Zibby Owens: I loved interviewing Maria Russo. Maria is the former children’s books editor of The New York Times Book Review. She and coauthor Pamela Paul wrote How to Raise a Reader, which is right up my alley. We had so much to talk about and even came up with this great idea, I think, of a new business. It was just great to talk about someone who is equally passionate about reading and getting our kids to read and all the rest. Enjoy.

Welcome, Maria. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maria Russo: Hi, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. How to Raise a Reader, this is one of the things on my mind all the time. I have four kids. I’m constantly trying to figure the answer out to this. You’ve done it. You’ve written the book on it. Tell me about the book. What inspired you to write this book? Tell me more about it.

Maria: As you say, I’m a mom too. I have three kids. My coauthor, Pamela Paul, also has three. There we were at The New York Times Book Review thinking about this subject all the time, really, in our personal lives and in our work life. I was the children’s books editor. She was and is the editor, but had previously been the children’s books editor. A lot people ask us questions all the time. There’s just a constant question in the air, exactly as you say, how do I raise a reader? How do I get my kids to read? How do I support my kids reading? What are the best books for my kid to read? Actually, as we’ll talk later about, in some ways, that’s the most challenging question for parents. The other stuff can be fairly easy and joyful. The idea that to raise a reader, that reader actually has to have access to a lot of different good books is actually where the job of the parent comes in. It started out as a small digital project that we did for The Times called, also, How to Raise a Reader. First, it was a special thing for New York Times subscribers only, kind of a little extra. It really took off. It really went viral. We got lots of reactions.

Probably the most common reaction was, when will this be a book? People wanted to hold it in their hand. It just occurred to us. It’s natural. It’s really obvious. I wish I had this book when my first child was born. I was on the older side. Even though I’ve been a bookish person my whole life, my career has been in books, I didn’t know that much about children’s books and about reading to children, reading with children. There’s so much information that parents aren’t really getting, even the most booky among us. My immediate vision was, this is a baby shower gift. This is the book I wish I had at my baby shower and I think every parent would want as you’re even just getting ready to bring this baby home and into your family. It just took off from there. It’s been this really surprisingly smooth and joyful adventure to do this book. You start talking about the subject, and people light up. People have happy memories and happy associations around their children’s books. At the same time, as you say, there’s a little bit of worry. There’s a lot of anxiety too. I feel like we’re also able to help a little bit with the anxiety that all of us as parents are feeling now.

Zibby: It’s so true. Books being resource for me and probably for you during this time has been so key. All I want to do is give that resource to my kids and let them take comfort in it the way that I have my whole life. It doesn’t necessarily automatically happen that way.

Maria: Right. It’s not as automatic as a lot of us lifelong readers think for a lot of kids. For some kids, it is. Your job as a parent is to get to know your individual kid and then provide the right atmosphere so that kid can choose reading automatically. I think probably in some ways, one of our most powerful tips, which actually comes from research, is simply have a lot of books in your home. Actual research show that children who grew up in a home with a substantial amount of books, I can’t remember the exact number, were more likely to become lifelong readers and to be successful in other areas of life. This was a study that was controlled for income and education. This wasn’t just about affluent, bookish, literary people raising readers like they are. This was something that they identified that has to do with the presence of physical books in a child’s life is a good thing. That’s something that you can do as a parent. You can fill your house with books. We do point out, it’s children’s books obviously, books you know they like, things you think they might choose and like, but also adult books. It’s really important for your child to see you reading. One of our maxims in the book that we say a lot is, and not to be judgy or anything like that, but just making people recognize, if you want to raise a reader, you really should be a reader.

