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Books for kids now have a wide range of 'graphic novels'. When I grew up, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or CS Lewis Narnia series, or Charlotte's Web had a few illustrations, but they were basically textual novels for kids. I read Charlotte's Web at 7.

Whenever I show my son a 'textual novel' (like one of the above, that I was reading at below his age) he turns his nose up at it, and goes back to reading Dogman, or Captain Underpants, or something at that level. (Which I think would be fine in a 6 or 7 year old reading level, but for a 9-year old reading level really needs to move on.

I have tried opening up book lists online with him, looking at something to buy, and my wife takes him to the library. Both times he gravitates to the 'kiddy books'.

I aim to read with him every night (we read through the Harry Potter series, and are now doing Narnia).

I understand it is just not 'interesting' to him, but... books are magical! How do I get him to get a love of reading?

My question is: What do I do to get my nine-year old boy off books with pictures and onto books with text content?


Edit: Re a question on occular issues - he gets an Optometrist check yearly, and got glasses this year for reading.

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    Would “books with pictures” of a more advanced level be an acceptable alternative? – AsheraH Dec 1 '20 at 13:02
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    To clarify, you've had your child checked by an optometrist for visual acuity, visual processing, and correctly-functioning binocular vision? Our 8 year old (at the time) was struggling to move from large-text children's books to even stepping-stone chapter books with pictures. She tremendously disliked reading. After visiting an optometrist, she underwent an approximately 6 month course of treatment to improve visual processing and binocular vision skills and came out of it with both eyes working in concert. A year later and she gobbles up chapter books with no pictures. – wwarriner Dec 1 '20 at 19:25
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    I didn't see you mention fighting or reluctance about reading, but I find it's always worth mentioning because optometric and visual processing disorders are an insidious barrier to learning. – wwarriner Dec 1 '20 at 19:26
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    @wwarriner: It's probably also worth keeping in mind the possibility of other kinds of conditions as well, such as developmental language disorders and learning disorders (though I'm not saying either is necessarily true in this particular case). – V2Blast Dec 3 '20 at 2:03
  • At 9 I was reading Boxcar Children. Narnia was just out of my range. That would be a couple more years. At 13 it was Lord of the Rings. Go figure. – Joshua Dec 3 '20 at 4:38

11 Answers 11

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So it looks like you have two questions, how to foster a love of reading and how to get your son to start reading more reading-level appropriate books (that phrasing was chosen carefully, I'll get to that in a moment).

As far as fostering a love of reading goes, it sounds to me like your son already has that. If he enjoys reading, no matter the book, that is good. I repeat, reading anything is something to encourage. Nothing kills all desire to read like feeling forced to read something that you hate or is boring. Don't force your son into anything he isn't ready for or isn't interested in. You will just shoot yourself in the foot by making him not want to read text based books as well as what you called kiddy books.

As far as getting him to read more reading level appropriate books, that depends a bit on how opposed you are to certain things. In my opinion not all books with pictures are necessarily of a lower reading level. Graphic novels, comics and some books with lots of illustrations can be complex, can cover interesting and thought provoking topics. So maybe finding more reading level appropriate materials for your son doesn't have to be about avoiding pictures, just finding different books. (For example, I worked with 8 - 11 year olds for a while, many of them loved Captain Underpants. Many loved Diary of A Wimpy Kid. You could ask a librarian (or maybe a school librarian) what they would recommend. I'm sure they know more than I do about what might work.)

Whether you are opposed to illustrations or not, whatever you help your son find (it can't be you dictating what is to be read, he needs a say in it) needs to be something he's interested in. If he finds a story he can really get into it probably won't matter much whether there are pictures or not, he'll want to read. So try to figure out what he's into or what is popular and give those things a shot. And if they don't go over well, quit early and try something else (ie. don't be stubborn and force reading a boring book just because you started it, move on to something better quickly).

