MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their comments and some savvy advice.
Today, we want to get some advice about something you've probably been thinking about. If you have school-age children, you've probably gotten the message that you need to keep their heads in the academic game somehow over the summer, especially reading. And this may conflict with your children's plans, which may run more toward playing video games and seeing how many bags of chips they can eat in a day. Well, we can't help you with the chips, but our panel today have spent a lot of time thinking about keeping kids excited about reading, even reluctant readers, even in the summer.
So with us now are Loriene Roy. She's a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information. She's also past president of the American Library Association and a mom of one. Monica Olivera is cofounder of Latinas for Latino Literature, a freelance writer, also a mom of two. And Marjan Ghara is mom of two and founder of the online book club for kids BiblioNasium. It allows children to share and rate books that they have read. Welcome to you all. Welcome back, I should say. Thanks so much for joining us.
MONICA OLIVERA: Thank you.
MARJAN GHARA: Thank you.
LORIENE ROY: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Loriene, let me start with you. Why should reading be a big part of summer?
ROY: Well, you don't want to head into the area of what we call the summer slide. You want your kids to be ready for school in the fall, you want them on reading and above reading track, and you want to be working with your public library and involved with their summer reading programs.
MARTIN: So Monica, you write about education. Talk a little bit more about this, the summer brain drain or summer slump. Is that such a - is that so terrible?
OLIVERA: Well, actually, yes, because during the summer months, a lot of times children can lose up to three months of learning. And so then, when they start back to school in the fall, a lot of times they have lost a lot of the concepts or the skills that they learned towards the end of the previous school year. So teachers have to spend time covering that material over again, so that everyone can be caught up.
MARTIN: So Marjan, why don't we start with you on the question of how to get kids excited about reading. One of the things that you were telling us is that books are like shoes. You can't just go by what's on the label, saying this for this child's reading group. They're like shoes. You've got to look for the right fit. Will you talk a little bit more about that?
GHARA: Sure. Actually, this came from my own personal experience, when my second-grade son picked up Harry Potter and I was this very proud parent who had a eighth-grader reading a 400-page book. He made it through the first one and he started the second one and he never finished. And at the time, I told my husband, he must be the only kid in America who doesn't like Harry Potter. And it was only after we started this project - is we realized that there's actually the concept of reading levels and finding the right fit for your reading ability makes a big difference in the way children experience books.
So the metaphor of using - that books are like shoes is because when you go buy a pair of sneakers, you don't walk in and say, I want a pair of sneakers for a second grader. You have to have their feet measured and then, based on that measurement, you find the right sneaker. So it's the same concept with books and I think this was something, as a parent, that had escaped me during all of the time that I was looking for books for my kids to read.
MARTIN: Loriene, this might where, though - you were talking about how it's really important to work with your librarians on this. Tell us more about that. How can a librarian help you find that right fit?
ROY: Well, let's start with summer reading programs. They've been taking place in public libraries for the last hundred years and there is evidence of the impact of summer reading programs on preventing that reading slide over the summer, but really helping kids get ready for the school year. And there is also evidence from studies that say parents actually read more, kids have more books in the home, there's more conversation about reading, and you can rely and work with your public librarian during the summer and also with your school librarian. You want to be in the school, you want to advocate for having a certified school librarian who'll be working with the teachers, with the kids, and with the parents year-round.
MARTIN: Well, what do you mean by working with? Give me an example of what you should do. Maybe some schools are not as proactive about this as others. I mean, some kids - some schools are sending reading lists home with the kids in their backpacks and some schools are actually saying, you know, I want to see this, you know, when you come back in the fall. I want to see this filled out or I want to see letters. Other schools aren't doing any of that. So how should you work with somebody or what should you be looking for?
ROY: Well, I was at the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico just last week, and there as they were planning and working with their children for summer reading and the kids were engaged with art examples. They were watching film, too, they were reading, they were counting their minutes reading, they were getting incentives, and the kids were so excited. And by working with that librarian, it means bringing your kids to the site, it means working with them, developing that reading list with the librarian if that's what you want to do, suggesting other topics, and being a reader in the home. You know, the best role models for reading are the parents. So being able to read or listening to audio books in the car, so the kids know that reading is a part of every moment and a part of everyday life.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how to keep your kids reading over the summer. We're talking with three moms who've thought a lot about this. Marjan Ghara of BiblioNasium.com, Monica Olivera of Latinas for Latino Literature, and Loriene Roy. She's a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, a former president of the American Library Association. So Marjan, talk a little bit more about your site. How does that work?
