Heidi Mordhorst, Natalie Lorenzi, Julie Rasicot, Toni Sandys and Michelle Ray

Did you know that a kid who reads just over an hour a day is exposed to more than 4.7 million words each year? And a child who reads less than 10 minutes a day is exposed to only about 600,000 words?

Or that a child who reads about 45 minutes each day scores in the 90th percentile on standardized tests while the kid that only reads for about 10 minutes scores in the 50th percentile?

And here’s one more interesting fact: Research shows that kids who have 500 or more books at home receive on average 3.2 years more schooling than children in bookless homes.

It’s enough to make us want to gather all those Xboxes, iPods, MP3 players and other devices that steal time from reading and put them on the curb.

Reinforcing the importance of getting kids to read independently was one of the messages of Thursday’s Literacy Night at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring. The evening featured a presentation by school staff on the importance of reading and a panel discussion on writing featuring several local authors, a Washington Post photographer and me.

Panelists spoke of their love of reading and writing, passions that began in childhood and eventually influenced their career choices.  Both Michelle Ray, who teaches reading in Eastern’s humanities magnet program, and Natalie Lorenzi, a Fairfax County teacher and school librarian, never thought they’d be published writers because they were pursuing their teaching careers.

But both used their hours away from school to pursue their love of writing stories. And the dedication paid off: Ray’s young adult novel, Falling for Hamlet, was published in 2011 and Lorenzi’s book for middle-schoolers, Flying the Dragon, will be released July 1.

While writing her novel about a Japanese-American girl’s experiences learning about her culture, Lorenzi discovered that her own experiences couldn’t help but influence the development of her characters. “A part of me is in these pages,” she said.

Post sports photographer Toni Sandys also loved to read and write as a kid, but got hooked on photography when she took a course in high school. So she’s built a career on telling stories through pictures.

And Heidi Mordhorst, a Montgomery County Public Schools kindergarten teacher, found her passion lay in writing poetry for kids. She has published Squeeze, Poems From a Juicy Universe (2005) and Pumpkin Butterly, Poems From the Other Side of Nature (2009).

Though these panelists developed a love of reading and writing during childhood, that’s not the case with every kid. Picking up a book is the last thing that some want to do and the thought of writing can be paralyzing.

So how do you spark an interest in a reluctant reader?

Lorenzi advised that kids should be allowed to read what interests them, even if the books aren’t high-minded literature or what they’re expected to be reading. And take them to the library, where they’ll find a world of genres that may catch their interest.

Going to “the library is the time to fall in love with books,” she said.

Kids can also follow their favorite authors on Twitter, which is one way to meld the online world with the world of books. “Let them use that social media that they want to use anyway,” Lorenzi suggested.

As for writing, Mordhorst said that teachers and parents can stifle kids by too often instructing them what they should write about. Give them more freedom and see what blooms. And remind kids that the goal isn’t to achieve perfection with the first draft; it’s to succeed at expressing their  thoughts and ideas.

“As parents and teachers, be open to the real voices of kids,” Mordhorst said.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com