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    Fabulous answer. To build on this by providing another specific example, our child read the Geronimo Stilton Kingdom of Fantasy series in between picture books and no-picture chapter books. They are chapter books with frequent pictures, a variety of word art to break up the visual monotony, little activities every 30 pages or so, maps, etc. Lots of fun. – wwarriner Dec 1 '20 at 19:30
  • Interest is the key! My son hated reading for school work but would devour car magazines because he loves cars. Begin weening him by finding (try the library) a series of books with more words/fewer pictures in the same genre as books he's reading now. Read the first in the series to him to help him gain interest, then watch him read the rest on his own. – FreeMan Dec 2 '20 at 14:11
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    "Wimpy Kid" would be my recommendation for what to avoid TBH. It held my son's attention for a bit when he was 7-8, but not that much. And it's just not well written, even by kid standards. – Graham Dec 2 '20 at 18:27
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Your son sounds like my son! A few years ago I went through the same struggle. Bright kid, reading way above grade level, but spends all of his time reading Dogman and Captain Underpants. Tried a bunch of books that I loved, brick wall. He'd read a page or two and then back to the Captain.

By now, he reads "text" books all the time. Not necessarily the books I'd prefer, but the complexity level is increasing, and honestly the biggest problem we have is that his reading level is higher than his interest level - which is a major part of this problem. A kid that can read at an adult level still won't want to read those books, because they won't be interested in the themes an adult would. (My mom went through a phase where she had me reading the great Russian novels, Dostoevsky etc., as a ten year old. My reading level was fine for them - I had no issues with vocabulary or length - but I wondered why they were so boring. Guess what: it's because I was ten, and didn't understand any of the themes.)

We got there by doing two things, plus mixing in some patience.

  1. We bought a bunch of more complex graphic novels. There's a lot of really high quality literature out there that comes in graphic novel form. Check out First Second press, for example; they have a lot that's 9-year-old appropriate that's complex and exciting. Amulet is pretty good. The 2020 Newberry Award winner? A graphic novel, "New Kid", which is extremely complex but also extremely readable. Kwame Alexander is great as well.

    This also included some graphic novel adaptations of books - one example that worked particularly well for us was the Wings of Fire series; they have the first three or four in graphic novel form. He read that, and then when he got to the end he wanted more - so he started reading the text versions. 17 books later, we're finally out of that, and he started to look for other things on his own!

  2. We read with him as you do. Harry Potter in particular worked well this way. We read a chapter a night (at first) and then a half chapter (when they got insanely long). By the time we were in book 4, he was taking the book to bed and reading the rest of the chapter most of the time, and book 7 I had to frantically read at night on my own because he'd read two or three chapters after I finished my part, so I could be caught up (I hadn't read them yet myself). This won't work for everyone, but for children who get caught up in the excitement, it can be very effective.

None of this is instant of course; patience is required.

We also did something slightly different with Narnia, during the spring Covid out-of-school mess. He had to do a certain number of school work activities in order to get his free time. One of those was reading; we decided together that Narnia was the series he'd read. So he'd read a chapter as one of his works. Similar to Harry Potter, that lasted a few books, and then everything after Dawn Treader [reading in the original publication order] was read in a few nights on his own.

I think graphic novels were a great transition for my son, because he has trouble visualizing things in his head (like I do). Until he developed the ability to more effectively translate words into what they mean visually (or, like I do, developed the ability to understand but mostly skip the scenery, since I literally can't picture it) the word versions of books were too frustrating to read - but graphic novels helped him out by adding the visual stimulation. It's just a matter of finding good, complex literature in that format, which fortunately isn't very hard these days (thought it's quite expensive if you don't have a good library ...)


One thing I want to add here: don't expect him to enjoy the books you enjoyed, and don't push them too hard. He might like some of them. He might not. He's not you! That's a mistake we all make, in part because we want to share the joy we had with our kids - forgetting that they are their own people. The way to get him to read the books you read is to make them available. Kids that enjoy reading will tend to eventually read the books they have available - so they'll read your favorites, eventually, and either love them, or not.

