It is a breathtaking, sunny morning here. The meadow is lit up golden, the birds are singing a symphony, the morning light is reflecting on the pond. A sense of quiet calm drapes the countryside. It’s got me doing a little reflecting myself.
I’m always telling you that you should engender a lifelong love of learning in your littles and giving you tips on how to go about doing that. But maybe you should explain to your littles Why it is So Important for them to read. And maybe you can’t articulate it so well. It is a fact and you just know it, and putting the reasons into words eludes you. If so, let me try to do it for you. Maybe you don’t really understand why or maybe you’re one of those people who feels books aren’t really that important. If so, let me try to change your mind.
My crush on books started long before I could read. My brother (who is almost 3 years my senior), my mother, and my father were all readers. They set an example that I appreciate now more than I can put into words. When I was 4, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked my brother to teach me to read. The rest of this lifelong marriage is history. I can still remember the first time I picked up a Raggedy Ann and Andy book in the library. The second grade when I met Nancy Drew. The very first book I read about the Arthurian legends in 6th grade. (In fact, I purchased that book–and the rest of the trilogy–when I reached adulthood and have read it many times since. It is a magical tale called Guinevere by Sharan Newman.) Ah… finding a dusty, cloth-bound copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle school library. My first Dickens (if you’ve been visiting this site long, you already know it was Great Expectations).
So I’ll give you your first reason for teaching a love of literature to your littles. Clearly, judging by the paragraph above, books have lifelong impacts on us. When I first started reading, it was the stories. I was very young, with no experience in the world outside the walls of my own home. Hearing and reading stories taught me what was going on Out There. They taught me the possibilities of what Could Be going on Out There, and that I might see them if I squint my eyes and avert my gaze in just the right way. I learned of fairies, elves, dolls that come to life, elephants, bears, squirrels, lions… You get it. If you have any fond memories of a book you read as a child–or of hundreds like I do–then you know what that impact can do for a person.
Reading also provides us an escape from reality when things are tough. And it doesn’t harm us by giving us that escape. When things are going wrong and you know you can stop thinking about them for a while just by grabbing a good book and reading, you’re not destroying brain cells or inviting epilepsy. It may sound odd, but reading can keep your littles from becoming screen addicts or worse. In my humble opinion, who needs mind-altering drugs or alcohol when it’s so much more fun to read a book? Maybe, just maybe, if you teach them to love reading, you are teaching them a truly healthy form of escapism. And maybe they’ll never need anything to take its place. So reading might just save their lives. A stretch? Hmm. I don’t really think so.
Reading teaches us about places we might never get to see. When the Littles and I read Oliver Twist last year, they learned so much about 19th century British politics, the geography of London, the history of Britain. They may never get to see Britain, but reading books about it can help them not feel like they’re missing it. If you encourage your littles to read books about other lands or written by authors from those lands, you are encouraging geography. You’re making the world smaller for them in a way the interweb really can’t. You’re putting it at their fingertips and in their minds. Literature touches our brains differently than images do. So send them to foreign countries. Often. Through the eyes of all different kinds of characters. They will appreciate you for it all their lives.
My love of books has grown with me. As I said, it began with the stories, then it became an escape, then I realized how much I was learning by reading… But I’ve discovered something new recently. (Just like any good marriage, I’m constantly discovering new things to love.) As we grow older, this love of books comes with us. And you know, admit it, the more years there are behind us, the less we notice things. We’ve seen them before. A Lot. Think of how often you pay attention to the landscape when you’re driving to work or to the same grocery store, department store, post office. Life kind of gets like that too, doesn’t it? It might be a beautiful morning, but you’ve seen them before and you’re pretty sure you’ll see one again, and you’re just too busy to really stop and appreciate it. Right? It happens.
But books–they remind me to pay attention. Ever notice how a really good description puts a picture in your mind? You can see it, smell it, taste it, even if all the author has given you is a visual. Well, when that happens, I want to experience that place again in real life, or something as close to it as I can get. So I start to pay attention. Simply put, if an author describes a country lane to me in full detail–the periwinkle of the roadside flowers, the heat of the asphalt, the shade of the overhanging trees–the next time I leave my driveway, I’m going to look at my country lane as I drive down it, not think about the dozens of things I have to accomplish that day. Books bring me back to my senses, literally.
I am reminded to look at the fields, the flowers, the sunlight, the gloaming and its fireflies. I’m reminded to breathe in the scent of fresh-mown hay, the honeysuckle, the sharp scent of snow, the dew-covered grass. I remember to appreciate the feel of cool water against my skin, the precious brush of a loving hand, the grass under my feet, and even the stinging slap of an Arctic wind. Books make me listen. They remind me how much I love the sound of cicadas, birds singing, spring peepers, airplanes, and the voices of my loved ones. Especially fantasy novels with a good quest remind me to appreciate the flavor a good stew, roasted meat, tender vegetables. Just as importantly, books remind me to understand other people’s motivations, to find my empathy. To remember that every story is told from multiple points of view and every character I meet in real life is seeing that story in a different way. Think of the differences between The Wizard of Oz and Wicked. Of course the wicked witch had her own side of the story. Everyone does. Books remind us of that. And that is a Very Important Thing.
Reading also helps combat the whole ‘instant gratification’ problem that technology is causing. It helps kids learn to appreciate anticipation. You can’t cheat your way through a book or you’ll miss something. In fact, in this era, that may be the most important reason to read. It teaches patience. You can’t get from this page to that page without reading every paragraph. Kinda rocks, doesn’t it? They can get instant gratification later. For now, let them slow down.
So if your little ever whines about reading time and asks, “Mom (or Dad), why is this so important? It’s boring,” you now have some decent answers to give. They may not be very scientific, but they are real. Teach them to love it and that love will get them through the next 80 years or so. You know it will, because