Today I continue my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers in an interview with Jill Tullo (abbreviated “JT” below), who blogs at The Well-Read Child. Jill is a veteran blogger in the kidlitosphere and cares a lot about children’s literacy . As you’ll see from the interview, she suggests some great ways to help children read. She also has a soft spot for dystopian fiction. The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Jill’s blog, The Well-Read Child. Click here for the previous interview in this series, with Sylvia Vardell of Poetry for Children.
Q: When and how did you become interested in children’s books?
JT: I’ve loved to read as long as I can remember, and in seventh grade I started a diary. Alongside the usual information you’d expect to find in a tween girl’s diary (boys, friends, school, etc.), are brief summaries and reaction to books I’d just finished. This was before the days of blogs and sites like Goodreads, so old-fashioned pen and paper had to do. Because I read so much, I’ve always wanted to keep records of what I’ve read and how I felt about the books when I finished them. In 2007 when my little girl was just a few months, I had a very emotional experience reading a book to her – On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier – and decided that I wanted to document these experiences and keep track of the books I read with her. The Well-Read Child was born that night.
Q: Tell me about your blog, The Well-Read Child.
JT: The Well-Read Child started out as a place to write about what I was reading with my child, but I knew there were so many other books for children that I wanted to talk about. I’d also heard from other parents that they just didn’t know what books to choose for their children or even how to get them interested in reading. That’s when I decided to write book reviews for kids of all ages and offer tips for parents to help them instill the love of reading in their children. I’m passionate about literacy, so I felt this was an outlet for me to share this passion.
Since my blog was “born,” I’ve had periods of “blog angst,” (i.e., not knowing where I want to go with it, where to focus it, etc.). If you go through the archives you can see different things I’ve tried, but in the end, it all came down to the basic concept of sharing books and reading tips with parents, caregivers, and others who really want to read with the children in their lives. I work full time and now have another child, so I don’t post as often as I used to. I try to post at least once a week, but that doesn’t always happen. Now that my son is a little older, I do have a bit more time to sneak in blogging, so I expect the frequency of posting to increase.
Q: I love the simple mission you have for your blog: “Get kids to read”. What are three ways to help children read?
1. Make it Fun – I can’t stress this enough. If you force books on kids and it seems like work, they won’t enjoy it. Let kids pick out books they want to read. Go to the library and let them browse. Talk to librarians who can help them find books on topics that interest them. And don’t worry too much out the reading level of the books they choose.
2. Try a Variety of Reading Materials – Books aren’t the only things that promote literacy. Magazines, comic books, newspapers, and graphic novels are also great ways to get kids interested in reading. Make use of “environmental print” (packaging, road signs, logos, etc.) to add variety to their reading and to show how essential literacy is in everyday life.
3. Establish a Routine – Regardless of the age of your child, set a time of the day when you either read together as a family or have individual reading time. We always read to the kids before they go to bed, and it is my most favorite time of the day. My four-year-old daughter especially loves for me read to her. Reading is just a normal part of her everyday life, and she looks forward to it. It definitely takes commitment because some days I’m exhausted after a long day of work, but for me, it’s not just another task I have to complete. It’s fun and rewarding and worth the time.
Q: I understand you used to be a teacher. What grade/subjects did you teach?
JT: During my student teaching days, I taught English to 10th and 11th graders. I also spent four months in Brazil teaching English as a Foreign language to 7th graders and adults. When I returned from Brazil, I spent three years teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to middle school and high school students. I also taught ESOL to adults in evening classes.
Q: How has your time as a teacher influenced your view of kids and books?
JT: Not only do kids have a variety of interests but they also have a variety of literacy levels. When I was teaching ESOL, I had students from war-torn countries who’d missed years of schooling and had very low literacy levels. We made weekly visits to the school library and dedicated daily class time to “free reading.” One thing that was a bit frustrating was that there weren’t a lot of appropriate books for my high school students. Many of the books that they could read in English were for younger students, so they were often too embarrassed to check them out. That was 10 years ago, so I hope the selection has improved since then. [AM: Here are some good lists of books for older children struggling to read, i.e., "Hi-Lo Books" (Hi Interest, Low Reading Level).]
Q: How has being a parent influenced your perspective on kids and books?