GHARA: Well, BiblioNasium, we use the metaphor of gymnasium because we believed that, just like in sports, you need discipline, you need practice, you need to set goals, and then you will see the results and the rewards. And it's the same thing with reading. So these principles are all built into the features that we have on the site. The site itself connects children to the three constituents that most influence what they read, and that's their friends and their librarians and the teachers and the parents. And it's a really social community where they can share and exchange book recommendations and talk about books and what they like. We also provide...
MARTIN: Obviously, with parental permission...
GHARA: Of course.
GHARA: Yes, absolutely. We are targeted towards elementary and middle school children, so our site is COPPA compliant, which is Children's Online Privacy Protection Act regulations.
MARTIN: Okay. But what do kids like about it? Let's talk about the fun part, you know. How does it make it more fun?
GHARA: Well, you know, this generation is growing up digital and they like to be online. They like to socialize online. They like to have a, I guess, a digital presence online. And what we do is they personalize their experience, there's animated avatars, they set up virtual bookshelves where they can track and catalog what they're reading, what they like to read, and it's social, so you can see what your friends are reading. You can recommend for books to your friends and of course we have rewards built into there. So we are a BiblioNasium so we give out trophies and awards for completing reading challenges. So we work on it on all levels. It's social and it's personalized.
MARTIN: Loriene, talk a little bit, if you would, about the role of choice. And we know that - and how much choice do you think kids should have about what they pick up to read in the summer? I know, for myself, during the rest of the year I'm very much driven by work, and in the summer I, kind of, just want to read garbage, if I can put it like that. And I'm just wondering, Loriene, if you feel that kids should get the same privilege? Should they just be able to pick up whatever they want to read as long as it's not say, a girlie magazine?
ROY: Well, I think that's what we advocate for. At all levels, librarians support people's right to read and that extends to the earliest readers. I remember the day when I quit buying the books that I wanted my son to read because he was showing me what he preferred. And I supported it because he reads. You know, I don't read science fiction and fantasy as much as he does and I learned through him. And so, you support your kids in many ways and that reading preference is a way for them to be independent and also for them to start to really enjoy reading, make their own selections.
MARTIN: Monica, what do you think about that? The idea of - you know, obviously a lot of parents are interested in directing or being involved in what their kids read. They want them to read about maybe figures that are part of their heritage, right, they want to learn more about their heritage, but maybe their kids just want to read fantasy or something like that. Where are you on this question of how much choice to give your children in choosing what to read?
OLIVERA: You know, I really think it's a balance of things. I think kids definitely, in order to be inspired and motivated to read, they need to be able to choose the books and the topics that they want. But I think that can be balanced out and parents should also play a hand and make selections and offer them as well, different types of books because, a lot of times kids might not know that they would love a certain book just because they haven't read it before, but once they start reading it, they might find that they really, really, absolutely love it. So I think it's a blend of both, definitely.
MARTIN: Where are you, Monica, on this whole question of offering incentives or prizes? I know that's another thing that's somewhat controversial. I mean, I know people do use these incentives, like, in schools they use them. You can say, if you read X number of books then, you know, we'll have a pizza party or something like that. Do you do that, Monica? What do you think about that idea?
OLIVERA: Yes. Yes, I actually do. I do think that kids need to be motivated and inspired a lot of times and rewarded for their hard work. I know that with my kids, they're more likely to pick up a book and read if they know that, for example, when we go to the library they're going to get more tickets. And then, at the end of the summer they can turn those tickets in for some sort of prize like, you know, a new book or a new toy. I think those are powerful motivators and we need to keep those in mind.
MARTIN: Loriene, talk a little bit, if you would, too, about these summer reading programs. How do they work? And if your community isn't already starting one, what would you recommend?
OLIVERA: Well, actually...
MARTIN: I was asking Loriene about - I'm sorry, let me get Loriene on this and then we'll go to the other moms. Okay.
ROY: Sure, a lot of summer reading programs are organized through public libraries within a region or a state, often, according to a theme. For example, I mentioned being at the Laguna - Pablo of Laguna Public Library last week and their theme this summary is Dig into Reading. And there's an event every day, story and reading time, arts and crafts, gaming day, arts and crafts again, movie day, but all also related to books and reading, where the kids can come and have activities. They often get reading logs or they record minutes of reading or titles. They might record minutes doing other things where they're helping others. So in many ways is developing a reading community, extending it through the summer, and working in a, you know, the safe, protected, reliable, and loved place that's the library.
MARTIN: Marjan, what did you want to say?
