Children’s Lit Corner: Reading and Kids

My third grader is a boy, a kid who loves to ignite his army men with firecrackers (when I’m not looking), build helicopters with his tinker toys, and hunt fossils. All boy. And every nine weeks, his third grade teacher requires him to read a book and complete a book report. Last time, he had to read a mystery. I don’t recall the title of the book, or even the series, but I remember him curled up on the loveseat, crying because he hated the book.

So when your kid hates a book, you try to figure out why. First, I asked if it was too hard, which elicited more tears, because the question, I guess, insulted him. I then asked a series of annoying mommy questions in hopes of figuring out exactly what he didn’t like about the book. You’d think I’d have just reached into his chest and removed his heart. Finally, I told him that he didn’t have to read the stupid book and head out and play.

I picked up the book. Egad. The protagonist, a boy of my son’s age, was dining with his family, but when his siblings left the table to play, our hero stayed a little longer to help his mother with the dishes because he knew it was the right thing to do. Flip a page and, rather than head off on the beginning of a mysterious adventure, the boy dutifully rose from bed, dressed in his best, and accompanied his family to church–where nothing happened. But it was the right thing to do. Ten pages in and there was no hint of mystery, but plenty of lessons on proper manners. In other words, enough of a guilt trip to bring a nine-year-old boys to tears.

Before I called my son back in, I flipped to the title page and determined the date of publication. Surprise! 1940-something. When my son burst through the back door, thoroughly sweaty from the imagined battle raging in our backyard, I sat him down and explained that, yes, sometimes teachers would ask him to read books he didn’t enjoy and he’d have to do it. His spine literally folded. But I assured him today was not that day. Today–and with this book report–he could choose a different mystery if this one didn’t interest him.

I showed him the publication date and explained how publishing and writers have changed the way we write to children and young people. I called out the writer on the way she characterized little boys, explaining that “back in the old days” writers thought it was better for children if their books instructed children on proper behavior rather than showcased children as they really are. It was more important to use stories to show children how they were supposed to solve problems rather than to show children actually solving problems. My little guy and I then had a wonderful time mocking the very pages that had brought him to tears. A truly divine moment brought about by truly shameful and unchristian scorn.

Eventually we settled on another title that was slightly less offensive to his nine-year-old sensibilities and the book report was completed.

Many a parent has encountered one form of this dilemma or another. Our kids often want faster-paced, more enlivened stories than they find marked as their reading level on the shelves in the school library. I don’t know how other parents have handled this problem, but I could only see one way to ensure that my kids–especially my boys–became consumers of written fictions. I read them to them. Each day, I give up at least an hour, often much more, in order to read well-crafted novels to my son, and to his siblings before him. I read stories that are far above his reading level. I don’t make him sit idly by and listen up. Instead, I ask him to bring his favorite toys into the room and let him lay on the floor as I read. My husband has often suggested our son isn’t listening, but a quick oral quiz always proves him wrong.

We completed the Percy Jackson series a few weeks ago and are on book two of Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series, which we are both enjoying. Over the weekend, I heard my son excitedly recommending Fablehaven to his cousin, who spent the night, and then watched him lead the other boy in crafting a Fablehaven of their own on the living room floor.

I don’t mean to hit anyone over the head with the obvious moral of this story, but please read to your kids. We don’t need statistics or psychologists to tell us what we know intuitively. Books light up young lives. They did mine, and I’m sure they had the same effect on those who bother to read this blog. My father used to sit me on his knee and read the Raggedy Ann and Andy series to me long before I would’ve been able to read them myself. And, curiously, once I could read them, they wouldn’t have interested me. But those silly books about dolls with candy hearts who whipped evil like thick, sweetened cream left me in love with fiction.

I eventually progressed to the Nancy Drew and Black Stallion books, then on to the classics, and to mainstream, contemporary fiction. I love reading because I believed my father loved reading to me. I have three children; two are adults and all love a good read. I consider that a parenting victory. Perhaps more importantly, every time I pick up a book to read to my caboose, I think of my dad and of the nights we spent in front of the fire, reading about a land that couldn’t possibly exist outside of that moment. That I consider heaven.

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6 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner: Reading and Kids

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    [block][b]I don’t make him sit idly by and listen up. Instead, I ask him to bring his favorite toys into the room and let him lay on the floor as I read.[/b][/block]

    I never EVER thought of this. Thank you.

  2. I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my 10-year-old and my 15-year-old this fall. (We finished The Hobbit in the summer.) My wife generally listens in too. Usually, I manage only about one evening a week. I try to read a complete chapter each time. It’s been a really positive experience for us as a family. We talk about it after we’re done, and sometimes in the middle of the chapter as well. It’s some of the best family time we get to spend together. I know that when the kids are grown, this is one of those things I’m going to wish I’d done more often.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    To Moriah: It was much easier to get my daughter to sit next to me and listen, but neither of my boys would really do that when they were young. But really, he listens. And, interestingly, he hears what happens during Sacrament meeting in spite of the fact I’ll let him have a small toy or two. It may not work for all, but letting the boys wiggle and play during the story helped them.

    And Jonathan, I’m glad to hear you read to your teenagers. I did the same thing and always thought it would be considered weird. In fact, when my oldest, a boy, had trouble with, say [i]The Scarlet Letter[/i] in High School, he’d asked me to read it aloud to him. We’d talk and I’d explain the language that flumoxed him.

    In fact, since my kids were being read to by a teacher and writer, they learned to dissect texts as they grew up. I remember reading passages of Harry Potter with them, then saying, "Now listen to it this way." Then I re-read it with the lines moved around, the way it should’ve been written I felt, and let them hear/feel how the intensity of the prose could be heightened with a little, well, slight of hand. I’m certain this has helped improve their writing ability. So many good things can come from reading to kids of all ages.

  4. Angela H. says:

    I totally agree with you about the importance of reading to our kids. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us, too. Some of my fondest memories w/ my kids revolve around reading.

    I also think it’s important to encourage a habit of solo reading, too (although this might be harder to do w/ more reluctant readers). I started "letting" my kids stay up past their bedtimes when they were young if, and only if, they were reading in their beds. It made them feel like they were getting away w/ something, I think. Now all my kids can’t go to bed without reading first, sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for hours. (I try to scold them when I walk in at 11:30 p.m. and they’re still reading, since we all know sleep is so important . . . but I can’t help it. I’m always just glad they’re so interested in reading.)

    And, like you, I enjoy dissecting why a book does or doesn’t work with my kids, on the prose level or on the story level, or both. We do it during movies, too. I get a kick out of my older kids discovering why a book or movie works, or doesn’t work, for them.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Angela, we think alike. Two years ago I bought a cheap lamp to hook onto my son’s headboard. He can stay up as late as he wants if he’s reading. He thinks he’s getting away with something, just as you say. Don’t scold him for reading late. Scold him for not napping. :) Ha.

  6. Melinda W. says:

    I read my 4-year-old "Runaway Ralph", not expecting him to follow the story. He followed the story and wanted to read it a second time. He’s getting the rest of the series for Christmas. I’m excited to start reading him the Junie B. Jones books too. He doesn’t talk as well or as much as other little boys his age, so I read to him a lot. I’m hoping that hearing all that language will help him speak more. Plus help him love stories, of course.

    Your story about the moralizing mystery made me laugh. My grandparents had a set of "story encyclopedias" that I read and reread when I visited them as a kid. I inherited the set when they died. Recently I tried to read the volume about children who grew up to be famous, and laughed at how ridiculously moralizing the biographies were. It was published in the 1930s. But the fairy tales are still great!

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