Recipe for a Reader

04/19/2013 12:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

My mother did everything right. Okay--well, maybe not everything. I may have eaten a few too many bowls of Lucky Charms when I was a kid, and, in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been allowed to get my driver's license at the age of 14. (It was Idaho, in the eighties, when such a thing was possible.) But when it came to turning her kids into readers, my mother had it down.

I grew up in a house full of books. The bookshelves were stuffed, and there was constantly a stack of paperbacks on the stairs or the dining room table, just waiting for some space to clear. In the summertime, we made weekly trips to the library, where I could check out as many books as I could carry, and on family vacations, we always paid a visit to the local bookstore. Nerdy though it may sound, bookstores were as exciting to me as toy stores. I was given carte blanche to pick out any book I wanted, and sometimes I left with two or three. (Despite determined pleading, visits to toy stores never yielded such bounty.)

More importantly, my mother spent time reading these books to us. She patiently sat with me in her lap, helping me sound out the words as I labored my way through an early reader, and later at night, she would read to my sister and me the books that we weren't quite ready to read on our own. Through these nightly sessions, I was introduced to many classics of children's literature--The Boxcar Children, Pippi Longstocking, The Wind in the Willows, and, of course, Peter Pan. Reading wasn't just for bedtime, either. When my younger brother came along, she read to him while he took his bath. We always knew it was an especially good book when he came out pruney.

Books were a daily part of our lives, and reading was both a source of great pleasure and as normal as eating a peanut butter sandwich. I remember my astonishment when a junior high friend told me she didn't read, that, in fact, she hated reading books of any kind. The idea was as foreign to me as someone saying she hated all food.

Of course, the books of my childhood had a deeper influence than I could have imagined back then. Now I write the kinds of stories I would have wanted to read at that age. Writing the Never Girls books, the story of four girls who end up in Pixie Hollow, home of Tinker Bell and her fairy friends, I'm always reflecting on what I would have liked as a kid, the details and plot twists and silly moments that would have stuck with me.

But you don't need to be a writer to appreciate the long-term effects of early reading. Studies have shown that children who are exposed to early reading, are more likely to succeed not just in reading and in writing, but in all school subjects. Reading stimulates the imagination and exposes children to both words and ideas they may not come across in everyday conversation. Some researchers have even found a correlation between reading and empathy. And all this can be accomplished while snuggling on the couch.

I don't know if my mother followed advice on how to get her kids reading, or if what she did was based on instinct and her own innate love of books. But much of our reading life was exactly what educators suggest today. Here are a few things you can do to help encourage your kids to become readers:

Have the ingredients on hand. Research has shown that the number of books in the home--and not a family's income level--is the most likely indicator of a child's success in school. Keep books around. Visit the library. Make reading as easy and accessible as flipping on the TV.

Let it simmer. Quiet reading time offers an opportunity for parent-child bonding. Really, what is more heart melting than holding your kid in your lap while turning the pages of a favorite book? This time together, in turn, helps kids develop a positive association with reading.

Stir gently. Becoming a reader isn't just about learning to sound out the words on the page. It's about developing the ability to extract meaning from a text. Create a dialogue around the books you are reading together. Ask questions, explain, clarify. Illustrations can provide a great jumping off point for discussions.

Season to taste. One of the reasons kids often give for not reading is that they have trouble finding books that interest them. But they are also more likely to enjoy books they pick out for themselves. Parents can help by suggesting books their kids might like--and then allowing them to develop their own tastes.