GHARA: I was going to comment on the incentive portion - is that on our site, actually, parents can set up a reading challenge for their kids. And we offer some suggestions, like a child's favorite dinner maybe two nights in a row. Maybe an extra 20 minutes of sleep on a Saturday. So you don't have to really give yourself - your child an iPhone to incentivize them to read. It could be something as simple as their favorite meal two nights in a row. And really, nobody knows how to better incentivize a child better than the parent. So that's what we also provide through our platform - is for parents to engage their kids on that digital platform and kind of agree to some kind of reward for the reading.
MARTIN: I thought that a trip to the amusement park might be in there somewhere, wouldn't it? I would think that that would go over rather well. Another book, I don't know. Monica, what were you going to say?
OLIVERA: No, I was just going to mention that a lot of times finding those cultural books and starting a book program like we did, which this is the first year or first summer that we've actually launched an online summer reading program, specifically for Latino families. And there hasn't been anything like that online before.
Many of the programs offer some Spanish aspects to it but ours is specifically geared for Latino families, and that includes the reading lists, which are all full of - solely of Latino children's literature. Which is something that I think a lot of kids really need to see their own faces reflected in the books they read. And sometimes parents just don't know where to find those. So that was one of the biggest projects that we've done this summer and we've seen such a tremendous response. We already have over 400 families signed up and that's just been in two weeks. So we have to consider a person's heritage and culture, the children's, to help them be excited about learning and reading about other kids just like himself.
MARTIN: I was going to ask Loriene about that, because I know you've done research in this area and also with your work at the American Library Association. Have you observed that to be true, that the kids, and you're also Native American, Loriene, I think it's - I wanted to mention that as well and there hasn't always been a lot of literature available featuring people from the different tribes and their heritage and so forth. Have you found that to be true in your experience, Loriene, that if kids are exposed to literature that maybe speaks to their heritage, that they might get more excited? Or does it matter?
ROY: It really matters. In many ways, in terms of children seeing someone like themselves, seeing someone who is enjoying all aspects of life, seeing people who are recognized and honored for their backgrounds, and the children having similar backgrounds. We're very fortunate within library land that there are also ethnic library associations that are affiliated with the American Library Association. For example, the American Indian Library Association, and they also have youth media awards and youth literature awards. So you can look online and see these are the books that librarians with those backgrounds, with those interests, recommend also to parents and to children.
MARTIN: Okay, now before we let you go. Thank you for all these great suggestions for the kids. Now I'm really going to put you all on the spot and ask you what're you all reading this summer. Loriene, I'll start you.
ROY: Well, I just finished Nia Vardalos' "Instant Mom." And if you know Nia, she was the woman whose movie is "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." And it was fun but also a great read about foster parenting. And then I'm starting "House Made of Dawn," which I read many years ago and Scott Momaday, whom I met last week, and kind of revisiting that book as well.
MARTIN: Okay. Monica, what are you reading this summer?
OLIVERA: This summer I have a list of Latino authors that I'm trying to get into. I've just picked up a new one by, oh sorry - I'm having a momentary...
MARTIN: Oh, don't even tell me it's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, okay. Don't even try to tell me that it's all, like, Nobel Prize winners. Don't even pretend like that. You know you want to read something - some romance or something, come on.
OLIVERA: Right. Well, I'm reading lots of different things, like Garrison Keillor. I just picked up Garrison Keillor to read this summer, because I read that with my kids. And they love to listen to him on the radio, so I like to pick up his book "Lake Wobegon Days," which is one of the ones I've read. And I spend a lot of time reading to my kids, so I read that. I every day, usually at bed time we pick up a book. We read "Little House on the Prairie" or we read Garrison Keillor, we have started Harry Potter. So just lots of different authors.
MARTIN: Marjan, what are you reading this summer?
GHARA: I'm looking forward to reading "Contagious" by Jonah Berger. It's about how things go viral.
MARTIN: Oh, interesting. That sounds very interesting. Monica, the Garrison Keillor one, I hope that's, like, really true and you're not just, like, making up to us, right?
OLIVERA: Oh, no.
MARTIN: You're not just, you know, telling us that to, you know, get on our good side, right?
OLIVERA: Oh, yeah that's right.
MARTIN: Monica Olivera is cofounder of Latinas for Latino Literature. She's a mom of two, we caught her on the line from Scotland Neck, North Carolina. Marjan Ghara is a mom of two and the founder of BiblioNasium, that's an online book club for kids. We caught up with her at NPR New York. Loriene Roy is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, the school of information there, she's a mom of one, and she joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Thank you all so much. Happy reading everybody.
GHARA: Thank you, Michel.
OLIVERA: Thank you.
ROY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. And you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.