Friday, March 28, 2014

On Raising Readers

Last night I was reading, The Best of McSweeney's, a book that my youngest son gave me. And I realized that two of the books I had read in recent months had both been gifts from my children (the other one, mentioned in an earlier post and given to me by my oldest son, was Jim Henson: The Biography).

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that something wonderful had happened as my children were growing up. They had become readers, and not only readers but people who were comfortable giving books as gifts (okay, I'll concede that when your mother is a writer and a former teacher, it's not a huge leap to think that she might enjoy a book as a gift).

It brought to mind the many times over the years the topic of How Do I Get My Child to Read had come up. Admittedly, as a teacher, this was not surprising. Parents wanted me to supply the magic answer. At that time, I didn't have children of my own, but even then I thought I knew the answer, because I knew how I had become a reader myself.

My mother is/was a voracious reader. She grew up in rural America as one of six siblings, and when her mother died young, she had to drop out of school to help care for her younger brothers and sisters. Leaving school was something she regretted, but she still had her books. A love of reading is a gift that can't be taken away.

I don't remember her ever discussing books when I was very young (although she might have), but there were books in our house, and I saw her reading and enjoying reading. I think that's the key more than anything. Reading can't be forced. A parent can't just tell a child that reading is a good thing. If a parent says one thing and does another (never reads), odds are good that the child won't believe what the parent is saying.

I'm not in any way, shape or form implying that my mother set out to turn me into a reader. But I could see that reading was something she loved. And even the youngest child can make the leap from seeing the parent doing something they love to wanting to do it themselves.

So things proceeded. After my family moved north to the Chicago suburbs, she worked the night shift at a factory, so she was home with me during the day. And in the morning, after my brother and sister had gone to school and my father had gone to work, I often gathered a pile of books and pored over the pages even though I was too young to go to school and had no idea what the words said. It didn't matter. I could make up my own until I was old enough to go to school and be taught how to read (actually, I remember scribbling in one of the books with a green crayon, pretending that I was writing, something I regretted, since it clearly wasn't writing and I had messed up the precious pages. It might have been the first sign that I wanted to be a writer. More likely it was just me chafing at the bit, because I wanted to go to school to learn how to decipher the mysterious code in the books).

My mother didn't have to say a thing about reading. She had shown me by her actions. I had been infected with a passion for words and reading, because reading was clearly a desirable activity.  To this day, she and I still share that love of books and reading. I usually give her books as gifts. That's what she likes best, and I have great fun choosing them.

My husband and I are both readers, so there was no question that our home would be filled with books and that our kids would see that we both enjoyed spending time reading. There was no question that we would provide them with lots of books, read to them when they were young and take an interest in their books of choice as they grew older. Still, when my sons were young, I wondered if they would continue to read as they grew older. Life these days has so many distractions. As adults, they have jobs, hobbies, friends and lots of activities. Reading takes time. In a world where things move fast and we seem to have more activities to spread around over the same twenty-four hours we've always had, the world of books is always in danger of losing out to the next new thing.

But reading is also how people exchange complex ideas. Writers have to take time to choose their words. Readers have to take time to digest what's on the written page. It's a slower process than television or the internet, but often it's a more thoughtful process, and it's almost always a more in-depth process. This exchange of ideas is important. Losing that would be devastating to the world, but it would also mean the loss of so much joy. I hope that new readers are born every day and that the world continues to realize the importance of words.

As for me, I'm very happy that my sons are both still readers and that, despite their busy lives, they still find time to open up a book (or to choose books for their parents). It's a good feeling.


Mary Preston said...

I grew up in a house full of books with parents & siblings who read. My children are great readers for the same reason I'd say. My parents read to me, I read to my children & on it goes.

Myrna Mackenzie said...

Mary, I love the way things are passed from one generation to the next!