Ask Alice: What do you do when you’re dealing with a non-reading teen?

Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!

If you are reading this column (and thus, likely a follower of LoveOzYA), you are almost certainly a reader. Like me, you probably share an adoration of the way words on a page exert an inexorable pull into a fictitious, yet totally engrossing, world. Like me, you also probably find it unthinkable that someone could possibly not enjoy reading.

Yet there are those who walk among us who are not readers.

While in adults, this is a tendency that we should be resigned to respect, the question arises as to whether in younger readers this is a tendency we should rail against also accept. Normally, I am in full support of students and young people finding their own way in their own fashion. However, we know a fair bit about the benefits of at least a limited reading practice to the academic outcomes of students, as well as the benefit brought by reading to young people’s sense of self and wellbeing in addition to enhancing their worldview – the subject of last month’s Ask Alice. So one could easily argue that there is some impetus to try and get young people reading if they’re otherwise reluctant to do so.

However, critically, thebenefits only arise if the reading in question is done for pleasure rather than under duress. The million dollar question is though, how do we achieve that?

Well, I consulted a few of our LoveOzYA family to help me answer that question.

First and foremost, think outside the box and in particular, think outside your own reading habits. Tom, a school library assistant who has assisted with a previous Ask Alice, recommended “finding a niche interest that gets them vaguely reading.” Dani, a teacher librarian about to complete a Masters of Education, Teacher Librarianship, who has also assisted with a previous Ask Alice, specifically advocated “asking students what they like rather than buying what you think they should read.” They both suggested graphic novels, audiobooks, non-fiction titles, even books targeted toward younger readers. YA author K.M Allan, who is also the parent of a reluctant reader teenager, said that in her efforts to encourage her daughter to read, “I’ve bought books she has shown an interest in or book adaptations for movies or TV shows she’s liked,” some of which they’d even read together.

Dani additionally advocated manga, noting “many reluctant readers will read manga.” While the evidence suggests that longform writing (ie novels) deliver the best benefits in terms of marks, engagement with story of any kind provides myriad benefits. There’s a snobbishness with which graphic novels and manga are often viewed, yet they are still gateways to other worlds, other ways of thinking, and the cognitive elasticity that comes with entering such conceptual spaces. Moreover, for those of us with an agenda of the literary kind, it paves the way for a conversation with the reader in question about what they have read, and what they might read in the future.

It’s worth bearing in mind though that, for a variety of reasons, many people find reading an arduous task. As a result, it’s important to find ways to incentivise reading and build a positive association with the act of reading. In more cynical words: bribery.

Tom observed “a small trend of young people passively consuming content” via social media algorithms which deliver tailored material. Although substantiating this would require further investigation, it certainly makes sense that people who have spent basically their whole lives being delivered content through curated social media feeds would find the prospect of choosing something for themselves off-putting – especially given that choice comes without the seeming confirmation that it meets their interest as is provided by an algorithm that ‘knows’ them, and their likes or dislikes.

One of the ways to counteract that can be through finding a way to incentivise reading – to pull readers to choose and read a book. Helen, a school librarian, shared the following anecdote with me:

At the start of this year, she started a borrowing rewards card; students get a sticker whey they finish a book and then when they complete the card, they go into a random draw at the end of the term for a small prize. At the start of the year, a student who often visits the library but only showed interest in car magazines or car-related books, saw the stickers and asked about them. Wanting a sticker, she borrowed a book and came into the library every day at recess and lunch to read. It was the first book she’d read since she was 10 years old with her grandmother – Helen let her have 2 stickers! She’s now reading her second book. Moreover, she asked whether the library could buy books she had seen on BookTok, which Helen did.

Helen’s approach reveals how important it is to offer rewards to reluctant readers to build a positive association with reading. It also shows the importance of looking outside ‘the box’ in finding the right book (or graphic novel, or audiobook) for the right reader. It also shows how important it is to be approachable, and how one conversation can open new opportunities.

In addition, and although I’m loath to validate the existence of BookTok by acknowledging its existence (I’m too old and too grumpy for TikTok), engaging with social media and what’s popular there, especially given Tom’s observation about how much trust adolescents put in the recommendations of social media, is something that can really draw people in.

However, for all my jesting, we do have to supportively accept it if reading really doesn’t do it for a younger person. A less virtuous approach might suggest that acknowledging and being supportive of the fact that someone simply doesn’t enjoy reading now doesn’t mean they might not come to like reading late. K.M Allen shared, “as reading is a life skill, it has been important to encourage [my daughter] to get into books, but there’s only so much you can do before it turns into nagging. I don’t want to discourage her from ever reading anything again, so I don’t make a big deal over the fact she doesn’t like to read,” acknowledging however that it is “a little bittersweet […because] it feels like she’s missing out on something that always gave me joy at her age […and] that’s an experience we can’t share.”

This sentiment was echoed by Tom, who acknowledged, “sometimes it’s like pulling teeth because no matter what you offer, they’re not interested.”

We know reading brings many benefits, which is why it’s important to try and encourage young people to do it. However, as individuals who are passionate about reading, we also need to look out for when we might be pushing our passion onto someone else. It’s inevitably coming from a lovely place, the desire to see someone else find that joy particular to falling into a book. But not everyone finds delight in that. The best which we as those-with-neverending-tbr-piles can do is to be nonjudgmental about the varying reading habits of others, and be open to discussion and recommendation when invited.



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