Blog Family Stories

Summer Bribes

When I joined my DNA with my husband’s, there were many unanswered questions. Would my recessive blonde genes triumph over his green eyes and dark hair?  Would our kids inherit his more mathematical and logical mind?  Would his laid back attitude trump my more tightly wired list-making one?  No matter. Those were all things we had little or no control over.

But I did feel certain of one thing:  our kids would be avid readers.

When I think back to my childhood, and the one my husband describes, we both loved to disappear into a world of books.  Reading took us to new places, requiring only imagination to color in the lines or draw the landscape.  

I fell just a little bit more in love with Bob when he first described his boyhood self to me as a kid “buried in a book.”  That’s when I knew, among other things, that he was the man for me.  Naturally, we would create a little cache of eager beaver readers.  Forget nature—that part was all about nurture, right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Oh, hang on a tick, no one in my household is illiterate, no one is using rope for a belt or wears cardboard shoes.  All four of my kids have a decent grasp on current events.  But much to my great sorrow, they don’t read for pleasure.  So if you are one of the lucky people whose progeny devour books like Halloween fun-size candy bars, you can stop reading now.   We need not feel the sting of your smugness.

I got through July and I put my foot down. Summer was half over! The tide had to turn.  I announced to my 13 year olds that they would read or lose their allowance.  Read beyond their summer reading assignments and, well, there would be a new article of clothing in it for them.

Admitting this two-pronged “punitive plus bribery” approach to making my kids read, feels a little like standing up in an AA meeting and announcing that I’m an alcoholic.

But I figure, if I out myself, maybe some of the rest of you won’t be so hard on yourselves.  You’ll abandon the unproductive search for where you failed, after years of modeling solid recreational reading habits, countless bedtime stories and dedicated visits to your public library. It’s a jungle out there in the world of modern childhood— the concept of reading for fun today feels more like being the Victorian bathing costume in the Miss America Bikini Contest— its just not as sexy as its technologically entertaining competitors.

Bribing kids to read?  Horrors, say the ghosts of child librarians past.  I wasn’t beneath using Skittles as a reward for potty training.  Is this really any different?  Isn’t regular reading as essential as proper pooping if you’re going to thrive in this world? 

As an author I have the pleasure of knowing and working with some wonderful people in the book business. So I canvassed a few industry folks and came up with a stack of current YA books.  I’m no dummy.  I’m not going to try to force-feed Jane Austen right now.  I chose the Harry Potter-style lane. Every crack addict knows you need to begin with a gateway drug.
“All Our Pretty Songs” by Sarah McCarry was first up, a new YA summer entry that got great reviews.  My girls looked over the cover, their summer freckles furrowing as they read the flap; Cool Hand Lukes, those two, careful not to display too much overt enthusiasm.  An eyebrow raised in interest.  The lure and hook snagged in the fish’s mouth.  Success, I thought to myself, displaying my poker face.
I gathered titles like “Social Code,” “Fan Girl” and “Prep School Confidential.”  These books also had wonderful cover art to sweeten the offering, a short skirt here, a mysterious kissy face there.  Hah! Take that you addictive TV series, you seductively shot  “Gossip Girl” and fake blood strewn “Vampire Diaries” episodes! Yes, yes, shame on me.  I do permit them to watch these shows, but I’m what you call an “almost-everything-in-moderation” kind of mother.  Current pop culture has its own important place in adolescence. 
The books arrived.  And so they read.

Here we are now, in the early days of August.  Just before lights out, the three of us tuck in, we open our books, stretch out our legs on the bed, the moths beat against the screens in the hushed dark outside. There’s a bullfrog or two, singing baritone with all this recent rain.  OK, OK, so I over-dramatized the scene a little, it does feel sorta triumphant.  And it’s blissfully quiet inside, no vampire victims are screaming on TV, no Park Avenue prepsters are tossing their highlighted manes and huffing away on their Tory Burches.

There is only the flickering of the theater of our minds.  Only the sound of we three drawing breath.  We are reading.  Pure happiness.

Perhaps we will work our way to iconic titles like “The Wind in the Willows,” (although that window has probably passed) “Little Women,”  “The Hobbit” or any of the endless classics that could enrich their sponge-like minds.  Or not.  Is it important that my girls have read Thackeray or can recite sonnets of William Wordsworth or stanzas from William Shakespeare?  Or do we march on now, in the full glare of the information age, with a morphing view of what it means to be well read and well educated?  Quotes and poems and answers lie but a keystroke or two away now on Google.  Do studying Latin and Greek make one especially erudite?  Or obsolete?  What is the future of the “great books” and how will that definition change through the generations?  Who is writing the great books of our time?

