Juanita Giles

Juanita Giles, a Randolph-Macon Woman's College graduate, is the executive director and co-founder of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. Her column runs on the third Sunday of every month.

Remember last month when I wrote about book reports and boasted, “Personally, I have chosen ‘Hatchet’ by Gary Paulsen. It ensures my son gets to use a fire starter, a LifeStraw, and of course, a hatchet, which has him very excited”?

Bonding Over Books: The season of summer book reports

Well, pride goeth before a fall.

It was a big NOPE. It was awful; it was exhausting; it was frustrating. It was the quintessential book report experience. Even the prospect of my son owning his hatchet wasn’t enough.

At least we have our own LifeStraw and fire starter now.

My son just would not get excited about “Hatchet,” which is crazy because when it comes to keeping boys interested in reading, all the recommendations out there have Gary Paulsen’s books at the top of the list. Shoot, I have Gary Paulsen’s books at the top of my list. The man ran away from home at age 14 to join a carnival for heaven’s sake. What kid doesn’t want to read what he writes?

My kid, evidently.

To be fair, I don’t have to keep my son interested in reading; if anything, I have to stop him from reading. He reads at the table, he reads in bed, he reads in the car, he reads in the bathtub, he reads while he’s brushing his teeth (that can be a doozy). I honestly believe that if he could hold a book in each hand and read both simultaneously, he would do it. But I worry. As he gets older, his interest in reading might wane, and then what?

The numbers are brutal: Scholastic has identified what they call the “decline by nine.” According to Scholastic’s survey, the percentage of kids defined as frequent readers — those who read for fun five to seven days a week — drops from 57% among 8-year-olds to 35% among 9-year-olds.

Between ages 8 and 9, the number of kids who say they love reading plummets from 40% to 28%. (It’s too depressing to quote the numbers on teen readers.) There’s no one reason for this decline. Phones, tablets, video games, standardized testing, peer pressure — they are all factors, but my son is 9 years old, so I have a plan.

My plan requires two things: jealousy and selfishness.

As parents, we are constantly juggling and trying to determine what is important, and there is no time to fit in everything it seems our kids should be doing. This past school year, my family’s stress level was through the roof, and my son wasn’t getting in bed until 9:45 most nights, which is unacceptable to me. I took a hard look at our life, and I saw it:

Monday: Homework, ballet and baseball

Tuesday: Homework, piano and baseball

Wednesday: Homework and gymnastics

Thursday: Homework and baseball

Friday: Homework and baseball

Saturday: Sometimes baseball and always chores

Sunday: More chores and more baseball

As this school year approaches, I live in a state of anticipated stress. My middle child will have tons more homework, and my son’s homework will just get harder. My daughters want to add Girl Scouts to our schedule, and my son wants to play basketball. I don’t see any time for playing, or family suppers, and hardly any time for taking a bath.

As frightening as the statistics are on kids’ reading, the statistics on kids who experience chronic stress are even scarier, and I’ve seen it happening with my own children. I have to do something.

Did you know that a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%? Reading works better and faster than other relaxation methods, such as listening to music or drinking a cup of tea. But you know what? Reading only helps reduce your stress if you pick something you enjoy.

It’s time for some jealousy.

I mean I’m going to have to find a way to jealously guard my kids’ time. Baseball? We are done with that. Girl Scouts? As long as it’s only one meeting a month. Ballet, piano, gymnastics? You are safe for now. Basketball? I just don’t see how it’s going to happen.

And I have to say goodbye to “Hatchet,” at least for now. Of course I’m going to push my kids to read books they may not choose on their own, but I have to recognize when that adds stress instead of relieving it. And what’s the number one way to keep kids reading? Make sure it’s something they enjoy.

It’s time for some selfishness.

Books are like mushrooms or kiwi; kids don’t know if they like them until they try them, so putting “Hatchet” in front of my son was important. The day will come when my kids have no choice but to read books they don’t enjoy (just like my girls have no choice but to eat mushrooms). But for now, while my son is at this critical age, I have to be selfish, knowing it’s that enjoyment and the time to actually have that enjoyment, that is so key.

So goodbye “Hatchet,” and hello “So You Want to Be a Jedi?” by Adam Gidwitz. Goodbye Saturday morning baseball practice, and hello Saturday morning library visits.

Don’t worry, Gary Paulsen; we’ll catch you on the flip side

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