Today in the WSJ I read the following by Ann Patchett: I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read that counts, it’s that you read….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.
Should we apply that to children? Many teachers seem to think so. The general opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what a child reads, as long as he or she reads. I agree only if parents and teachers have been striving since a children’s earliest years to expose children to good literature through regular reading aloud. What and how a parent chooses to read aloud to a child greatly influences that child’s own later choices.
I was fortunate in that my mother read to me often in response to my begging, and, of course, the begging was due to my earlier experiences of hearing the stories she chose for me. I also had two elderly ladies, both teachers with no children of their own, who were like adopted grandparents to me. They loved to buy me picture books. I still have some of them, and their choices helped develop my reading tastes. By the time I was three years old, I had taught myself to read with a little help from my parents. I was dying to read stories without having to wait for someone to have some extra time to read to me. When someone finally gave me a very easy book with very large print and just a few words, I soon had it memorized because I’d heard it so often. Then I could go back on my own and study the words. I guess I was learning sight words without knowing it. Pretty soon I really could read the words and know which was which.
Somehow I also learned about letters. I would ask my dad about the ones in the headlines he was reading in the newspaper, and he always took the time to answer my questions. Someone probably also told me that the letters made sounds. The words I learned in the first book, I See a Kitty, which I can still recite over sixty years later, were like the Rosetta Stone to me. I could recognize them in other books being read to me, and then, after hearing the stories, I could go through the books on my own, looking for the familiar words and remembering some of the new ones through the context and illustration hints. This was how my reading vocabulary grew.
I See a Kitty didn’t have much plot. Had it been my first book to hear I might have lost interest. But I had also heard Belinda and Father Christmas, Amanda (see my review of this here), Marshmallow, by Clare Newberry, and many other books I’ve lost track of now. So when I See a Kitty arrived, I already knew that learning to read was worthwhile, and I seemed to know that particular book was the key to my learning to read. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on, but the adults in my life made sure I could only get my hands on books that would feed my imagination, expose me to good art, and model the appropriate use of the English language. These books used complete sentences. They helped me to reach for the sky instead of plunging me into verbal garbage.
In the late 1940’s when this was happening, there were not so many picture books available to children as today. We had the Little Golden Books. So I cut my teeth on The Taxi that Hurried; The Poky Little Puppy; The Saggy, Baggy Elephant; The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and all the others. Some of my favorites have titles I can’t remember, but all of these books introduced exciting new sounds and words — descriptive words such as baggy, tawny, poky, scrawny, twinkly, drowsily, bashfully, lopsided– and an assortment of verbs to add to my conversations: yawn, stretch, tiptoe, prance, gobble and many more. I was introduced to manners by Mr. Do and Mr. Don’t, who were created by Virginia Parkinson and Lowell Grant, a claytoonist in 1943.
By the time I was six I was an avid reader. On the Christmas of that year my Cousin Edna and Auntie Lucile gave me six Thornton Burgess books and I had devoured them in a week. I learned that toads can sing and have beautiful eyes. I learned why the other animals respected Jimmy Skunk and didn’t mess with him. I also learned about nature and human nature by meeting Sammy Jay, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Old Mr. Toad, Reddy Fox, and the other inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. The adults in my life learned that the way to my heart was to give me more and more books in the series. And as I read each new book, my reading fluency improved.
After that, I met Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Maida, and the other popular series available at the time. They were not great literature, but neither were they pure fluff. They, too, helped develop fluency. My favorite of these series was Maida, and my favorite in that series was Maida’s Little School — perhaps my first introduction to home schooling.
I have lost track of where my hungry mind went next. I remember the Bible-themed biographical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I unfortunately did not meet C.S. Lewis or Tolkien until I was a college student working in my local library.
Today parents and teachers are faced with an overwhelming variety of books when choosing reading material to read aloud or have around the house. Some of it is excellent, some so-so, and some are uncreative combinations of words with wonderful pictures. Just as parents go through their children’s Halloween candy, they should also approach the varied books on the library and bookstore shelves. Ditch what looks dangerous and issue the rest of children’s choices with moderation. You don’t have to read everything a child chooses. A little fluff won’t hurt your child anymore than an occasional candy bar or soft drink. But first children need to develop a taste for the milk, meat, and veggies of the book world — the books that will feed their imaginations, model the variety to be had in the words and phrases of the English language, and introduce the kind of characters you’d like to have play with your children.
When a child reads, he is entertaining the characters of a book, and if those characters are rude and disrespectful to others, that behavior will begin to seem “cool.” Real children can be engaging without constant disruptive or rude behavior. I’m not suggesting that only children too good to be true are suitable protagonists. Nick in Frindle and Dave and Lynsey in No Talking — both by Andrew Clements — are leaders of their peers, but they are also thoughtful and able to relate respectfully to adults. Imperfect children also visit Narnia, but we can see they do have a sense of right and wrong. Compare them to Ivy and Bean, who seem totally self-centered and think nothing of lying, talking back, and being downright mean to siblings. Which of these children do you hope your child will most be like?
Ivy and Bean are popular with today’s children and on the reading lists in many classrooms. Your children will probably meet them if their friends do. But you don’t have to be the one to introduce them. Read them something more worthwhile that’s a bit above their reading — but not interest — level. Read them the Chronicles of Narnia, Homer Price, Soup, Little Britches, Anne of Green Gables, whatever is age appropriate. Do read enough current children’s literature and interesting books for all ages to be able to make your own list of what you don’t want your children to miss, and you’ll probably discover there’s hardly enough time to get through those. Explain there are many kinds of treasure, and books are one kind. Explain that you want to share the book treasure you have found that they might not find on their own, just as you introduced foods that have become their favorites they didn’t know about before.
In the early years, when you are still able, you can help your child cultivate a taste for the best books by choosing only the best to read aloud, at least most of the time. When you go to the library, choose books together. Your time is limited, so make it quality time. Take a book you really enjoy and read it with expression, using many voices, to your child as you cuddle up on the sofa together. Talk about the pictures and discuss the characters as you would friends. Did they make wise decisions? What do you think they will do next? Do you think they might do something differently if they could go back in time? Whom do you like most? Why? Did you dislike a character? Why? Which storybook character would you most like to meet in real life? Pretty soon, these discussions will come naturally as your child also asks you questions.
Your child will go through phases of reading what’s popular with his or her friends. Be sure and read some of these yourself for the purposes of conversation, because you do want to meet your child’s book friends who influence him. But continue to share your book treasure even after your child can read for himself. Share your thoughts on your individual reading with each other as another way of understanding each other. Then you will have a common frame of reference when you need to find outside examples of ways to solve problems or getting along with people. If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.