Monday, May 31, 2010

Books, Books, Books

Books are just everywhere in this house. It's kind of out of control, but I no longer worry about it. I'm pretty sure that books are one area of my life that will just always be cluttered, and it's going to have to be OK. There are bookshelves in every room, books on tables, counters and in stacks. We have hundreds of our own books, borrow dozens of library books every month, we have books borrowed from friends, books, books, everywhere books.

I find it interesting how many times people have said to me... "Oh, I (we) don't have time to read." Of course, just like anything else, it's one of those priority things. I sometimes say "I don't have time to exercise" but in reality, it's just that I don't make time for it, and my thighs are showing the evidence.

I am sure that TV, computers, and video games are big distractions that are keeping people from books. It's pretty hard for a book to keep up with the sensory stimulation. All of these things have their merits too, and we enjoy them all, but I still love books. Compared with television, a book requires the effort of actually reading, instead of just watching, and I imagine a lot of people just are too tired to deal with that. There is even talk of the hand held reading devices replacing books, which to me, would just never be the same.

I'm very thankful for the few years when my kids were tiny, we lived off the electrical grid up in the mountains. It was definitely a different way of life than your average American kid. Mine never had the option of a TV being on all day. TV was a couple of times a week max endeavor when we fired up the generator to do laundry and timed it with Sesame Street. Although we've been fully powered for years now, we still don't use the television daily. Whenever I hear of a good new show, and I think about checking it out, I think about how many other things I'd rather be doing with my life. We only get a few local channels anyway, so in most cases, I couldn't watch the show anyway unless I wanted to start paying for TV, which is something I philosophically can't bring myself to do. If I'm paying for it, I'd feel I needed to actually use it more, and I really am not that interested in that. The computer is already sucking enough time that I could be spending doing other, more productive things with- like creating art, planting something, visiting a friend, or that I could be using to read a good book.

It's a shame how many kids don't even like to read though, and have never learned to enjoy books (or have had the potential to love books squelched with forced early reading intervention programs.) I read a study by the National Reading Council that said American 4th graders now have a higher reading level than in years past, but by the time they are teens and young adults, fewer than ever read for pleasure. Reading comprehension of young adults has also dropped quite a bit in recent decades. So, what exactly is the benefit in making kids learn to read at a young age if they don't end up liking it, rarely do it by choice, and don't end up that good at it in the end?

My kids have been exposed to lots of books from infancy. They learned to read in their own time, and know the pleasure of a good story. Personally, I love that books are cuddley. I may use my laptop in bed, but it is not the same coziness as I get with a book. I don't connect with my kids over the computer the same way I do snuggled up on the couch reading them a story.

I love experiencing the emotions that a good story can evoke in me as a reader; from smiling and laughter to sadness and even tears. My children and I have read or listened to the entire Harry Potter series together. After following the characters for years, we had grown very attached to some of them. In the final book, we found ourselves literally on the edge of our seats every time it looked like one of our favorite characters might not make it. I actually stayed up late reading ahead of my children just to see what would happen next. The kids were cheering for our side during battles, and laughing out loud at the Weasley twins pranks.

My little boy says he appreciates a good story with action and suspense. He is just passing through the difficult stage of being an early reader who finds the stories at his reading level not very interesting. When you have had the pleasure of hearing stories like Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea all of your life, the ability to read Dick and Jane is not exactly exciting. He is just breaking into chapter books and enjoyed reading Tarzan of the Apes with me. He does see the ability to gain new information as an important reason to read well, but there is a definite difference between what he wants to learn, and information that is being force fed to him. Reading to learn more about Pokemon is important to him, so he works harder on it. Like most children, he is sharp enough to know when he is being spoon fed a moral, and rolls his eyes at obvious “lessons” or stories with a “and the moral of the story is...” type of ending. I very regularly see themes from books pop into both of my children's play time. The Little House on the Prairie series had them churning butter and washing laundry in the creek. The Boy With the Bronze Ax had him building stone tools and buildings.

My girl child is an avid reader who devours books in the way that many children consume junk food. She and I share many books together. Last year, she read the Percy Jackson series among others. This series by Rick Riordan is full of Greek mythology, and we both learned a lot while being caught up in the story. She says that in a good book she “becomes the main character.” Whether the character is a boy or a girl, she “is sword fighting with them” in her imagination. She also enjoys being able to “do a lot of things you can't do in real life.”

A nine year old friend of ours, who also loves reading, says she loves when “it seems like the characters come out of the book and really talk to her.” I love that imagination, and I also love the fact that we know children who choose a book shop as their favorite store in town, and would read all summer regardless of the reading program the library offers.

We all enjoy those fantasy worlds that literature can take us to. Learning something along the way is a bonus, but the children I know do not appreciate simplified moralistic stories, or dumbed down tales. No one wants to be told what to think, but lots of people seem to enjoy the thinking this entertainment leads to.

We're always looking for new books to add to our reading lists, so I'd love to hear what your your family members' favorite books have been. Or whether or not you even enjoy books? Now, we're off to the next book sale at our library....