The Help Desk: How do I made reading the first priority for my second cousin?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

When I went home for Christmas, I couldn’t help but notice that my cousin is a terrible father. His son is ridiculously smart. At nine years old, he told me he was interested in studying the Titanic because he enjoyed “the irony of it all.”

But my cousin actively makes fun of his kid for being too brainy, often yawning loudly or complaining that he’s bored when his son talks about books he likes. The most charitable interpretation I can offer for my cousin is that he doesn’t want his kid to be alienated in his rural community for being too much of a bookworm. But there’s not really an excuse.

I moved away from my family because of crud like this, but what can I do to help my cousin’s kid grow up with a love of books?

Steve, Capitol Hill

P.S. Here’s another question: does being my cousin’s kid make him my second cousin? I’m terrible at genealogy stuff.

Dear Steve,

It's a shame your cousin is proverbially pissing on the beautiful gift that is an inquisitive child – especially when studies show that both fathers and children benefit from shared reading sessions. As a new parent myself, I struggle to get my daughter Beatrix interested in books. When I slip them into her cage, she hisses and eventually eats them. At first, I suspected the spiders of feeding her lies about how reading isn't "cool." But perhaps she instinctively knows that the droopy tube sock filled with vaseline and rocks who dines with me each night is no substitute for a father. Or maybe my idiot pediatrician was right and gators are dyslexic (and allergic to tanning spray).

None of that helps you, though – or your jr. cousin jr., which is how I'd pencil him onto your genealogy napkin had Beatrix not eaten my pencil.

I have two suggestions for you: one is cheaper but more work, the other is more expensive but easier.

Here's the cheaper one: Whenever you go to garage sales or used book stores or library sales, buy him books – all sorts of books. Books of all genres and as cheap as they come. Then, depending on how often you venture home to visit family, present him with these hoards of books and watch as his eyes light up and his brain shorts out. (Growing up, I had a family friend who I realize in hindsight was a hoarder but who did this exact thing for me the two or three times I saw her every year and it was the highlight of my childhood.)

If that isn't workable, you could gift him with an e-reader and give him money for e-books on holidays – along with recommendations for your favorites. I prefer physical books to e-books in general, but for a kid who's bullied by his dad, something small and discreet might work best.

Finally, the next time you hear your cousin bullying jr. cousin jr., please stick up for him. Unless he is also equipped with 80 teeth that can fully dismember a goat in 17 seconds, he can't do it for himself.