New York Times best-selling and award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney has written more than 30 books for children and young adults. She’s also the mother of two kids who have dyslexia—her son Dobbin and daughter Chloe. Here, she shares her thoughts on getting kids—including her own—interested in reading.
1. What made you decide to write books for kids?
While I was a senior editor at Essence magazine in the early 1990s, I oversaw the magazine’s Parenting section. As part of this charge, it was my job to create roundups of children’s books. There were so many stories and topics that I didn’t see reflected in kids’ books! I thought that if I think these topics are cool and exciting, maybe kids will, too.
Kids read for the same reasons that adults read. They want to have fun, laugh, have adventures, escape, meet new characters and learn more about the world. As a mother, I want more books that can help my children do those things. And now as an author, my focus is to inspire joy, power and the love of reading.
2. So many of your books introduce famous people in history to kids. Why do you think it’s important for kids to learn about historical figures?
Kids are the thought-leaders of the future, and, as my own mother likes to say, “Yesterday is the key to tomorrow.” It’s essential that kids learn about what happened in the past. But students of all kinds, all over the nation, have sometimes told me that they don’t like to read long books, works of nonfiction and boring books about historical figures. They say things like, “I don't like books that are like spinach—good for me, but yucky.”
So I set out to give these kids yummy books about history and historical figures. Exciting, interesting, funny stories about awesome people who did amazing things—not books that are “good for them” but don’t engage them. If I can present the stories the right way, then kids will gobble them up.
3. How did you get your children excited about reading, and what would you recommend to other parents?
Both my kids have learning and thinking differences that run the gamut from to and everything in between. There was a time when I could not get my son to read a book, even if I handed him a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Can you imagine? I write books!
So, as the parent of kids with dyslexia, I’ve learned two things about getting them to read. First, our children take their cues from us. If I’m preaching about reading and its virtues, if the inflection in my voice is “this is good for you”—that won’t work.
Reading is not a moral issue. Kids aren’t “good” or “bad” because they read a lot, or don’t, or choose to read Mad magazine or comic books. So I’ve had to put away my inner evangelist. My husband and I try to show our children that we love to read, and that it can be fun.
The other thing I’ve learned is that many “eyes-to-the-page” activities fall under the umbrella of reading. If my daughter wants to spend her day looking at Vogue magazine, that counts. When we get lost on a road trip and I say “Dobbin, let me know when you see a sign for Albany”—he’s reading. Flipping through a newspaper, texting, looking at the ingredients on cereal boxes, cooking from a recipe—all of that counts.
Also, content that is highly visual—lots of pictures and small pieces of text such as captions—is a great way to invite young readers into a reading experience. Kids don’t always have to be reading the classics or the books that will help them get their homework done. They’ll do that eventually.
4. What has being the mother of two kids who struggle with reading taught you about writing books for kids?
My kids are my best and worst critics. I’ve always tried to teach them to self-advocate, and when it comes to books I’ve written, they tell me exactly what works for them as dyslexic readers—and what doesn’t.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, which is illustrated by my husband, Brian Pinkney, centers on the nonviolent protest that happened on February 1, 1960, when four African American students went to a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter and were refused service. The kids let me and my husband know that we had to find ways to make the topic accessible, or else the whole book would be a big snore.
So we decided to present the story like a theatrical production, with a set and a musicality to the language. We called out quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in bold colors. We used a narrative refrain to help kids remember the information through repetition. And Brian rendered the story’s lunch counter in visually intriguing ways. In one spread, the Woolworth’s lunch counter is shown as a roller coaster to symbolize the turbulence of the times. Our kids told us that these approaches worked—they made the book fun and easy to read.
My kids’ candor always forces me to step back and ask myself, “How can I deliver relevant topics in ways that open a door so that young readers can immediately enter a story?”
5. What can parents do to create a reading-friendly environment for kids with learning differences?
My husband and I try to make reading very accessible. We have books, especially very visual books, around the house. I’ll often leave a book out for one of my children. I never ask them to read it—I just leave it there. Also, reading aloud goes a long way. Kids love stories read to them and it's something we parents don’t do as much as we used to. But reading with our children is a great way to connect them to books.
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The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.