As I prowl the book-sale shelves of the local Goodwill these days, I am a woman with a mission. My goal: To create new readers!
No, I'm not ambushing fellow thrift-shoppers by stuffing the shelves with flyers for my latest work. Rather, I'm thinking about the readers of the future. And so, as I browse, while my hand may stray toward a book with a scantily clad hunk on the cover, it's even more likely to stray toward one with a mouse. Or a cat. Or a rabbit. Vampire rabbits are good (think Bunnicula). Or a robot, or... hmm, how about an enchanted robot rescuing a swashbuckling mouse from a vampire cat? That would be cool!
But wait, I hear a few alert readers saying. Umm, haven't you mentioned a few times that you don't have kids? Why this sudden taste for sword-wielding mice, vampire bunnies and bewitched robots?
Quite true. I'm not a Mom. But... I am an Aunt. I have a lovely niece and nephew, ages 5 and 2+, respectively. They live on the opposite coast, and are the main reason I bother with a Facebook account. And my niece has just started Kindergarten.
She's going to be learning how to read. (In two languages, apparently; she is enrolled in an immersive bilingual English/Spanish kindergarten!) And it has occurred to me that possibly the very best thing that "Aunt Moira" can do for these small, faraway relatives is to encourage them to discover just how wonderful books can be. It has also occurred to me that the time to do this is now.
While it's easy to suppose that school is where children go to learn how to read, the reality is that the "seeds" of reading are sown long before a child first sets foot into a classroom. The issue is not whether a child is taught to read at home -- but rather, that a child is taught that reading is a fun, desirable activity to pursue. In short, numerous studies have shown that children are far more likely to love reading, and to become skilled and successful readers, if the joy of reading is modeled at home.
In my own home, growing up, it was modeled in spades. I don't think there was a room in our house that did not sport a bookshelf -- including the bathroom. (In retrospect, I'm not sure the one in the bathroom was such a good idea -- it encouraged rather long stays, and was stocked with books that were highly inappropriate for a young child. I was actually told not to read them, which, of course, is another great way to encourage reading in kids.)
The bedroom I shared with my sister had two, and later three, bookshelves. Hers sat on a dresser and rose nearly to the ceiling; on the higher shelves were books like the Boswell's London Journal and a set of ballet annuals. Mine overflowed with picture books, the complete original hardbound Oz series, Raggedy Anne, and a host of story books, fairy tale collections, and classics. Some of those were permanent -- the Oz books had been in the family for decades -- and some came and went. Some are still on my shelves today.
My family did exactly what studies today say families should do to encourage reading: They read. Constantly. This, the studies tell us, reinforces to kids that books are something of value and interest. Young children want to model what the adults around them do, so if the adults around them read, that seems the thing to do! I wanted so much to be a part of this that when, at age 4 or so, I discovered a discarded paperback with a familiar picture on the cover, I carried it around in my pocket for months, much to the amusement of my family. The book was actually Philip MacDonald's mystery novel The Rasp -- hey, it had a rasp on the cover, my dad had rasps in his tool collection, so what more could you want? (Years later, I tracked it down and finally read it!)
My mother also made time, every day, to read to me -- the other thing studies say is one of the best ways to stimulate a love of books and reading in children. I can remember lying in my sleeping bag on a camping trip, listening to the ongoing adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I couldn't wait to be able to read these magical tales for myself.
And now, I can't wait to pass along these joys to my niece and nephew. Now is the time to help them discover that books are perhaps the most precious possessions in the house. (It took awhile for my mother to realize that "sending me to my room" was not a punishment -- until she added the injunction "no reading!") I want to share old loves and new -- the box I'm about to send includes Roald Dahl's Vile Verses, which I read for the first time last month; Heidi, which I loved as a child; and a hefty stack of Richard King-Smith (Babe) tales of pigs and cats and mice.
As I gather these treasures, however, another thought occurs to me -- one that I haven't seen referenced in any of the studies on how to encourage reading in children. It seems to me that, to be effective in modeling a love of reading, we have to remember the joys of reading when we were children. I'm quite tempted to sit down and re-read Heidi before sending it off -- and I confess, I've read every one of the King-Smith books in the package, from The Terrible Trins to The Mouse Butcher. My stack of books by the couch contains a little bit of everything -- a scholarly work on the Silk Road sits next to Great Expectations, which sits atop The Sisters Grimm, which in turn rests upon a Victorian dog story. If you want to help children love to read, it seems to me to be helpful to love what children read. If you love it, so will they; if you don't, don't think they won't notice!
Lots of studies also tell us of the long-term advantages to being a reader. Ironically, researchers are now finding that reading fiction as an adult can make one more successful in business! According to one study, "fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion -- improving his or her overall social skillfulness." (http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/01/the-business-case-for-reading/) So if I want my niece and nephew to become business moguls 30 years from now, these boxes of books may be the place to start...
But you and I know that all the studies that affirm that "reading is good for you" because it develops this or that social skill, learning ability or long-term success habits is just icing on the cake. We don't read because we want to become better CEOs. That's nice, but... irrelevant.
We read because books are wonderful.
My mission, as an Aunt, is to help my nephew and niece make that discovery.
If I succeed, who knows? If we're lucky, one day, they'll be reading us. And if we're even luckier, one day, we'll be reading them!
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