Literacy

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I was never a fan of reading books. At an early age and all through school, I mastered the ability to “skim” chapters and pick out the information that I needed to get by. I did not develop a true love of reading until my son, Michael, was a toddler. I completely understood the importance of literacy in order to get through the day to day tasks that life presents us with, but I also realized that without achieving a certain level of reading comprehension, my child would have a difficult time learning any subject. I, like any other parent, want my children to be able to excel in anything that they try, including academics. My goal was clear: I had to fall in love with reading books because I knew it was the only way my children would do the same. When I initially made this resolution, I hoped that it would contribute to Michael’s success in the future, but I had no idea that it would forever change my views on reading and books and significantly inform my relationships with my children through book building activities for years to come.

My journey into the world of children's books began one day while I was sitting on a beanbag chair amongst a sea of children's books, wondering which ones were worth reading to Michael. I have learned since that there really are some fantastic children's authors out there, but there are also some real duds. The good ones quickly engage the reader and offer insight into real-world problems. Some books do this in ways that are extremely descriptive and literal, while others are slightly more vague and nuanced in their approaches. The latter sort of book is what ended up sparking my deep and abiding interest in children’s literature and forming a strong bond that I still share with my children to this day.

There I sat, somewhat uncomfortably, on an oversized beanbag in our home office, wondering which of the hundred or so books, most of them no more than a few thick cardboard pages long, I should try to read with my son. I decided to dodge the responsibility, and I passed the duty of choosing a book along with Michael. After what seemed like much earnest deliberation, Michael brought The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, over to the beanbag chair and handed it to me.

He was initially captivated by the front cover. “What is it Daddy? Is it a dog Daddy?” Maybe it is a bear?” I had no idea what a Lorax was myself, so I stalled, telling him that the only way to find out was to read the story. Michael climbed back up into my lap, and we began to read. I soon became enamored with Dr. Seuss’s ability to narrate the story in rhyme and to introduce such a wonderful moral, which I was later able to discuss with my son, at the same time. This was a pleasant surprise since I recalled that most popular children’s books were always amusing, often very silly, but not usually very deep or profound. It was a touching tale that sparked many what turned out to be the first of many deep and precocious conversations with my son. Through personification, the world’s environment was given a voice, and it could be tied to many current events. A cute fuzzy animal was trying to save the world and made the reader, that is, the readers, want to help. The story projected a sense of urgency and responsibility, and simultaneously, a strong feeling of optimism.

I saw the wheels turning in my son’s head; his imagination was firing on all cylinders. Most clear to me, however, is my memory of his amazement when we were able to reference the book and correlate its theme to discussions that he had in school with his peers and teacher. Eventually, Michael got back to his original question. “So Daddy, what is The Lorax?” As if a light turned on in my head and without hesitation, I immediately replied, “What do you think he is?” Michael thought for a minute before he blurted out “An orange beaver!” He asked if he was right. The taxonomy of the Lorax was one of the many things the author had left to our imaginations, so I explained to Michael that, if that was what he thought, then he was correct and left it at that.

I began thinking about what a great job the author did leaving this, and so many other things, to the imagination. Dr. Seuss could have easily told the reader exactly who and what the Lorax is, but he chose not to because it simply either did not matter or because he wanted the matter to be settled by the imaginative little brains reading the book. Either way, it was not an inadvertent decision. I could finally see that I had never really hated reading books; rather, I hadn’t found the topic or author that piqued my interest. Before long, reading time became the highlight of my day. I fell in love with the authors that connected their fiction to real life’s real trials and tribulations, the ones that are bold enough to address problems that I knew my son would face someday yet used subtlety to address them in a fun and non-threatening way. I quickly rooted out the books in our collection that spoke down to children and focused my time with Michael on books filled with deep meaning and nuanced messages.

A few years later, my daughter, Callie, came along. I enjoyed reading to them both, and I was amazed at how they fed off each other. Over time, both of them were able to extrapolate different opinions and share them with each other. Reading time at our house always sets off “light bulbs” in our heads, and it is wonderful to see my children utilize the power of independent thinking and sharpen their reasoning and debate skills. Although they do not always agree, we have our very own “book club” going, and we love every minute of it. To this day, we still read with and to each other. Although the children do most of the reading out loud, and the subject matter has changed slightly, we still seek out our interests in the books that we read and we continually revisit those authors who always leave just enough of the story to the imagination. I initially began to teach my children how to read because I understood it to be my responsibility; it was one of the many tasks that a good parent is supposed to perform in order to prepare their children for the future. While this is undoubtedly true, reading time with my kids has long ago superseded the realm of parental obligation; it has imbued me with an insatiable lust for reading, and it has brought me closer to my family than I ever thought possible. Helping my children learn to love reading has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.