It so often happens when you become a parent and we’re all so busy and it’s just this onrush of new responsibilities when that baby first comes, you can kind of let your own reading life slide out of the picture. Even if you were a big reader, a lot of people in that first year or even for years afterwards, they kind of lose that connection to their own reading life. That’s not a good thing that you’re doing for your children. As a parent, they’re watching you. They’re looking at you and saying, how does my mom or my dad, how do they fill their hours? What does it mean to be a grownup? What do grownups do? What do people do? What is life like in our family? If they see people picking up books, sitting there and reading them or standing at the kitchen counter reading while they make dinner, just the idea that there’s people reading books in their life, that’s a message. It’s really, really deep and powerful, and it’s easy. It’s good for you too to reconnect to your own reading life, to the books that you loved. This is another one of our big messages in the book. It doesn’t have to be War and Peace that you’re reading. I like self-help books. I like gardening books. I like comics. Take the pressure off around reading for yourself and for your kids and find the time to just have that pleasure in your own life. Then as you’re saying, as your kids are wandering around the house, “What should I do now?” it’s going to be more likely that that’s an activity they would choose when they do have so many other screen-based options.

Zibby: It’s like preaching to the choir talking to you. This is all the same stuff I try to say myself. It’s perfect. It’s really great. You said such great stuff in your book that I hadn’t really thought about in the same way. You say that you wish that there was a support system around raising a reader, which is such an interesting thing. You have to be deliberate in how you do all of these things. You can have a support system around helping your kids get regular exercise, but do you think about it in terms of books? You should. You must.

Maria: That’s a great point. The exercise thing, we don’t think twice about calling a friend and being like, does so-and-so want to go to the park and play soccer with my kid? I’ve done that. Do you call a friend and say, what book is your daughter reading now? My daughter doesn’t have anything at the moment. Any recommendations? That’s something we should do. I do do that and find that happening naturally because of my job. People do come to me. I’m constantly getting texts. What should my daughter read, my son read? Anyone can do it. For me, even aside from my job, I became very curious, what is that kid reading?

Zibby: Maria, we should start a really cool app that’s like Goodreads for kids that’s something as cool as TikTok. They share the books. I have to go research this now. There must be something out there. I should talk to the Goodreads people. There should be something that makes it cool. Then they can see what their friends are reading. In the same way that my daughter has to have this exact Hydro Flask or she’s not cool or whatever it is, they have to read these same books. I don’t feel like there is that zeitgeist around books right now for kids.

Maria: I love that idea. I feel like if it was Goodreads and it would be associated with the moms — .

Zibby: It has to be something cool.

Maria: I think that in little micro-communities of kids, it does happen. You said, did your daughter go through the Raina Telgemeier phase? When she was reading those books, I promise you, all of her friends were too. They were trading them and talking about them.

Zibby: But they weren’t posting them.

Maria: Right, exactly, so if you could find a way that they would then connect to kids outside of their own little friend group.

Zibby: How neat would it be if they could connect to somebody in Texas who’s reading the same book right now and they could have a little chat? I should get off this topic. All my kids just want to be on social media in any form. If we could have there be an alternative to YouTube life hacks that are maybe bookish, something cool, why not start it?

Maria: We should talk about this offline because this would be a great idea.

Zibby: Right? I am totally excited about it. All right, great. I needed a new idea today. Then our kids could help. They could feel all this ownership.

Maria: I think what’s in the way often of ideas like this is that people assume that reading is a drag for kids. That’s something that we’re kind of trying to get at in the book and that I’ve been trying to get at as I talk to audiences. If you watch a kid with a Raina Telgemeier book or a Wimpy Kid book or the new Kate DiCamillo novel, that’s a happy kid. That’s a kid who’s enjoying what they’re doing. Kids love their books, the good books. What they don’t love is this atmosphere of pressure around reading and this atmosphere that the teachers and the parents have taken their reading and gotten in there and made it into something that’s a performance for the adults to judge. The more we can take it out of that realm — I really think that as parents we can do this. Don’t ask about your kid’s reading level. Don’t mention reading levels in your home. Reading levels are invented. There is no such thing as a reading level. This is a system that someone came up with for some reason in the 1960s or ’70s. They went through and they took all these children’s books and assigned letters to them. If you take ten librarians, they wouldn’t all agree. What’s an F and what’s a K anyway? It’s an easy way to keep the factory going of school and education. It’s a way that kids can feel bad about themselves. If they’re an F and their friend is a K, they feel bad. They feel left behind. Why? Everybody learns how to read. Everybody progresses through their reading.

Yes, some kids struggle more with it, kids with dyslexia, kids with other disorders that we’re only really starting to understand that affect the speed of their reading like auditory processing disorder. I don’t know if you know any kids that have this, but I happen to know two separate kids who have been diagnosed with this. You’d never really know it. In talking to them, you might notice a slight delay when you talk to them in how they respond to you. This is very, very crucial when it comes time to learn to read because of phonics. You’re learning to read by associating sounds with those marks on the page. These kids have an extra step of struggle. Kids with dyslexia, it’s heroic to me how these kids — what they go through and how they eventually become readers by creating workarounds in their own brain. This is why so many dyslexic people go on to greatness because of what they’ve had to do just to learn how to read. It’s heroic. All of this is stuff that makes kids subtlety associate reading with this realm of life that is just not fun, but it doesn’t have to be. If you can create something else in your home where books are fun, books are just like, “Oh, my god, did you see the new Dog Man? Can you believe he named a character that?” or stuff like that, you’re really doing your kid a big favor.

Zibby: Imagine if you went to a bookstore and saw all these great books and then somebody beside you was like, yeah, but you can only read these three. You’d be like, what? No. Why would I want to do that? I want to read all those there. Why won’t you let me pick? It’s like the locus of control is gone, right?

Maria: Yes, exactly. This is what people do to kids all the time. I’m a huge fan of librarians because librarians actually are on the cutting edge of this stuff. They know. They know the research and they watch kids. There are many librarians in this country who are rebelling and refusing to shelve their books by reading level. A lot of this that we’ve inherited, it’s almost like it just won’t leave our consciousness that got in there in the sixties and the seventies. We’re all still responding to outdated ideas and notions. Another good one is the idea that comic books and graphic novels are not real books. If your kid is really into reading only graphic novels, well, that’s not really reading. That doesn’t count. That’s ridiculous, especially in this culture we’re in. It’s such a visual culture. When images and words work together, it’s even more powerful. Again, this was what was so great about doing this book. We got to really look at the research. The research shows that — they did MRIs on the brains of kids who are reading. A kid who’s reading a text with only words, one side of the brain is really lit up and working, and that’s great.

A kid who’s reading a book with images and words together, both sides of the brain are lighting up and interacting with each other. That’s even better for brain development. This is why, of course, we have picture books at the early stages of a kid’s life. That doesn’t end. Why would that end when they can read the words on their own? Again, I think we’ve inherited this, partly because it’s really expensive to print pictures. In previous decades before the current technological revolution, they printed the books without pictures because it was too expensive to put the pictures in, but we got in the idea, like, now you’re done with pictures, you’re on to words. That’s really changing. Librarians know it. Some of the more up-to-date teachers know this. You still have parents, they come to us worried. My son will only read graphic novels. What should I do? I’m like, great. Give him good ones. He’s reading.

Zibby: It’s like you were talking about, you like reading gardening books. If somebody was like, you can only read gardening books with no pictures, that would not be fun. You need the context. I think it’s good to mix it up. They can read all types of books. Who did I interview? Gene Yang who write Dragon Hoops. He was amazing. He’s an educator too. He was awesome. I had my son here with me while I interviewed him. He was telling my son, he’s like, “It’s great to read graphic novels, but you don’t have to only read — you can still mix it up. That’s great too.” You shouldn’t feel bad about it, but variety is always great.

Maria: It’s true. There are parents who really lean on the kids about the graphic novels or create this idea that, okay, that’s fine that you’re reading that, now read a real book.

