Tag Archives: stories

3 easy ways to make reading fun for kids

I’ve now been on bedtime story duty for twelve years. We’ve been on adventures in day-to-day worlds, trailed through fantastical realms, crept through sinister space ships, been on arctic expeditions, and much more besides.

It’s great to read to your kids, it offers lots of benefits. I’ve written before about the importance of reading to children. If you’d like to check that out just click this link.

If you are an adult in the UK who struggles to read but would like to get better you can get help from ‘The Big Plus’. You can find out more by clicking this link or phone them on 0800 917 8000.

Make Storytime Fun

In the past twelve years of bedtime stories, I’ve explored as many different ways of holding a child’s attention as I could think of. Some of these didn’t work, some had the opposite effect, and some were downright ridiculous.

However, in among all of the experimentation I’ve found at least a few things that definitely helped keep my kids enthralled enough for a half-hour or so of reading each night. This immersion in the story world has definitely helped develop their own love of reading too (to the point where I’m steadily being made redundant).

Giving the characters some personality

Photo by Gravitylicious.com on Pexels.com

The big thing that really caught their attention in the early days of story reading was something that might make many feel self-conscious, but it’s well worth the effort…voices.

You don’t have to be perfect; your Winnie the Pooh doesn’t have to sound exactly like the Disney version, your Gruffalo doesn’t have to sound like Robbie Coltrane, and later on, your Hagrid won’t have to sound lie Robbie Coltrane either.

You’re not trying to win an award, your kids won’t be overly critical (especially if you start early). Just make an effort. Changing your voice, even a little, will encourage most children to pay attention.

At baby and toddler stage they’re keyed-in to notice even the slightest changes in your voice. The more you change your speech patterns, the bigger the interest will be (at least that’s what I found).

I’ve always included voices when reading. They haven’t always been perfect but when we moved on to books without pictures it almost became a necessity. With a larger group of main characters, it helped a lot to have different voices so my kids could keep up with the story.

This has apparently had such an effect that my eldest son recently told me that when he reads by himself he hears different character voices inside his head. Good to know it was worth the odd sore throat.

Set the scene

Another important discovery in the early days of storytime was to add a bit of theatre to make ‘story time’ into an event.

We didn’t do this all the time but sometimes I felt it was necessary. One of the biggest changes was the move on to chapter books. Without pictures, it was sometimes necessary to do something to draw my kids deeper into the story. I had to think outside the box.

For example, we might build a fort in their room after tea, then read in it for bedtime. I sometimes set up special lights to make the room look different (cheap battery-powered fairy lights bought in the pound shop or other bargain shops were ideal for this).

Whatever made storytime stand out was worth a try. If we had time, it could be something big but most nights it was as simple as switching off the room light and using a reading lamp and some fairy lights. Here’s one tactic that I found really useful.

Let them pick

You should let them pick their own story. I won’t lie to you here; you may have to read the same picture book every night for a month if you do this. However, back at a time when their whole day was dictated by others (where they went, who they met, what they ate), this was one of the only ways my kids were getting to engage in making their own choices in life (albeit on a pretty small scale).

What’s more, it also gave me an early insight into their tastes and personalities. They’ve surprised me many times, especially at the library or book shops when looking for something new.

Let them look through and see what stories really stand out to them. This is actually a lovely experience, and it’s something I’m sure most parents will get a kick out of.

Try and enjoy it yourself

This is a sort of ‘bonus tip’ on top of the three mentioned so far I’d add this extremely important extra. Make sure you’re comfortable, happy, that you’ve got a good seat/beanbag/ whatever you like to sit on, and most importantly that you’ve got a wee cup of tea/coffee on hand to stop sore throats.

It can be hard to disconnect from things now. I know my phone beeps multiple times an hour, I’m guessing yours does too. I’ve come to see that half-hour as a welcome break in that constant stream of information. I put my phone away, I grab a cup of coffee, my kids get into bed (or sometimes sit with me) and we take a step away from our world for a little bit.

