Getting Kids to Read More: Our Interview With Children’s Author Ross Montgomery
It’s hard getting kids to read. We chatted with Ross, whose work has been listed in the Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Modern Children’s Classics’, shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book of the Year Award and the Branford Boase Award, and featured in The Times Children’s Book of the Week, about how you can encourage your children to read more.
Hi David, how are you doing?
I’m good thanks. So you’ve published three books and you’re working on the fourth – do you want to tell us a little bit about them?
The three books I’ve done so far, they’ve all been with Faber and they’re all aimed at ages 9-12. I’ve just released my first ever picture book, aimed for ages 3-8, called The Building Boy, and this morning I handed in the first draft of my fourth book, which is hopefully out next year but I’m not sure of the date yet
Your books have some quite adult themes – in Perijee and Me, there’s isolation, and dystopia in The Tornado Chasers. Do you think children are happier to read stuff with slightly more adults themes, even if they don’t necessarily realise that’s what’s happening?
I’m a really big believer in the fact that it’s not what you talk to children about, but how you do it. I think that even the most typical plot device in a kid’s book of children being kidnapped means something totally different to children than it does to adults. Because now if I hear about a child being kidnapped I feel sick with horror at how scary that is, but children don’t really fully understand the wider implications of that, and they’re not as bothered.
I think that children deserve to read about things like grief, and they understand about things like being lonely and sadness
Because falling out with your friend in a playground is as significant and painful to them as – y’know, wider and more grown-up things that come round with falling out with people and feeling like you’re out of place. I think they experience all the same things as adults, just in a very different way
So you’re also a teacher – do your students read your books?
Only a few of them will talk to me about it. When my first book came out in 2013, I was a bit put out by the fact that none of the kids seemed to care, or talk to me about it, so I was like ‘cheers guys, thanks.’ And I realised, only by other teachers explaining to me, that in some of their classes, kids would be excitingly talking about it, like ‘ooh, Mr. Montgomery’s written a book!’, and they’d be reading it, but all of those children were almost too nervous to come up to me and be like ‘Aw I read your book’, because I’m the strict teacher – which everyone’s always surprised to hear (including David, Minerva’s interviewer, it must be noted).
But there are some children who will come up to me and want to talk to me about it face-to-face, and I think – to be honest, it’s an invaluable opportunity for them, and I’ve done a couple of writing workshops in the school, where it’s almost like the children who’ll be chosen are the ones who JUST LOVE CREATIVE WRITING, and I’m really honoured that it means as much to them as it does that they get to work with a writer, and their enthusiasm is just amazing – I love it
As a teacher, do you find it hard to get students to read more? Or are they so inspired by having you as a teacher that they all want to read all the time?
I suppose you’ll always have some children who are really reluctant to do it. There’s been this thing in education in about the last 6 years or so of talking about ‘reluctant readers’ – which unfortunately means boys, pretty much. Girls, on the whole, it just doesn’t seem to encompass them as much as boys who just don’t want to read, and it doesn’t speak to them.
To some degree that’s going to be to do with literacy levels, which is obviously a much bigger problem, but I think it is difficult sometimes to get children to embrace it – if they don’t necessarily find reading that easy. And I think it’s one of the reasons that children enjoy reading series as much as they do. Once you finally find a series, or a book, that speaks to you, and it’s at your level and it’s maybe not challenging you too much, because you don’t always want to be challenged by everything you read. They’re going to stick to it, and they’re going to take a joy in doing it, and something like Horrid Henry, which seven year-old boys – pretty much all of them that I speak to, absolutely love it, and I don’t necessarily blame them for not wanting to stray too far from that as an area.
So it’s hard for kids to make the jump to the next series that they’re going to like as much, and get into as much, and it’ll be at a similar level?
Exactly. I think the one thing that I always found really worked for me as a class teacher was – and I appreciate that it is a tricky thing to do – but it was really just to try and promote reading by showing that you do it. And even something as small as – I used to have a little rack on my desk with a little sign saying ‘Mr. Montgomery is reading this’ and I’d just have the book that I was reading sitting there…if it was appropriate. And that was all I did for a little bit, but the fact that it was showing that I was reading, and taking pleasure from it. And every now and then, one or two children would ask me questions about it. I think one time it was Northern Lights – which I love, it’s amazing – and a girl came and asked me about it, and I explained the plot and she said ‘wow that sounds really good’ and then the next week had a copy and was reading it. And not every child is necessarily going to do that, but I do think modelling that reading is enjoyable and pleasurable and you get something out of it is kind of the first step. You can’t necessarily treat it like it’s homework, even though sometimes it will be.
