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You’ve heard it before. If you want to be a writer, you have to be a good reader. But what does that mean? We all can read, right? We know how to spell. We know to read left to right, top of the page to the bottom. What else is there?

Well, the writers respond, it’s not enough to just consume the words, you have to let them wash over your eye-drums and puddle in your cortex (or something). You have to pay attention and scrutinize. You’re not reading for entertainment, you’re reading to learn about giving the gift of reading. What works? What doesn’t work? It’s not enough to say, “I liked/didn’t like that story.” You need to figure out what the writer did to make you like/hate it so that you can employ (or avoid) the same techniques in your own work. You have to read critically.

And if you want to see a critical reader, get yourself a three-year-old.

I happen to have one in stock already. And a lot of books.

Both my kids are excellent readers. Love books. Read everything that doesn’t move, including the cat (his eyes speak volumes). But the three-year-old has a way of effortlessly sizing up a book. Wannabe professional writers could learn a lot.

The cover:  When I say the three-year-old is an excellent reader, of course, I know he can’t actually read. He’s pretty good at writing his name and recognizes a few words, but even at this limited stage, he still takes in a story better than most people. It starts with the cover. In truth, he’s not so much concerned with the front cover of his picture books as he is with the back. That’s where all the thumbnails of other book covers in the particular series are – Berenstain Bears, Sandra Boynton books, Mo Willems, Einsteins, Dr. Seuss, whatever.   He’ll sit for ten minutes just looking at the cover thumbnails of all the other available books. “I have that one. I have that one. I want that one.” Sometimes, he enjoys looking at the cover more than the insides.

The take-away for writers: Books should offer the promise of something more. Oh, and you can totally judge a book by its cover (or at least, you usually do). Everyone knows, but only a three-year-old is honest enough to tell you. So spend the time and money to make it a good one.

The words matter: At some point, though, you have to open the book. Pumped from the thrill of a successful selection of a book from his shelf, my kid’s demeanor totally changes once it’s time for the story to begin. He’s attentive, rock steady, hands in his lap. He studies every word, every illustration. Eyes never stop moving. He listens to the story. He’s into it. 

The take-away: Write something good and you’ll stop people in their tracks.

Ask questions: The boy enjoys his book time, but he’s not shy about the questions. “Why’d he do that?” he’ll ask. “Where’s that boy going?” “What’s this?” “Where’s that go?” He wants to know everything those familiar, but still maddeningly out of reach words will tell him and more. He can’t wait for the next page.

The take-away: Demand more from your own stories. Ask the hard questions. Think of every possible flaw or inconsistency. If you don’t think of it, some reader out there will…and she’ll tell her friends. And there go your sales.

Write more: The final lesson is to keep writing. If nothing else, you’ll keep my kid in stock. At the rate of forty-two bedtime stories a night, even his massive library will be depleted soon. Freebies, especially, are welcome.



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