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  • That reminds me of how I got my kids interested in Russian literature. At ten-ish, I read my kids Animal Farm aloud. They all read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn themselves afterwards. As they grew older, they chose to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as well. You're entirely correct: they need to get hooked first to enjoy it. – anongoodnurse Dec 2 '20 at 0:17
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    +1 for Graphic Novels, simply because they don't scrimp on the vocabulary. I found that my child could cope with big words when I read them but wasn't motivated to read them himself. Graphic novels helped (it's more effort to have a parent read them than it is to read them alone). "Super Dinosaur" and then "Stick Dog" seem to have been the turning points for us. Books like "City of Ember", "The Golden Compass" and "The Witches" now have graphic novel equivalents that might be a decent stepping stone. I'm hoping "Beast Quest" might be popular soon - we have a lot of those already! – Pam Dec 2 '20 at 12:03
  • I agree with a lot of this-- I was that bright kid reading A Tale of Two Cities at 11, and getting very little out of it because while I could interpret the words being used, the actions being taken, the basic plot, I wasn't mentally or emotionally old enough to engage with the themes and understand what the book is 'really saying'. Reading is about a lot more than just 'can my child understand the words on the page'. – Meg Dec 3 '20 at 15:47
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Continue with your practice of encouraging your son to read, and have patience. Reading to him, buying books and going together to the library to borrow books are all great ways to help develop reading skills. Just be patient. Your child will "graduate" to books with text content when he is ready.

To encourage reading books with text content, cast a wider net until you find something that hooks him on. In my experience with my own reading preferences when I was a kid, and with the preferences of my children, the transition to books with text content happens in a stepwise fashion. It happens literally with a single book that is so captivating that you do not need pictures (or do not need so many pictures) to sustain the interest in reading.

The books that you mention are great. I would also include a good number of books that are not parts of long series, in the spirit of wider, rather than deeper search.

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This addresses only one aspect of @Becuzz's excellent answer, and @Paul Johnson suggested it (albeit very briefly.) So, nothing new here, just fleshing it out.

My first child was reluctant to move from easy reads to more demanding ones. This is how the problem was dealt with: I bought a series of books in a subject that I knew he would love. (I knew what he would love because I had been reading to him all his life.) After school if he had no other activities, we would sit and I would read to him. I'd read a few chapters until he was really interested and invested in the story. Once hooked, I read until there was a "cliffhanger", then stopped. He would ask, "Well, what happens next?" I would put the book down and say, "You can read it now if you like, or wait until we read again next time. If you want to read it now, I'll help you with any words you have trouble with. I'll be just in the (next room)."

I only had to do this twice. From that point on, he read. I repeated with my other kids who needed prompting.

Though all of my kids were voracious readers, but we still read aloud to them in the evenings until they were into their teens. We would read more difficult books that were interesting. I have great memories of hearing The Lord of the Rings trilogy read to my kids (by the now -ex) while I did dishes.

They are no longer voracious readers, sad to say (I was one into my late 50s.) Videogames have mostly replaced books for all but one, even though we restricted their video time consistently. Being entertained is easier than working to be entertained, and reading is more work. Reading books with pictures and captions is also easier than doing the imagining oneself. But there is something important to be said for using one's mental faculties. Functional MRI and CT studies have shown significant brain differences between millennials and people of older generations, especially in spatial skills (none of my kids has any sense of direction.) I don't know offhand what part of the brain is involved in imagining pictures as one reads, but I wouldn't be surprised if research in that area showed differences as well.

Good luck. I think it's worth the effort.

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  • Functional MRI and CT studies have shown significant brain differences between millennials and people of older generations. My (layman's) hunch is that this comes down to moving your body in real space (outside) vs perceiving a 2-dimensional representation of space without actually experiencing it via your body and its movements (videogames). So perhaps it's about videogames, but not so much about reading. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 3 '20 at 11:02
  • @henning--reinstateMonica - I don't think it is from videogames at all. I think - I don't know, but this is my guess - that it comes from driving with GPS systems. My kids had GPS devices when they started to drive by themselves. They never learned to do practical spatial visualization, even though I did teach that in their schooling. The worst of my kids can't even parallel park! The best - interestingly - had to pass organic chemistry, which absolutely requires spatial visualization skills (I used to have spatial molecular dreams when I took it.) So you're spot on. (Well, imo.) :) – anongoodnurse Dec 3 '20 at 22:05
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You say you already read to your son at night. One option would be to read to him, but then say you've had enough and put the book down just as its getting exciting, and leave him to read on if he wants.

