My childhood was centered on reading. My adoptive mom was single, a landlady, and a full time high school science teacher. Our evenings were spent with her grading exams and essays, or applying for grants and courses that would increase her salary; mine were spent reading. When she was taking night courses at local colleges, I waited for her at the huge college libraries, surrounded by aisles and aisles of books, and discovering voices that spoke to me from the pages of their narratives. By the time I was ten, I was helping my mother locate books and helping her conduct her research. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I read, flashlight in hand, and couldn’t put the book down until I had read the last page — no matter what time it was.
My childhood was a solitary one — without a great deal of words or acknowledgment — but it was rich with literacy. Had it not been for my books and my voracious hunger for reading, I doubt I would have fared as well as I have as an adult. They helped me cope. It is no wonder that I became an educator, and no wonder that I want my kids to find this same kind of love for reading. But their childhood is nothing like mine. They are loved, they play and laugh, and their lives are full of daily doses of fun and entertainment. They don’t need literature the way that I needed it when I was lonely and sad and aching. So how do I get them to love books out of love and not out of need? Here are some tricks that I use, which apparently seem to work:
D.E.A.R.: A few years back, my guidance counselor friend told me that her school had a daily reading policy. Once a day, a special bell would ring, and no matter where you were or what you were doing, you had to Drop Everything And Read (DEAR). Everyone in the building from Principal to secretary to janitor had to take part in this for thirty minutes. My son’s school has the same policy, and I am overjoyed by it. But this does not need to be limited to school. I apply it at home. From 7-7:30 pm, every member in the family, except for the dog, picks up a book and reads for thirty minutes. Make it a family affair.
Books, Books, Everywhere: I read an article years back on the connection between illiteracy and lack of books in children’s homes. If children are not surrounded by books in their own homes, they are less likely to learn the value of literacy. The article suggested that every room in the house be filled with books. An excellent example of this is Sherman Alexie. I teach his work every semester because he taught himself to read from Superman comic books. He grew up on Indian reservations, poor, and told he would amount to nothing. But his little space of life was full of books that his father collected and read, and Alexie paid attention. I purchased small and cheap bookcases for every room in my house and filled them with storybooks, chapter books, picture books, and even books for me and dad. I keep books in the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, bedrooms, play room, and every room. Wherever we go, there are books all around us. There is a familiarity with literacy and the presence of books is a norm.
Visit the Library: I was shocked to find out that my nephews did not own library cards when they were little. My son got his when he was five, and he uses it every other week when we go to the library. As parents. the seed for libraries and reading has to be planted early. As a kid, I went to the library every week, and I took out as many books as I could. Today there is no limit, and my kids pile the books high in my arms, but I love it. I love the excitement that erupts from their little bodies as we carry the books to the counter and check them out. Going to the library is an expense-free outing that can kill a few hours of your day. My son is eight, but he has already written a book about two best friends on endless adventures. He’ll probably be published before I am.
Read them the Classics: Harry Potter is great and fun and full of adventures and excitement, but so are the classics. A lover of the old stuff — because they were written beautifully and are timeless — I have discovered abridged versions of classics for my son. Right now we are reading Jack London’s ‘White Fang.’ Next will be ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘Hucklebury Finn,’ and so on. They are descriptive and full of life lessons that can be applied to real life threats and injustices. With ‘White Fang,’ my son and I are exploring how the way we are treated by others affects who we are and who we believe ourselves to be. Being mistreated may even limit our potential, our self worth, and how we distinguish between right and wrong. This is a great transition to examining bullies, how they get to be bullies, and how to deal with them.
Share your Love: We are our children’s models. Everything we do, they want to do. They even go as far as copying our mannerisms, our words (some curses included), how we deal with life issues, and how we treat others. If you love reading, then all you have to do is read around them. Let them see you actively reading. Share your stories with them. Talk about what you are learning from your books. Apply the reading material — the conflicts, characters, and language — to your lives. Tell them what you liked or disliked about the book. If picking up books and reading them in front of your kids is an everyday normal event, then it will become the same for them. If you love books and discuss them openly, the chances are greater that they will also find great respect and relief in reading.
Let Them Choose: Even though I expose my kids to the classics, I let them choose their own books to read. If your kids are into planes and trucks, take them to the non-fiction aisle and let them peruse books on those subjects. Flavors change, and so will their appetites for various topics. My son is presently into dogs, so he goes into the animals section and comes out with ten books on dogs, wolves, teaching dog tricks and so on. I take my daughter to the picture book section, and let her pull books of the bookshelves at free will. She loves butterflies, so I take her to the computer; we put in a search for butterfly books, and the journey begins. At night, she pulls the book over her hear just like her preschool teacher does at reading time, and my daughter tells me a story according to what she sees in the illustrations. And this is all good. Surround them with books, with your love of books, and their appetite for learning and reading will equal yours — or maybe even exceed it.
What about you? What do your kids like to read? What do you do to instill confidence and love of reading in your own children?