What's your favorite family activity? Mine? Nerdy as it sounds, it's reading.
Dr. Seuss nailed it when he wrote, "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."
So did the writer Emilie Buchwald, who said, "Children are made readers on the laps of their parents."
When my girls were little, we would curl up with picture books – Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton, Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer, Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, David's Father by Robert Munsch, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber, Eloise by Kay Thompson, Doctor De Soto by William Steig, Bill and Pete by Tomi dePaola, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. (I can't resist plugging my favorites!)
My girls are teenagers now, but I still love sitting together, reading – and talking about the stories they're discussing in school and, even more so, about what stories they're choosing themselves.
Sure, I'm glad English teachers expose my girls to The Canterbury Tales and other famous tales. But… "They're always old classics or books with symbolic meaning," says my 13-year-old. And even if they're good, they come with an annotating or essay assignment, she says. "It kind of spoils it." She would rather continue her love affair with the iPad and the stories she can find on it herself.
Do I care if my daughters pick a controversial title? No. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy – No. 3 on the American Library Association's top 10 "most challenged" list, at the heart of Banned Books Week — sounds horrifying. After all, kids kill kids in it. But like other fans of the story, I like the way the novel inspires kids to think about big life issues. When is it OK to question authority? And even how do you choose when you love two boys?
Like other great kid lit, the Hunger Games novels end on a hopeful note and feature conflict between good and evil. Imagine Harry Potter without Lord Voldemort.
Stories help kids develop empathy and learn about people from other religions, races, and countries. "Books help us make friends who are different form ourselves," Bridge to Terabithia author Katherine Paterson told me in a Publishers Weekly interview when she became the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
Kids who bury themselves in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief or John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can experience (in the safety of their own homes) what their lives might have been like if they were born overseas during World War II.
Stories transport us to another world — real or imaginary, in the past, present, or future. "When it's a good book, you can picture what's happening," says my 13-year-old, who often sits next to me at night while we both read.
She just finished Rebecca Donovan's Reason to Breathe, about a straight-A athlete who (because her dad is dead and her mom is an alcoholic) lives with her uncle and abusive aunt. "It was one of those books where you can't put it down because you want to know what happens," she says. She cared deeply about the teen girl, who, frustratingly but understandably, kept her beatings secret.
(For a Newsweek story years ago, Ella Enchanted author Gail Carson Levine told me the best main characters were "likeable but flawed." Do your kids agree? I do.)
I don't worry about stories, such as Reason to Breathe, being "inappropriate." Like my friend Susan Eichner, a fellow bookworm mom, I believe controversial novels like To Kill a Mockingbird can help parents talk to their kids, in the safety of their own homes, about tough topics like racism and even rape. Typically book depictions of violence are tame by comparison to those on the big screen. "Reassess," says Susan. "Is it really bad in light of what your kids are seeing in movies and on TV?"
While babysitting in junior high, I spotted Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls on the bookshelf. Did reading it turn me into a pill-popping Vodka swiller? Quite the opposite. Rather than corrupting me, it reinforced my desire to be a goody two-shoes.
Reading can also turn kids into good film critics. My kids knew Harry Potter inside and out before they saw the stories on the big screen. "It's hard to incorporate magic in a movie," says my 13-year-old. "I didn't like in the last movie when Harry kills Voldemort, and everything explodes into pieces." What were the moviemakers thinking?
At least to me, reading wins first place as the safest, most affordable, most pleasurable family activity in the world. Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich got it right when she said, "Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere."
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