As games consume youngsters’ time, publishing expert Michael Norris says reading should not be forced on them

Little boys don’t like reading any more and even little girls don’t enjoy it as much as they once did: this is the accepted wisdom inside the book industry – and in many British families, too. Parents and booksellers tend to blame the growing appeal of online entertainment and handheld games, but research from the US is challenging these assumptions.

Michael Norris, an American publishing expert, will release findings in the monthly Book Publishing Report next month which show that, despite the best intentions, it is well-meaning mothers and fathers who often stop their sons and daughters from picking up the reading habit.

“Parents have too much of a role in deciding which books their child is going to read,” said Norris. “It is turning children off. They should let them choose.”

Norris, who is editor of the Book Publishing Report, urges parents not to give up on books. The results of a number of surveys Norris has carried out with hundreds of American booksellers over the past year have provided the basis for a series of tips for parents designed to help children find enjoyment in books. First, he argues, reading should never be described with “work words” which make it seem like a chore. Too many families, Norris suggests, have fallen into the trap of stereotyping reading as a “good” activity and digital or online game playing as “bad”. Instead, it is important to let reading become associated with pleasure and achievement, just as game playing is.

“The average child consumes a ridiculous amount of media in any given day, from television, videogame content and audio content, so new reading devices, such as the iPad, are not going to have as great an impact on the younger market as people hope. When they are not playing games or listening to music, the majority of a young adult’s time is spent on the phone, talking or receiving and sending text messages. Books don’t even factor into their thinking,” he said.

Publishers would do better to work with the digital world by developing online games to complement their printed books, he argues. The second tip is to make sure children talk directly to a librarian or a bookseller, while parents stand well back. Looming over a child takes all the fun out of their discoveries, he says. Parents should allow children to choose their own reading material.

“Even if a mother or father is just standing with the child when the bookseller asks them what they like to read, we have found that the child will give an answer they think their parent wants to hear. It will not be the same answer they would give alone,” said Norris.

Norris’s third tip for parents is that they do not attempt to limit books to one age range. “What we have found is that parents should not worry whether a title looks too young or too old for a child. If a book has caught their attention, then let them take it and make up their own mind.” Children, added Norris, often enjoy reading books that are easy for them to understand. “My father forced me to read The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy when I was much too young and I have never read another Clancy since,” said Norris.

It is also important, he added, for parents not to enthuse about books that they loved as children: “Parents often say, ‘When when I was your age…’, and it tends to put off children too.”

He said that reading is a personal experience and should not be seen as part of a mass marketing operation. Successful series, such as JK Rowling’s books, are sold in bulk to supermarkets as if every child or teenager will like them. “It should all be about patience and believing that books are sold to one person, one at a time,” said Norris. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds