How to Connect with Your Older Kids Through Books

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I won’t lie to you. My 12-year-old reads circles around me. Roxie easily burns through 10 books to my one, and I am not exaggerating when I say that if we each tallied our lifetime lists, hers would be longer than mine by a number that I am far too embarrassed to mention publicly. It’s true. She’s a better reader than me. And, she has great taste, too. I constantly pillage her shelves.

As much as I dug – and still dig – reading to both of my girls, as they get older it’s reading with them that I love most. Sharing stories we’ve read separately brings the same kind of joy I get talking books or movies or music with my girlfriends. It’s something we’re in on together, a shared lens to see the world through, a bond.

And here’s a not-so-secret secret for you: a lot of today’s young adult lit is fantastic. Smart, thoughtful, funny, beautifully written books. If you are not reading your tween’s books, you’re losing out not just on an opportunity to connect with your kid, you’re also missing out on some darn fine books.

Roxie and I recently got ready for the film release of The Fault in Our Stars by reading the novel. Or, I should say, I got ready by reading it. Roxie’s finished two or three times. She quotes it to me. She texts me the narrator’s insights and inside jokes. We cannot wait to see the film. Together.

But here’s the thing. The Fault in Our Stars is not light reading. The narrator is funny and she has a great voice, but she tells it like it is. Her story deals with cancer and death and big existential questions. Definitely not for every kid. So how do you know what’s OK and what’s too old for your tween? What are the best books to read together and how do you get started if you’re not already doing it?

Kids’ tastes and maturity levels are all over the board, just like adults. I asked a few friends, all moms and readers and (even a few YA writers) about how and what they read with their kids and here’s what we came up with.

Easy Ways to Read with Your Kids
For Roxie and me, it’s just us. Informal. She suggests a book to me: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Uprising, Out of My Mind, Divergent; and in return I turn her on to classics: To Kill A Mockingbird, The Outsiders, My Side of the Mountain, Catcher in the Rye. Recently I’ve been thinking about starting a book club with a few other moms and kids, like my friend Michelle McCann did with her son.

Michelle has been teaching and writing children’s and YA lit for a couple decades. She recently launched Tracker’s Books to publish non-fiction guidebooks, graphic novels and fiction stories for young readers. She organized book clubs for each of her own kids with their friends and moms when the kids were in first grade. Her oldest is now in middle school. “We meet monthly and it’s a total blast,” she says.

Reading Group Tips

1. Keep it small with four to six kids max. Her group started with four and expanded to six as the kids got older.

2. Make it interactive. Each of the kids and adults show up for book club armed with trivia and discussion questions. They open with a Battle of the Books style trivia game, kids versus adults. The kids love regularly kicking their moms butts, she says, and they learn to read for detail as well as story.

3. Everyone gets a pick. Compile a list of books each person wants to read and alternate between kid and mom picks. It keeps the reading diverse and lets everyone have a chance to share what they love.

4. Offer an option to opt out. If the book doesn’t work for you, opt out of that month’s reading and meeting.

What’s OK for Your Kid to Read?
Appropriateness depends on the kid. Roxie loves light and funny, but like her mama she’s a sucker for the deep, dark, existential read. For the most part I let her lead. If she’s not ready for it, she’s puts it down. And she’s not alone.

“Here the sixth grader still enjoys the books he’s read for the last couple years,” my friend Peggy Sinclair told me. “He avoids the dystopian novels (Hunger Games, Divergent) that are popular. The content and themes of the lit in school this year was pretty heavy, and in response I’d say he reads more Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side than ever.”

So, trust your kids, but monitor them, too. Common Sense Media is a great place to get the low down on what the characters in your kids’ books are doing.

So what should you include on your summer reading list? I recommend everything I’ve already mentioned. But, mostly I say ask your kids.

For me loving the books my daughters love is a bonus. The bigger gift is having a place to connect and getting another window into their worlds through the stories that excite them.

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