That’s sort of the answer to my next question, which is do you have any specific tips for encouraging children to read more?
I think as much positive reinforcement as you can always works.
If you wanted them to eat more vegetables – the children I teach don’t have that problem, they all love salad
If only books were salad.
If only! But it’s that thing of rather than saying ‘No, you have to eat this cause it’s good for you’, doing this approach of ‘this is delicious, this is amazing, this tastes really good with this, this is healthy and it’s tasty’ – they’re gonna respond a lot more positively to that and by seeing you eating healthily than they are by being told they have to. And I think just by taking an active interest in reading and not saying ‘you need to read this’ and also not necessarily trying to get them away from things they already love, even if they are maybe sticking to them a bit too much.
Like I ONLY read Beano annuals for about 2 years of my life and my mum went spare. And there eventually came a time when I was happy to move away from it but jut going over those stories again and again and again, I learnt probably more about a narrative and how to construct a joke from those than I have from anything else in my life. And I do think there’ll come a time when they’ll do it themselves, and the best thing you can do is just encourage it.
So you’re saying it’s not necessarily a catastrophe if a kid is only sticking with one series?
No, not at all, I completely understand why – most school librarians I speak to, it’s a thorn in their side. I mean it’s wonderful that they’re all reading – ooh, you know what, I don’t even know if Beast Quest is still a thing. I think a few years ago maybe it was the big thing. It’s wonderful that they’re taking that active pleasure in reading, but they’re not taking a particular interest in things outside of that, and if you’re reading with a certain sort of reluctant boy reader, that’s frustrating, but I suppose that’s the trick, is to praise the fact that they’re taking the time to read, and they’re choosing to do it, and that’s a wonderful thing. And then go ‘oh if you like that, you might also really love this’.
So it’s something to build on, as opposed to something to say – ‘why aren’t you reading all this other stuff as well?
Yeah – read Little Women. But in that respect, also finding your school librarian and actually getting into a conversation with them and talking to them. They are brilliant, and I think they’re underused as well as undervalued, and if you want tips for getting your children to read more, go find them, say what they like, and they will be able to give you 20 recommendations for things that would continue. Any librarian can probably help, but school librarians, it’s a particular niche that really works.
And finally – you’re a massive Terry Pratchett fan – so am I, and you said he’s one of the writers that got you into reading, and also writing. He’s written some brilliant books intended for a younger audience. Are there any other authors writing for young people whose work really excites you, and you might recommend?
It’s tricky because I now know lots of those people. I’ll do a shameless but totally sincere plug – the illustrator I worked with for my recent picture book, David Litchfield, last year released his first picture book that he also wrote the text for, which is called the The Bear and the Piano. We’d already started working together before it came out and so I was almost nervous leading up to it, thinking ‘what if it’s rubbish, it’s gonna be really embarrassing, I’ll have to be really supportive even if I don’t like it’, then I read it and it’s just the most beautiful book. It’s so lovely, it’s been really successful, it was Waterstone’s Picture Book of the Year, if you haven’t read it I can’t recommend it enough, it’s truly wonderful.
I recently had a look at the other stuff that he’s doing, we’ve got another one coming out next year in November, but he really is one to watch, he’s amazing. In terms of people writing for older children, I really love Emma Carroll, who writes historical fiction for that sort of age – I would say certain children as young as 9 could read it, but it does veer into teens as well. But it’s really beautifully written, really thrilling historical fiction. Her first one was called Frost Hollow Hall, which is like a Victorian ghost story, which is amazing. And I also work with Katherine Rundell, who wrote Rooftoppers, and the Wolf Wilder, her most recent book, is currently Waterstones Picture Book of the Month. She writes beautiful, beautiful books, where when you read it you can literally visualise the child who is gonna enjoy reading it. There’s a certain type of girl, age 11, who worships Katherine Rundell – I can’t recommend her enough.
Brilliant, thanks so much for your time and wisdom, Ross. Cheers!
You can find out more about Ross and his work here, http://www.rossmontgomery.co.uk/about, and pick up his books in Waterstones, or any other bookseller worth its salt!
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.