Getting your kids interested in reading outside of school hours can be a challenge. The Harry Potter series got my 14-year-old daughter hooked back in the day. But we’re still trying to inspire my 10-year-old son to read regularly. And by inspire, let’s be honest, I mean without having to force him to do it!
Summer reading programs and book clubs can help. To learn about more options, I spoke with Francesco Sedita, president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers.
Francesco oversees the creation of nearly 250 books every year for readers 12 and under, and we took the opportunity to discuss Penguin’s Who Was? series. The books are illustrated biographies of significant historical figures, including baseball players like Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth, and Roberto Clemente. Since my son is a baseball fan, I knew this series might be the help I need.
Q: How do you make nonfiction interesting for a young audience?
A: The “Who Was” series is designed to celebrate the people kids are learning about in school, but it’s fun and entertaining. That’s because we are always asking ourselves how we can make nonfiction more interesting for a third grader.
As a result, we spend a lot of time thinking about different details — from the design of each cover, and the book’s shape and size, to how things like illustrations and sentence structure help readers through the book.
The series’ secret weapons are timelines and sidebars. The timeline helps take our readers through each story. And we complement this with smaller sidebars to help break up the story. Sidebars help keep readers with short attention spans interested, and they also help bring nonfiction to life by comparing elements of the story to what the reader already knows.
In addition to the books, we have a trivia game available online and as an app. These tools extend the experience readers have with our books and allow them to apply what they learn from the series in a fun way.
Q: What’s been the response to “Who Was”?
A: It’s been fantastic. Teachers and librarians tell us that students really look forward to reading them. While the books are more than 100 pages each, they keep kids interested and are easy to navigate – even for the most reluctant of readers. And with nearly 125 books, there is something for everyone in the series. Parents tell us they also read the books and usually learn something new in the process.
Q: How do you choose whom to profile and who’s next on the list?
A: Our process is more art than science. The series started with historical figures most likely to come up in class. But from there, it’s more organic. We discuss potential books and can be inspired by many things that pique our interest in someone. Our next books will feature Michael Jackson, Elton John, Marie Antoinette, and Maya Angelou. These are all great stories to tell and easy for us to make relatable to this audience.
Q: Which titles are most popular and which are your personal favorites?
A: Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss are big sellers. Every kid knows about both franchises and they want to know how they got started. It’s no surprise as kids can easily make a connection to their own personal interests with these books. But more traditional titles likely to be covered in class are also very popular, including: Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, Ben Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. I’m always rediscovering these books so my favorites change over time. Right now, the Andy Warhol and Amelia Earhart books are intriguing to me for a variety of reasons.
Tips to Get Kids Reading for Fun
Since I’m still in the process of getting my 10-year-old inspired, Francesco also gave me these tips to consider.
Listen: Listen to your kid. Identify topics they’re interested in, like baseball, and reading can become an extension of those interests.
Find a series: A book series can really play to a reader’s specific interests. Series also make the books collectible, like trading cards. Kids can’t wait to expand their collection and, in the process, they build a library on their favorite topics.
Book or device: Will your kids respond best to printed books or to electronic books? I’m obviously a fan of printed books and the experience of holding them in your hands and turning its pages. But if your kid is more into gadgets, downloading books on their favorite topic may make reading interesting to them.
It can be tough to get kids to read independently. But the benefits to reading are many — from better interpersonal skills, better grades in school, higher achievement test scores, and even lower stress levels. So I’m redoubling my efforts. And with these tips, you can too.