JT: I’ve always been an advocate of reading and literacy, so my perspective hasn’t changed a lot. But watching my daughter grow from “eating books” to being an active participant in the reading experience has been a true joy. Right now, she asks tons of questions and is trying to sound out words. And it’s fun to watch my son go through the same process. At 15 months, he’s beginning to graduate from book eating to page flipping.
Something I’ve learned and accepted is that my kids don’t always have the same taste in books as me. I could absolutely love a children’s book that my daughter will not pick out a second time. And vice versa. There are times when I’d rather have a tooth pulled than read a book I don’t care much about over and over again.
Q: I understand you also work as a strategist for a marketing firm. Does that job give you a special perspective on the marketing of children’s books? What do you think about the way children’s books are marketed?
JT: My company does a variety of work in the marketing, branding, and communications fields, and marketing can be tough for any organization or industry. We don’t do work with the children’s book industry, but it seems especially tough. There is such a big gap in the audiences that publicists needs to reach – the kids who read the books vs. the adults who buy them – that marketing tactics and messaging need to be totally different. There are some very well-established brands like the Harry Potter, Magic Tree House, and Hunger Games series that have experienced a great deal of success, but that level of success is hard to attain. Many authors take on a lot of the responsibility for marketing themselves, and social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs have really opened the door for more conversation between readers, authors, and publishers. I think it’s going to continue to be a challenging industry, and authors and publishers are going to have to be constantly thinking of creative ways to raise awareness of their books.
Q: I understand you also do some freelance writing and editing (you’re a busy person!). What sorts of projects do you enjoy working on most? Any interesting recent projects?
JT: I haven’t been able to take on a lot of work lately because I have been so busy with work and family, but I’ve written a variety of things from “How to Protect Your Pet if You Die” to “How to Choose a Programmable Thermostat.” I specialize in instructional design and educational writing, so I’d love to do more projects that involved curriculum development and education. Even though I’m not in the classroom, my job offers me the opportunity to educate others, so I’m always excited to work on educational projects.
Q: Who are some of your favorite children’s authors and why? Favorite recent children’s books?
A new favorite is Mo Willems – we have the Knuffle Bunny triology and most of the books in his Elephant and Piggie series. Mo is simply a genius – he gets kids and writes books that both parents and kids love.
For older kids, Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games series are definitely favorites. I also love the work Sara Zarr, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Maggie Stiefvater. All of these authors have different writing styles and write in different genres, but they write beautifully and engage readers from the opening sentence.
Q: I noticed from your blog that you think highly of wordless picture books. What’s so great about them?
JT: I love wordless picture books for so many reasons.
First, they let your imagination soar. Kids can use the pictures to make up their own words and stories. If I was still a teacher, I’d love to do an exercise where I ask kids to write their own stories based on the same picture book. I think it would be a joy to read the different ways kids interpret the story in their own words.
Second, wordless picture books are good for kids who may be struggling with reading. They can enjoy a book without feeling the pressure of trying to figure out all of the words.
Third, they can be great tools for bilingual families. As an ESOL teacher, I had many students whose parents couldn’t speak English, and wordless picture books can help bridge that language barrier and let parents and children enjoy reading together. Right now, I have a picture in my mind of a child sitting on his grandmother’s lap enjoying a book together that the grandmother wouldn’t have been able to read in English.
Finally, wordless picture books sort of force you to take a step back and really enjoy the art. Sometimes words do get in the way, and you forget to look at the art and the way the author tells his/her story through imagery.
Q: Why is it important to let kids choose their own books?
JT: I think that it’s nearly impossible to force something on a child and expect them to love it. Children have their own minds and allowing them to choose books empowers them to make their own choices and explore what’s out there.
Q: So, I noticed you have a “soft spot” for dystopian fiction. What draws you to it?
JT: Boy, do I. I think my first encounter with dystopian fiction was Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and then in high school, I read Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Those books hooked me into a lifelong interest in that type of fiction. I’m intrigued by portrayals of futuristic worlds – how they’re structured, who has the power, how they got to be where they are. But I’m even more intrigued by the people who live in these worlds and of course the heroes who inevitably question the society they’ve grown up in. Whether the new world is the result of some sort of nuclear attack, an overthrown government, or a virus that turns victims into zombies, the stories of the people living within it fascinate me.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s literature?
I love the community of people who are just as passionate as I am about reading with children and literacy, and I love discovering new books and new characters that I can share with others.
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