The doorbell rings right after breakfast in the summertime. Four pairs of pounding feet rush for the door, trying to be the first to turn the knob. I don’t even bother checking the door. It’s not for me.

Our neighbor has come down to play.

The other day this familiar scene played out with one exception. One of my boys didn’t greet his friend at the door. He was perched on the couch engrossed in a book.

Neighbor Boy: What are you doing?

My Son: Oh just reading Calvin and Hobbes.

Neighbor Boy: I hate reading.

Saddest words ever uttered. My first thought when I hear someone make this claim is, “What, are you crazy?!” I want to march the offender over to a chair and place book after book in their hands until they recognize the error of their ways. Such a helpful reaction.

When my oldest son was in kindergarten and learning to read, he really struggled. It seemed he was in a class full of ultra-bright smarty-pants who could all read before the first day of school. He was just trying to learn his letters and phonetic rules. By first grade I could feel his frustration. My husband and I were starting to get worried. My son loved it when I read to him, a habit we’d gotten into when he was a baby. But he didn’t love doing it himself because it was hard work.

And then a friend recommended Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Looking back on this moment I think I remember heavenly choirs singing.

Our son’s reading took off overnight. Rowley and Greg/Craig were constant fixtures in our house. (Our son struggled to get the protagonist’s name right, but who cares? He was reading!) I heard a lot of play-by-play scenes.

“And then Greg says this. And Rowley does this. Oh man it was so funny!”

And if I didn’t laugh with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm he’d retell the entire scene, convinced I hadn’t heard him properly.

By the end of first grade he was reading at a 5th grade level. I’m his Mom so I think he’s smart. And as the years go by it’s easy to forget how much he struggled in the beginning. Especially when he gets in trouble for reading too much at school. But I’m convinced that everyone can love to read. You just have to find the right book to trigger that love.

So when my second son had the same struggles at the same age, I was better prepared to handle it. One night he said something to me that reminded me of the Cam Jansen books I’d read as a kid. The character’s ability to take a picture in her mind (click), and recall the images to solve mysteries, made such an impression on me. I can remember riding around town on my bike and saying, “Click,” to myself to see if I could freeze every detail of an image.

I shared this with son number 2, and his interest was sparked. He read all the Cam Jansen books he could get his hands on and discovered his love for reading. And he also gets in trouble at school for reading too much.

So I’m trying an experiment with my neighbor’s son who’s decided he hates reading. I’m leaving our favorite books laying around where I know he’ll see them. (Ok, they’re already out. I just have a good reason to not put them away now.)

I try to talk about books casually. “I’m reading this book right now that’s so good!” Or “Have you ever read Diary of  Wimpy Kid? Those books are so funny! You have older brothers, I’ll bet you know just what this is like.” 

I suspect that when people say they hate reading, what they really mean is, “Reading is stinking hard.” Nothing makes this more apparent than trying to explain the rules of English to a six year old.

“Yes, I know ‘spooky’ and ‘book’ both have two o’s in them. No, I don’t know why they don’t make the exact same sound.” I inevitably end these enlightening discussions with a, “Look, our language is weird, ok?”

Learning to read takes a lot of memorizing and practicing and repetition to get it right. And it seems like it will only ever be frustration and sweat and tears. But there’s a moment that every person who loves to read has discovered. The moment when you get carried away in the story. This is when you forget all about rules, and reading is never the same. This is when magic happens.

I can’t force book after book on my neighbor until he cries, “Uncle!” I know that he has to discover the magic for himself. So I’ll continue to do what I can to provide nudges here and there. It may be too much to hope he’ll get in trouble in class for reading. But maybe one day instead of declaring, “I hate reading,” he’ll sit down on the couch and laugh with my son over the cartoon strips on the pages.

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