Reading to your kids doesn’t have to be a begrudging task that we do because we feel we ‘have to’. It can be a relaxing break from day-to-day life. Do what you can to enjoy the slower pace, the focussed time, the moments to catch up and laugh with your kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had more than a few nights where I can’t believe we’re reading the Gruffalo AGAIN (for example), but most of my nights have been something brilliant.

I wouldn’t give up story night for anything and I hope these hints help you find ways to enjoy it more too.

Please let me know if you try any of these hints in the comments below and as always thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Bedtime stories: How long till I’m ‘sacked’?

Some parents struggle with ‘story time’. It can be hard to fit it in with all the other demands modern parents have on their time.

All the same, my family and I have somehow managed to squeeze ‘story time’ into our routine from the very beginning.

I really mean the very beginning; on Logan’s first night home from the hospital I sat beside his cot and read The Lion the With and the Wardrobe. (And yes, I knew he didn’t understand. It was just nice to have an excuse to spend some time with the new little person in our house).

Why we continue night after night

Since then we’ve barely missed a night. Maybe the routine has been easier to maintain because we started so early (and I genuinely don’t know how we managed to fit it in alongside nappies, feeding times, and utter, bone-crumbling, exhaustion). Maybe we’ve just been lucky to have to free time in the evenings to read a story together.

Reading to my kids is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve shared with them. We’ve gone on a lot of adventures together, each longer and more complex than the last.

However, there’s no escaping the fact that my kids are getting older. They’re both avid independent readers now and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I’ve got till I’m ‘sacked’ as a Storyteller.

New adventures

We don’t really call it ‘story time’ any more but we still keep up the tradition. Our nights used to consist of a quick visit to the ‘deep dark wood’ with the Gruffalo, an adventure with the ‘Night Pirates’, or dropping in for some hunny with Winnie the Pooh.

Now, we’re adventuring with Harry Potter, ‘The Wee Free Men’, or more recently following high tech shenanigans with Artemis Fowl. We’ve enjoyed a seasonal adventure with the Christmasaurus and visited a very odd spaceship alongside ‘Cakes in Space’.

These stories are deeper than their old picture books (even the wacky ones). It has changed our evenings a bit. Now we might discuss tricky topics and my kids can ask about some pretty grown-up concepts but it’s easy(ish) as it all comes from the comfort of a fictional universe.

A parenting tool like no other

This is the tricky bit for me, if reading were simply an entertaining thing that myself and my kids enjoy together, then I could step back and let them enjoy it themselves. However, it has always had a discussion component too.

Years ago we would ask about whether Winnie the Pooh was being selfish by eating all of Rabbit’s honey, or we might talk about fear and what it means to be brave while reading the Gruffalo’s child. Because you’re reading, you can slow down, you can stop for a moment and go over story points. It’s not the same as watching TV or a movie.

The more nuanced books we read now let me check in with my children in a casual way. Topics in the book can be compared to their school or home life to see if there’s anything troubling them, or even simply something that they don’t understand.

Learning big life lessons in a fictional universe

This is what’s so hard about letting go of story-time now; at precisely the moment when discussions like these are of growing importance, my children are pulling back on family reading time in favour of reading by themselves.

There’s so much good for them to get from reading alone, I can’t deny them that, but I also feel the increased need for this distinctive form of family time.

I know the time will come (and soon) when I really will have to step back, but for now I’m going to try to hold on tight to what has been one of the most useful parenting tools I have ever had access to.

A tool to communicate? What do you use?

I can’t help but wonder how many other parents might be feeling this tug. Losing a tool for parenting that has few rivals.

To use a programming expression, I have always found fictional worlds to work as ‘sandbox’ worlds; places where you can experiment with ideas with no real-world risk. It’s imaginary so the (real-life) stakes are low, but you can still encounter complex social and moral problems.

Are any other parents missing the loss of their ‘sandbox’?

Do parents of older children have any insight on what can take the place of reading together?

Let me know in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Why are Jack Reusen books so short?

harry potter page 1A long long time ago (actually it was only three years back) I tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my eldest son. It was a few weeks after his seventh birthday and he was on holiday from school. I thought that at last he was ready to sit down and enjoy one of the best children’s fantasy series ever written. He wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, he enjoyed it but his attention started lagging in the middle of each chapter. I tried to keep my reading as animated as possible but we still ended up stopping in the middle of some chapters. We would take a break, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes until the next day. For the most part it seemed to work. However, with each break he seemed to forget more details about the book.

At their heart Harry Potter books are mystery books in a fantasy setting. There are clues to remember and puzzles to solve throughout. Forgetting details in these sorts of books takes a lot of the oomph out of them.

I would be asked things like ‘Who’s Ron?’ ‘Why can’t Harry just do magic straight away?’ or possibly the most telling ‘Why does he live with his Aunt and Uncle?’ (asked when Harry has his first Hogwarts Christmas). It was clear he was forgetting more than he was remembering and at around chapter six or seven I could see that almost everything was going over his head.

We put Harry Potter away, to come back to when he was a bit older. All the same, the experience of trying to retain his interest lodged in my mind.

This sensation came back to me when November of 2014 rolled in. The nights grew long, and I discovered a new way to write. NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) fell into my lap. They said something like ‘you have a book inside you waiting to get out’ and I realised that there really was.

Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame became something that I needed to write; something fantastical, exciting, relatable, and importantly, a book that could (hopefully) maintain the interest of an energetic seven-year-old like my son.

There are lots of books for seven-year-olds. Incredible, exciting, sometimes hillarious books, but I felt like I could write something a bit different. I wanted an element of the seriousness of ‘older’ fantasy books, and a slight taste of the danger and thrills that come with that.

From my own experience I realised that I could hold my son’s attention for about ten minutes, so (estimating a reading speed of about 250 words per minute) I worked out that my chapters needed to be no more than 2,500 words long.

I also wanted to make sure the story could be read all the way through in a relatively small space of time so I limited my chapter count to be sure that the whole book could be read in around a fortnight (at a rate of one or two chapters per night).

When I released the first book in the Jack Reusen series I began to hear that other families were having exactly the experience I’d hoped they would. (I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that some parents were sneakily reading ahead to see what happened next). These responses were brilliant, then, around a month after release, I heard something that changed the way I looked at the books.

At the time I worked in a local toy shop. One of our regular customers came in specifically to thank me for writing the book. I hadn’t been thanked for the book before.

It turned out that she had been trying to get her nine year old son to read chapter books for years. Nothing caught his interest. Then she gave him ‘…the Fey Flame‘ and apparently he read the whole thing in just a few nights. I was taken aback and told her how happy I was that he had enjoyed the book so much.

That boy wasn’t the last to say something similar about the Jack Reusen books. The shorter length seems to have made it easier for a lot of children to enjoy. Now that I know I’m helping kids get into reading I can’t bring myself to change the formula.

The original idea was to give families something that they could enjoy together, but a fantastic side-effect seems to be getting more reluctant readers caught up in a book. I love reading and the idea that someone might miss out on the enjoyment of it is disheartening. If writing short chapters and short books helps get a few more kids enjoying reading then I’ll write as many of these books as I can.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own favourite short/quick reads in the comments below. All the best, John

Off to ‘Elsewhere’

I won’t be blogging tonight, firstly because I’ve got loads of prep to do for my talk tomorrow, but also because I’m heading down with the family to see this:

If you’re in the Crieff area they’re hosting shows in Mungal park (part of MacRosty park, you get to it by crossing the bridge). Shows are at 6pm 21st Aug (tonight) and then at 2pm and 5:30pm on Saturday (22nd) and the same times (2pm and 5:30pm) on Sunday (23rd). OK I’m off to the show, hope to see some of you there, all the best, John