to read Tonka truck books from the grocery store, she still kept other books around the house.

“They were always on the bookshelf and in the baskets and on the table and by the bed and all over the place,” said Messner. “When you live immersed in words like that, you eventually find your way to the other stories. And I think that’s a really powerful way to introduce kids to ideas.”

Give everyone access to windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors

As an author/illustrator known for bringing her Taiwanese heritage to her work, one of Lin’s biggest fears is that after Lunar New Year, students won’t read another book with an Asian character until the following year. When teachers only bring books about different cultures into the classroom during holidays, they’re participating in cultural tourism, Lin said. “It’s like Asians only exist during the Lunar New Year and Black people only exist in February.” She invites teachers to make sure that diverse books surround children every single day of the year

Lin encourages teachers and parents to see books as windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, a framework developed by scholar Rudine Sims Bishop. Books that are windows show readers new worlds, mirrors show readers themselves, and sliding glass doors allow readers to fully immerse themselves in a story. “Books as mirrors are very important because that is what gives a child a sense of self-worth,” Lin said. “It tells them that they can be the hero in a book. They can be a changemaker. They are the ones who have control in their world. And that’s something that a lot of people from marginalized groups have not had for a long time.” 

She advises teachers and parents to be tactful about how they make books as mirrors available to children of color. “My mother tried to get me to read Asian books. I wouldn’t touch them because I just didn’t want to be reminded of how different I was from my classmates,” she said. Educators and parents can make it clear that kids of any identity can and should explore diverse books. “Push the book with the Black character onto the Asian child. Push the book with the Asian character onto the white child,” she said.

Recommend books in stacks 

What Kate Messner misses most about her 15 years as a middle school English teacher is putting the perfect book into a reader’s eager hands. If a teacher has a book they think will benefit a student, she encourages them to recommend a stack of books rather than one book at a time. 

“Instead of saying, ‘This book has an Asian character and you’re Asian, so you should read this book,’ which is awkward and uncomfortable, what we can do is say, ‘Oh, here are four books I think you might love,’” Messner explained. The four books might actually focus on another topic the student is interested in and feature at least one Asian character. “Recommending books in stacks is a really great way to introduce kids to stories, but also let them feel the ownership of choice.”

A page from the children’s book ” Once Upon A Book” by Grace Lin and Kate Messner. (Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company)

Stacks are particularly helpful when students are going through something difficult and a teacher wants to give them a book that helps them through a tough time. “I would have kids who I knew were dealing with various tough situations outside of the classroom. Maybe I knew they were struggling with a relative with addiction or maybe I knew that they had some history that was difficult,” Messner said. With these students she’d find and suggest a few books where the main characters overcame a variety of challenges. 

“I’d just present the stack to them and then go away, so that kid who might really need that one book can choose it themselves without me standing over their shoulder,” she said.

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