Zibby: I think if they’re reading, thank goodness. You had this one quote in the book, you say, “It’s stressful to be a parent. It’s stressful to be a person. But I’ve found that even in the most difficult moments on the most challenging days I can usually reach for a book and feel lifted up, returned to myself. On days when I felt as though I have nothing left to give to my kids, I’ve been able to sit next to them and open a book. We start reading, and the world looks different.” I loved that. That’s just so great.

Maria: Isn’t it great? Reading helps us to connect to our inner life and to what’s most important. I just think that that’s why when your kids grow up and leave, sadly, as they do and they will, the memories of reading with your kid can be some of the richest and most powerful memories you have because it’s those moments when you just feel so connected in such a nice, real way. That’s another one of the gifts that I think you could give yourself and your kid when times are hard, is to sit with a book and to let yourself be reminded of the timeless experience of reading that you’re going to carry with you from your childhood right to your old age. You will always have that. It’s yours. If you give it to your kids, then you’re giving them that option too. It’s really true even just as a parenting technique. There are so many days where you just feel like a failure as a parent. I just haven’t done anything right. They hate my personality. Then you pick up a book and suddenly, you’re the person reading this incredible piece of magic. You just feel better.

Zibby: That’s true. Although, I have to say, I went through this period of time — I shouldn’t say I went through. It happens occasionally where I’m in one of those sad moods where I’m so sleep-deprived or overwhelmed or whatever and I am fighting back tears as I’m reading to my kids. I’ve developed this strategy, in case this helps anybody else, where I count the letters in each word as I’m reading them. If it’s like, the tree is big, in my head I would be like, three, four, two, three. Then it would allow me to get out of my own mind enough that I could just keep reading to the kids and stop crying. Is that pathetic?

Maria: Interesting. The great thing about so many children’s books is that the great ones are written for adult too. Especially picture books are meant to be read by an adult to a child. If you’re going to be a successful picture book creator, your books have to speak to the adult too or they simply won’t pick it up to read to the child. That’s often the case that the adult is having an emotional experience that maybe the kid isn’t at that moment. I’ve had that too. I’m always surprised by what makes my kids cry versus what makes me cry. I find it a little embarrassing sometimes when I’m crying and reading a book to my kid and my kid is like, what? I haven’t even tried that, any technique to stop it.

Zibby: If you’re in a desperate moment like I have been, try that. Maria, how did you get to be where you are in life? Can you back me up to the beginning of this trajectory? Even just a quicker synopsis of, how did you end up as the children’s books editor at The New York Times?

Maria: Postscript, I just left that job last week and started a new job.

Zibby: I saw that.

Maria: I’m actually editing picture books now. I was at The New York Times for five and a half wonderful years. I loved that. This is another dream is had, which is to actually work on the books.

Zibby: It’s a new imprint. What’s it called again, Astria?

Maria: The overall publishing house is called Astra Publishing House. The picture book imprint that I work for is called minedition. It’s actually an established brand, an imprint in Europe. It started in Austria, Switzerland, France, lots of other countries. The books are published in the US. They’re beautiful, very art-forward, as we say, very much about beautiful illustration and high-quality book production. My job now is to expand this brand into the US and create more books by American authors and illustrators and create more awareness for the minedition books in the US. They’re really beautiful and great picture books. That is a fun thing. I’m someone who has gone through several stages in my career. I’ve switched what I do a lot even though it’s always been in the same basic area of books. I started out right after college. I went to graduate school. I did a PhD in American literature at Columbia. I thought I would be a professor. Toward the end of that as I was finishing my dissertation, I just started to get this rumbling of a feeling like, I love writing and I want to write for a bigger audience than when you’re a professor. I loved the teaching, but there is this other part of it which actually determines the course of your career which is publishing for other academic readers. That just seemed like kind of a drag. I wasn’t sure I was up for it. That was when I made the transition into journalism. That was great. Career changing is hard. It’s not something that everyone wants to do. I was in my late twenties and early thirties and just starting out. I always say I got lucky, but I guess I also was really tenacious. I get a vision of where I want to go, and I just do anything to get there.

