Friday, June 4, 2010

Breed to Read: How Children's Books Make us Readers

A few weeks ago, I was bemoaning the state of reading today: too few readers, too much competing for our attention, too little enthusiasm about great books. "The people who love to read are starting to die off or age out of reading for pleasure," I said to my boyfriend, an avid reader himself though a scientist by trade. "Well," he said, "people just start having kids, so they can replenish the waning population of readers." I laughed. "True," I said. "It could be a government-sponsored program. Breed to Read: the best reason to give birth since the Italian government would pay you for each kid."

He was kidding, of course. And as was I . . . but as I thought about it, it started to make more and more sense. There's nothing that'll get a child-phobic 20-something talking about their future parenting plans than what they want to read to their kids. "Definitely The Lord of the Rings," one friend said. "And Anne of Green Gables," chimed in another. "Oh, and for everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. I'll be reading those out loud with my kids," chimed in twenty other currently childless people.

What we read as children influences our reading tastes as adults far more than we know. Before I learned to love Vladimir Nabokov's word play, I memorized most of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. Before I discovered the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I was knee-deep in the folktale-inspired stories of Maurice Sendak and Tomie dePaola. It took the emotional acuity of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary to set me up for the quiet introspective plotting of Ian McEwan and John Updike. Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet Welsch and Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik were my heroines, and they primed me for the kind of strong female characters I would seek out in adult fiction (and rarely find).

As a child, I was easily influenced by what I read: the stories I encountered helped me form my own concept of how the world should work. Many critics have noted that the most influential and well-regarded children's books tend to expose adults as fallible and often cruel--several of Roald Dahl's works portray adults as tyrants, and imagine that children possess secret talents (Matilda's brilliance, James's bravery) that no ordinary adults will be able to perceive. These books made me feel powerful, and so reading them became addictive. Children who love to read will read almost anywhere in the car, in the bath, while walking through crowded public places. (It was E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that got me to stop resenting museums; why no one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has turned this into a children's tour, I will never know.)

Children who read are more than just readers, they are rabid readers. They are the ones who sustain traffic in bookstores, who clamor at free books on the sidewalk, who get hooked on audiobooks during long car rides. As Laura Miller at Salon notes, even having books around the house makes the kids in their vicinity smarter. If reading becomes a life-long obsession, they will remain committed to reading as they get older, and even after the required reading of college and graduate school fades into the distance, they will still see books as a means of entertainment and imagination, not as burdensome or time-consuming. Of course, the onus to make these children into readers falls first and foremost on their parents: if you read with your kids, and you get them to talk about what they're reading, their language skills will be stronger, their understanding of the world will be broader and more substantive, and their curiosity will only grow with age. And, inevitably, they will become far more interesting adults, and it will benefit everyone they come into contact with, including your future grandchildren. (Yes, we're thinking ahead.)

So for all the non-child-bearing readers of this blog, a nice thought to leave you on the weekend: breed to read. Raise your kids and any kids you meet to love books as much as you do, and keeping pay it forward.

1 comment:

  1. This post got me thinking about how the books I read as a child might have influenced what I read as an adult. I didn't come up with as clear an answer as you did, but the question did inspire a blog post of my own. Thanks!