Why We Read

Why We Read

I omitted some important facts when I wrote (2 posts ago) about my early delight with books. One of my parents was a journalist and the other a publisher. Both were always in the middle of several books, fiction, non-fiction, covering a broad range of subject matter. I wondered how my father decided on any given night whether to read the paperback mystery on his night table; dig into the thick volume about philosophy and religion underneath; or choose the contemporary novel with a bookmark indicating where he last left off. Both of my parents also read at least 2 newspapers a day, even though they watched TV news. What may be more noteworthy is the fact that reference books were dragged out to answer all sorts of questions or consider issues that came up in conversations. There was no Google; so encyclopedias were our resources. (Incidentally, that could be a drag if I was in a hurry to go back out to play.) And if something worrisome occurred in the wider world or in our mini-world, someone went for a book or brought home a book to help. (These days, despite our huge information sources, books are still wonderful for getting conversations going about tough topics or puzzling matters. And that can begin very early. My toddler grandchild, who is about to become a big brother, is eager to hear the same stories about new babies read again and again. He is also currently considering a move from his crib to a new big boy bed waiting in his room. So when I saw a picture book title about a little boy pondering that move, I was quick to select it for our next weekend’s visit; guaranteed to be a hit!)

As a child, I identified mostly with the book reading of my parents, while my younger brother kept up with their newspaper reading and then some. In fact, when he was no more than 9 years old, he started his own handwritten “paper” that he called “The Family News.” It was “published” on an irregular basis, i.e. when the spirit moved him — and was mailed to various out-of-town relatives. Baby brother was the Editor-in-Chief, and variations on his full name, sometimes with middle or first initial, were used on his “masthead” for all but one position. That only staff member who was not the same little guy in thin disguise was our mom, who was listed by her proper name as treasurer because she provided the cash for the stamps to mail the copies out. There would be lead headlines such as “Adele’s Friend, Gladys, Visits for Weekend”; or the more humiliating, “Our Dad Returns Adele’s New White Mice to Pet Shop.” I wonder now what our relatives in Texas, Rochester, N.Y., Chicago, and Worcester, Mass. thought about these bulletins.

Only in adulthood, has it occurred to me that ours was not the typical all-American family. And here’s the point, at last: Nobody told us to read and write. They just happened to set the example, and were unaware they were doing it.

We were athletic, but missed out on a lot of other stuff, like learning how to fix mechanical things or create with our hands. In fact two things occur to me to say to the majority of parents, who obviously are not publishers and journalists. You don’t have to be living the literary life to inspire your kids to be readers. But it sure would help a lot if they saw you choose reading over watching some screen during much of your leisure time. On the other hand (caution: what follows may seem like heresy from this bully pulpit), reading and writing all the time are not the only or guaranteed paths to success and happiness. Despite my own background and delight with the printed page, I am grateful for the diversity of interests among my friends and colleagues. It’s true that acquiring literacy skills is valuable for almost anything young people may want to do; but reading may appropriately be secondary to some broader goals. For artists, architects, business managers, athletes, engineers, landscapers, chefs, IT guys, etc. and hobbyists of every sort, it’s okay if reading is mostly a means to an end, which brings us back to the worthy search for the hook. If we love to read, we can share that pleasure to a point, but also put at least as much energy into helping our kids discover their own callings, with which reading skills just might be a big help.

January 29, 2007

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First, Find the Hook

First, Find the Hook

Could some kids’ eagerness to read be inhibited by our very vocal enthusiasm for literacy? It’s a possibility. My oldest grandson, for example, has always been “his own man.” He was not likely to be drawn to reading by teachers’ and parents’ urging. For him, and many others, there had to be a hook, something to make reading valuable enough to be worth the effort. And yet, no persuasion was needed to interest Billy in sports -- all sports, as participant and observer. We haven’t figured out why; ours is not a family of regular game watchers or weekend warriors. But ever since he could count to 2, and learned that there is such a thing as first and last and whatever is in between -- he wanted his teams to be # 1. On a morning after a late sports event, he is always eager to know who won and how.

Billy had been somewhat indifferent to reading early on, but that turned around rapidly when his dad introduced him to the sports page of the morning newspaper. In a matter of weeks, he was not only reading the scores, but the commentary. He was engaging us all in conversations about the games, teams, and the players, coaches, owners. It happens that I am a baseball fan, so he seeks my opinions on batting averages, after quoting the stats and sports writers. He knows everyone’s favorite sport and team; is always ready to share what he’s read, and ask for predictions.

