Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.
Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.
How do you keep teenagers reading?
When I talked to the (beloved) librarians in the children’s section of my local library, they were very sympathetic. As one of them put it, "Yes. Teenagers and reading. We’re challenged with that every day!" They had lots of fabulous advice, though, and while most of it boils down to two basic themes: 1) cast a wide net, and 2) don’t be prescriptive or judgmental — I’m breaking it down into actual serviceable tips because it was so helpful.
I love this — not being wedded to a traditional idea about literature. We check out tons of different kinds of books from the library: books about tiny houses and tree houses, books about Andy Goldsworthy installations and Rube Goldberg contraptions, books about tapas and macarons, books about sex and cats and knitting.
Check out a ton of books they might like, and leave them lying around. This works great for 14. If I check out a dozen books that I think she might like, at least one of them is bound to catch and stick when she flips through them all.
And don’t be shy about letting them pursue books or interests that might seem a little too mature. They were giving this advice to the person who had just checked out The Joy of Sex for her curious teenagers, so I was very receptive. Interestingly, at their age I sometimes read books that were a little immature: joke books, Richard Scarry, Nancy Drew. In retrospect, I’m glad. Even though my brother once said to me, “Are you reading Jest in Pun again? Aren’t you supposed to be finishing To Kill a Mockingbird?” So?
Um, done and done. If there’s a heaven and I get there, it will involve lying in bed with a fantastic novel and a mild cold that I get pretend is a worse cold so I can just lie there reading all day with maybe a glass of ice tea or wine. I read a lot, and I always say to the kids, “Come lie down and read with me!” I will even shake the treat bag to summon to cats, which is the greatest enticement for joining me in bed with a book or magazine (or, er, catalogue). Also, a side tip from me: We get the paper newspaper on the weekends (even though we read it online during the week) because the kids are often inclined to pick up a section of it if it’s lying around all over the bed where the cats are.
This is one of the single best pieces of advice I know of. When 17 was 9 or 10, he got stuck reading a book called Journey from Peppermint Street for, like, a hundred years. We sometimes joke that that one dull book pretty much killed his enjoyment of reading. I quit books all the time, and if I ever notice anyone in my family reading the same book for more than a month, I ask about it.
Given that The Outsiders was, for me, like a literary pair of well-worn slippers — I think I read it, maybe a million times — I would never judge this inclination (and this despite the fact that I once publicly identified the author of the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as S.E. Hinton). Fourteen still gets out the Harry Potter books if she doesn’t know what else to read or if she just craves the comfort of old friends.
Fourteen’s advice is to help your teenager find and explore what she calls their “reading niche.” Also to stay flexible as it changes. Seventeen went through a big horror phase, and then it ended. Then he read a few books in the little-known genre he refers to as “casino memoir” because he loves gambling. This summer he’s planning to read the Elon Musk biography because he’s super-interested in invention and engineering and to read my friend Lou’s memoir Man of the Year because it’s about a teenager who smokes pot and hangs out with porn stars.
Seventeen’s advice? He’s not a lover of reading, and this used to totally horrify me. Like, “Oh, air? No. I don’t really like to breathe that.” What the ever-loving fuck? But over time because I respect him so much in general, I have learned to respect this particular non-predilection of his. Because what he is is a musician.
He used to say, “Why is everyone always like, 'What are you reading?' Why is that the universal hobby? What if I were like, 'Oh, hey, what piano are you playing these days?'” Now he’s a little less sure — a little more inclined to think that reading is important. But he still wants you to question what it means to you to have your kid reading, what it is you hope will happen. “Is it that you want your kid to be doing meaningful activities? Reading is appealing for that because it’s so quantifiable. Here’s how many books I read! But there are lots of other meaningful activities — visual arts, music, volunteer or political work. If you want to make sure your kid has valuable hobbies and isn’t just dicking around or playing video games, there are other ways to accomplish that.”
“But also?” he adds. “If video games are your kid’s thing, then get some books about video games.”
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