I grew up in Queens in a book-loving house. My dad was an English teacher. My mom was a nurse, so not fancy people, but our house was filled with books. My parents are readers. Again, this is what we were saying. This was such a gift to me. One thing that you can really keep in mind as you’re raising your kid and if you’re worried about if your kid is going to be a reader or even just, will my kid do well in school? first of all, the studies show that kids who are independent readers do well in school. If you’re hovering over your child, he’s not becoming an independent reader, meaning a child who actually chooses on his own to read. If you choose on your own to read, you’re more likely to be someone who does well in school. Anyway, so my child had just basically showed me that when books feel like home, that’s a good thing because you get to school, and school feels like home. That’s kind of a key concept for me. I have never felt intellectually insecure even though I don’t come from any kind of fancy background at all. Books are home to me. That just really helped me at every stage of my career.

I really loved criticism of books too. I love reading books. I love talking about books. I love the kind of writing that gets into, what is so great about this book? What is so bad about this book? What appeals to this kind of person about this book? I just really loved that. That led me to criticism. I started writing reviews. So much of how you get where you want to go is just being really brave. You meet someone who works in a place you want to work and you actually say, and this was really hard for me, “I would like to write a review for you. How do I do that?” I had a series of encounters with people like that where I had to be really, really brave because I’m inherently, actually, a shy person when I first meet people. I could say that I was lucky, but also, I just did it. That’s why I ended up — also, I like the small canvas of the review. For years, I’ve had many, many reviews in The New York Times when I was not working there, The Washington Post. I worked at the LA Times. You read one of my eight hundred or twelve-hundred-word reviews, I promise that took me like a solid two weeks of working a lot. I go over and over and over until every little bit of it is how I want it to be. I look back at my life and I regret, maybe, that I haven’t written the long books I wish I had written because I’ve been so obsessing over twelve-hundred-word pieces. That’s how it worked for me. Just being around these children’s books all day and in this atmosphere of journalism where everything’s got to be quick, the conversations don’t tend to last more than fifteen minutes. People will actually say, “I have to get back to work.” I’m like, but isn’t talking about books our work?

I just wanted to be in an atmosphere where you could talk about books and create things that lasted for a longer time. That’s the new journey I’m on now which is to see how I like working in that atmosphere but actually making the books, which is just a whole other — it’s so incredible how people work, how much they care. I’m an awe of illustrators. Because I’m such a word person, I’ve spent my life obsessing over eight hundred words, as I said, I just cannot believe what they do, how well they do it, how natural. I get such joy from beautiful art and illustration. Now working with illustrators has been the nice thing about this stage for me. Again, it’s all part of this same part of my life where I’m just really about children’s books and helping people find the good ones. Like I said, your job is not to teach your child to read or to keep track of your child’s reading level. Your job is to create an atmosphere around books that’s fun and joyful and spontaneous and lighthearted, even. As we said, a gardening book is a book. For kids, the equivalent would be the Guinness Book of World Records. That’s a book. For my younger, the NBA statistic book, 2019 in the NBA is on his — that’s a book. Creating an openhearted atmosphere around printed matter with pictures and words in your kid’s life, that’s good. That’s really been my passion now, is just keeping the spirit of joy and acceptance around children’s books alive, whether I’m at The New York Times or now at minedition and Astra House, trying to get some really good books out there into the world for kids.

Zibby: Just one last question. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Maria: Authors of children’s books?

Zibby: Whatever. It can be. It doesn’t have to be.

Maria: I just think that the stuff that comes from your deepest places like your heart is going to be your best stuff. It’s going to be always a process of going deeper and deeper inside yourself and thinking, why do I want to write this? and staying true to that. Don’t listen to the naysayers. When you know you’re writing from a real place, just keep at it. You’re going to get a lot of noes. A lot of people don’t understand why you would want to write about that. That’s not acceptable. That’s weird. That’s boring. Stick with what you feel from your deepest place is your passion.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Maria: Buh-bye.