Billy became a reader to find out what he wanted to know. He’s a terrific reader now, but he got there on a very different route from mine. His own interests propelled him.

This has convinced me of how important it can be to seek out each child’s "hook to reading.” It may take some time, but it is worth it. For Billy it’s sports and lately tales of adventure; for others it might be a particular author: Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak; it might be the subject matter -- princesses or trucks or fishing or trains or friendship. It might be the rhythm and/or rhyme, compelling illustrations as in one of my favorite picture books, Swimmy. Go back and read that classic and you too will sigh with relief when Swimmy says, “And I’ll be the eye.” Or you might prefer the soothing quality of Good Night Moon or the thrill of mastery in The Little Engine That Could.

There is a reading hook for almost everyone. Looking back, you may recognize your hook or your child’s was the coziness that comes with artful picture books enjoyed early on in a parent’s welcoming lap.

Here are 10 of my very most favorite picture books

1. Good Night Moon; and anything else by Margaret Wise Brown

2. Make Way for Ducklings

3. The Little Engine that Could

4. Swimmy

5. The Cat in the Hat, and anything else by Dr. Seuss

6. Madeline

7. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

8. The Story of Babar

9. Where the Wild Things Are

10. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

January 18, 2007

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Has Reading Become the New "Cod-Liver Oil?"

Has Reading Become the New "Cod-Liver Oil?"

I have loved books for as long as I can remember, probably at first sight; although that’s just speculation. I don’t remember the first time I listened to a book being read. But there were several adults in my home, eager to read to me, and later, as a 3 or 4 year old, I remember playing recordings of favorite stories and poems. What fun, those crisp British accents delivering A.A. Milne, Mother Goose, and other classics, long before books on tape had been invented.

I was an only child for 6 years, but book characters kept me from being bored or lonely. There was Mary Jane who wouldn’t eat her rice pudding again; the Queen in the parlor eating bread and honey, Jack trading the cow for seeds -- and then the beanstalk, giant, and all that followed for Jack…There were so many stories of impoverished children who were saved by Good Works combined with magical alliances. Although I had plenty to eat, I felt their desperate hunger. What a fortunate thing that no one knew or told me that all this fascination with books, words, in short, language as an entryway to people’s feelings, was good for me. I just loved it; simple as that.

It’s hard to believe now, but in those days, there was a state law prohibiting teaching reading in the public schools until the first grade. I can’t remember how I got there, but one day, at the age of 6, I realized that I was reading, really reading on my own. “Look look. See Jane. See Dick. See Dick and Jane.” It was beautiful, liberating, as I imagine it must be for a new pilot to solo, knowing that no other, more experienced hands are on the stick, the novice, herself, completely in charge; at the threshold of a whole new world…

How fortuitous it was too that from the time I was in 1st grade, we lived 2 blocks from a public library that had what seemed like vast collections of books for kids, for grownups -- open stacks; and as I grew older, I spent rainy days exploring and sampling as many books as the rules permitted me to take out, and more in the dusty stacks. By the time I was in high school, I had found favorite authors: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, among others, and I simply worked my way across a shelf holding a single author’s books until I had read them all. I had no idea that these were “good books," or that what I was doing on the days that I couldn’t be outdoors with neighborhood friends because of rain, snow, or German Measles was anything other than exciting and fun; above all, my choice. And by the way, I don’t doubt that I read plenty of not so good books as well.

I still feel warmed by having books around me — bulging from my shelves in every room, and bookstores seem to welcome me in every town or city I visit. Sipping hot cocoa and sampling the wares in a bookstore café is as endearing as ever. Just luck, I guess.

But I wonder if this joyous connection to words and books would have been possible if I had been told repeatedly how good it was for me and that I had to read so many books a week or month to satisfy adults in charge. (I do remember how I reacted to hearing that oatmeal and farina were good for me: I avoid them both to this day.)

In the coming weeks, I would like to consider whether kids are as likely to get hooked on reading now that we adults are so anxiously intent on getting them to be? How might we allow the romance between a child and the written and spoken word to occur naturally, and does it have to happen to every child if he or she is to succeed and be happy?

Some questions to explore …

January 9, 2007

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