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I want to maybe touch on something else, that kind of ties into expanding reading avenues outside of "text" based novels, but I've not seen covered.

Have you tried getting your son interested in any non-fiction?

I was a child who struggled to muster interest in reading books, and my parents managed to get around this by buying me non-fiction in subjects they knew I was interested in. This started with dinosaurs, then moved into subjects on outer space and as I got interested, the depth of the subjects I was reading into became more advanced. They had pictures that kept me visually stimulated and I'd get absorbed in the information, quoting facts while at the dinner table or in the car with my parents.

I know that many consider non-fiction an "inferior" kind of reading to fiction, but while they may not require the same imagination, they can still be a great way to get someone to read.

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I wanted to suggest also examining his reading from a wider vantage point of how it fits into the rest of his life and routine based on my own experiences.

I'll give three areas to consider as a departure point:

  1. Is this reading part of a fixed bedtime routine (eg, late at night for him)?
  2. How is he doing with the parts of his school curriculum which involve reading (language arts, math, science)?
  3. How is he doing emotionally with pandemic restrictions?

I suggest these because it's possible that his "punching below his weight" in terms of reading level may be influenced by other factors:

  1. If his leisure/pleasure reading is late at night, he may be tired and not interested in material with a higher cognitive load while drowsy.
  2. As mentioned by others there could be an underlying vision issue, or his school work may be challenging enough at the moment that the last thing he wants in his free time is another "challenge".
  3. From my experience, there is pleasure reading, and then there's comfort reading. If his social life has been curtailed this year, he may be seeking comfort and reassurance from material he is familiar with.

Your interest is in wanting to push his reading skill is laudable and other answers have addressed specific approaches to foster engagement, just keep an eye out for other factors which may be in play.

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Speaking of my own scholastic growth and change in reading habits as a child, like all others have said, any type of reading is good, but I suppose I would add that you can certainly help to steer and culture his interest's, such as they are. For me, it was actually a love of taking anything and everything apart, curiosity, of how things worked. My grandmother cottoned on to this and I always got lots of books on how things worked, of course with appropriate levels of technical detail as my age increased. In that sense, books with exploded diagrams of things like jet engines etc with interesting detail spurred me on to continue reading to satisfy my curiosity, so I would say, determine where his curiosity lays, and supply him with books along those lines. Then again, you may find that giving random books in other fields may catalyze interest's neither of you knew he had. Ultimately, it's about pleasure, satisfaction of satiating curiosity, like others have said, there's nothing more repellent than being forced to read something you are not interested in, so let him set the subject, force nothing.

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My son (who is now 14 and always has been a voracious reader) is adamant about letting children read graphic novels, and I agree. The most important thing is to not spoil the fun. I feel a certain anxiousness in your post, and it I see that you want to move him on to "better" reading. Be careful! Offers are great. I like the cliffhangers, they are a good incentive that is not tied to a bribe. A nudge is perhaps OK. But don't pressure him; that will be detrimental.

Graphic novels are a fantastically alluring approach to reading. They come at different levels — some are certainly more demanding than Rick Riordan. Some are true art. He will progress to more demanding reading when he is ready, whether it's graphic or "real" novels.

Also consider that many parents have a hard time separating their child from electronic devices and pick up anything at all to read. Be glad. All books are great.

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Anecdotal evidence, perhaps, but lived experience nonetheles:

I read almost exclusively comic books ("graphic novels" didn't exist back then) until I was 12.

Reading was never something my parents, teachers, etc. wanted from me, it was something that I wanted because I enjoyed it so much. I moved to text-only children's books and "serious" literature naturally. Until 16 or so I would still pull up a comic book alongside Herman Hesse or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I believe that children have a natural gift to challenge themselves according to their present level. They want to learn, and they want to explore new things, because it feels good.

Today, I still enjoy reading and I wrote a book myself (based on my PhD thesis). The gist of the story: Don't worry about it. It's easier to spoil your kid's interest in reading than to elicit it.

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Get his favorite characters on your side.

What are his favorite cartoons? Video games? Movies? YouTubers?

Look for material that meets yous standards in that crowd.

Parents might have a blind spot for annoying characters which the children love.

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