Sigh.  All these questions!  I just don’t know.  What I do know is that my girls are reading.  They are marinating in the pure pleasure of delving into a real, live, paper paged book.  And yes, they will redeem their promised reward.  Fair is fair.  A deal is a deal.  They’ll pick a cute top or a skirt at Target as we head out of the mountains after Labor Day and begin to brace for the return of school, chauffeuring and schedules.
But here is the thing that gives me hope.  It’s the reminder that all of that foundation laying, all of that work we did as parents in the reading department, lurks somewhere inside like the herpes virus, just waiting to flare up.


My 19 year old asked me for book recommendations this summer—she actually asked ME!  And please do NOT tell her I’m writing this.  Aware that I could scare her off by lending her my more literary faves, I quickly pulled down choices like Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” and “Gone Girl.”  I slipped in “The Light Between Oceans,” and that clever Sloan Crosleys “I Was Told There’d Be Cake.”  Finally, I thought I’d dazzle her with Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” just to prove my cool factor is intact.  I must have smiled all the way to bed that night.


So take hope ye mother’s of children connected to their cell phones and computers.  Don’t despair you parents of instagrammers and Facebook friends.  I share this as a tale of courage that somewhere, around the bend, you might just witness the payback, all those years after the initial investment.   twitter@LeeMWoodruff 


  1. Tori's mom

    August 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Lee –

    You make me chuckle! And I must admit, take me back to another place and time where I used similar "techniques" to "introduce" my children to such wonderful opportunities I thought they were overlooking.

    As you describe your August reading ritual it is so vivid I feel I can see and hear every page turn.

    You have a way of making the ordinary extraordinary and I thank you for that. For truly, every moment we spend with those we love is…

    Cathy Andreozzi

  2. Chris Cieslak

    August 7, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    I gave my 12 year old Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” for the same reason, figured she'd get a kick out of her quirkiness. She just rolled her eyes at me, never gave it a chance. Sigh.

  3. Ryan Farrell

    August 7, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Hi Lee,

    I really enjoy reading all of your blog-posts! This particular one, though, was especially intriguing for me.
    I LOVE to read – always have, always will. I see getting lost in a good book, or an intriguing blog, as my little "escape" from reality!

    You and your husband are true inspirations – showing people how they should go about their lives.
    I am a SURVIVOR of a brain-injury, as well. I am a Survivor Speaker with the BIA-MA's "Think-A-Head" Prevention Program.
    Along with my speeches, I also write blogs for this incredible organization's webpage, which can be found here:

    I'm looking forward to connecting with you!

    Very Sincerely,
    Ryan Farrell

  4. Brenda French

    August 7, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    I love it Lee. Mothers will do whatever it takes to make sure our kids get their education.

  5. Susan

    August 8, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Just give them time. As an avid reader myself, I was dismayed when my oldest son only read the books he had to in elementary and high school. I think he started reading more in college because I recall a small bookshelf in his room. Now he is a 30 something NYC actor, composer and a bibliophile. His NYC apartment is lined with Ikea bookshelves filled with books. He even has them organized with classics here, atlases and travel there etc. He can disappear into a NYC used book store for hours much to his girlfriend's dismay. Unlike me no digital for him, only the real thing even though he travels many months of the year and carries books with him.. So give them time, the genes will win.

  6. Kate

    August 11, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    I LOVE books! I LOVE bookstores! I LOVE libraries! I LOVE to read!
    And my kids… not so much.
    I listen to other parents brag about how their kids read all day long, all summer long, and I sigh and lower my head in shame.
    THank you for allowing me to raise my head again.
    I do believe that if we keep encouraging (and bribing) kids with reading, someday it will catch on. And if not, at least they have a strong base on which to build their education and learning.
    Love this post and will share!
    Enjoy these last few weeks of summer! (And thanks for some new book suggestions for my 13 year old!)

  7. Glenda

    August 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I love love to read. Always have since I was 5 yrs old and my dad took me to get my first library card so many years ago.
    I read to both of my kids since they were little wee months old.
    They read in school because they had to, but not for fun.
    It wasn't until my daughter started her first year of college that she got into reading for fun.
    My son reads sports magazines and online sports pages, but doesn't pick up a book for fun.
    I have a kindle and barely pick it up. I love love to hold a book. I love to fill my office shelves with my books.
    I tell both of my kids, someday, maybe my grandkids will love to read as much as I do.

  8. Deb Woerpel

    September 2, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Love your post, and the readers' comments. I also love books, and the libraries and stores in which we find them! Try as I might with my own daughters, they did not inherit my obsession with the printed word. But I now have an adorable grand baby, and when she comes every Friday, she heads to the baskets of books I have scattered about our house. Makes my day. Thank you, Lee, for the joy your words bring to so many of us.
    Deb Woerpel

Leave a Reply