When I joined my DNA with my husband’s, there were many unanswered questions. Would my recessive blonde genes triumph over his green eyes and dark hair? Would our kids inherit his more mathematical and logical mind? Would his laid back attitude trump my more tightly wired list-making one? No matter. Those were all things we had little or no control over.
But I did feel certain of one thing: our kids would be avid readers.
When I think back to my childhood, and the one my husband describes, we both loved to disappear into a world of books. Reading took us to new places, requiring only imagination to color in the lines or draw the landscape.
I fell just a little bit more in love with Bob when he first described his boyhood self to me as a kid “buried in a book.” That’s when I knew, among other things, that he was the man for me. Naturally, we would create a little cache of eager beaver readers. Forget nature—that part was all about nurture, right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Oh, hang on a tick, no one in my household is illiterate, no one is using rope for a belt or wears cardboard shoes. All four of my kids have a decent grasp on current events. But much to my great sorrow, they don’t read for pleasure. So if you are one of the lucky people whose progeny devour books like Halloween fun-size candy bars, you can stop reading now. We need not feel the sting of your smugness.
I got through July and I put my foot down. Summer was half over! The tide had to turn. I announced to my 13 year olds that they would read or lose their allowance. Read beyond their summer reading assignments and, well, there would be a new article of clothing in it for them.
Admitting this two-pronged “punitive plus bribery” approach to making my kids read, feels a little like standing up in an AA meeting and announcing that I’m an alcoholic.
But I figure, if I out myself, maybe some of the rest of you won’t be so hard on yourselves. You’ll abandon the unproductive search for where you failed, after years of modeling solid recreational reading habits, countless bedtime stories and dedicated visits to your public library. It’s a jungle out there in the world of modern childhood— the concept of reading for fun today feels more like being the Victorian bathing costume in the Miss America Bikini Contest— its just not as sexy as its technologically entertaining competitors.
Bribing kids to read? Horrors, say the ghosts of child librarians past. I wasn’t beneath using Skittles as a reward for potty training. Is this really any different? Isn’t regular reading as essential as proper pooping if you’re going to thrive in this world?
As an author I have the pleasure of knowing and working with some wonderful people in the book business. So I canvassed a few industry folks and came up with a stack of current YA books. I’m no dummy. I’m not going to try to force-feed Jane Austen right now. I chose the Harry Potter-style lane. Every crack addict knows you need to begin with a gateway drug.
“All Our Pretty Songs” by Sarah McCarry was first up, a new YA summer entry that got great reviews. My girls looked over the cover, their summer freckles furrowing as they read the flap; Cool Hand Lukes, those two, careful not to display too much overt enthusiasm. An eyebrow raised in interest. The lure and hook snagged in the fish’s mouth. Success, I thought to myself, displaying my poker face.
I gathered titles like “Social Code,” “Fan Girl” and “Prep School Confidential.” These books also had wonderful cover art to sweeten the offering, a short skirt here, a mysterious kissy face there. Hah! Take that you addictive TV series, you seductively shot “Gossip Girl” and fake blood strewn “Vampire Diaries” episodes! Yes, yes, shame on me. I do permit them to watch these shows, but I’m what you call an “almost-everything-in-moderation” kind of mother. Current pop culture has its own important place in adolescence.
The books arrived. And so they read.
Here we are now, in the early days of August. Just before lights out, the three of us tuck in, we open our books, stretch out our legs on the bed, the moths beat against the screens in the hushed dark outside. There’s a bullfrog or two, singing baritone with all this recent rain. OK, OK, so I over-dramatized the scene a little, it does feel sorta triumphant. And it’s blissfully quiet inside, no vampire victims are screaming on TV, no Park Avenue prepsters are tossing their highlighted manes and huffing away on their Tory Burches.
There is only the flickering of the theater of our minds. Only the sound of we three drawing breath. We are reading. Pure happiness.
Perhaps we will work our way to iconic titles like “The Wind in the Willows,” (although that window has probably passed) “Little Women,” “The Hobbit” or any of the endless classics that could enrich their sponge-like minds. Or not. Is it important that my girls have read Thackeray or can recite sonnets of William Wordsworth or stanzas from William Shakespeare? Or do we march on now, in the full glare of the information age, with a morphing view of what it means to be well read and well educated? Quotes and poems and answers lie but a keystroke or two away now on Google. Do studying Latin and Greek make one especially erudite? Or obsolete? What is the future of the “great books” and how will that definition change through the generations? Who is writing the great books of our time?
Sigh. All these questions! I just don’t know. What I do know is that my girls are reading. They are marinating in the pure pleasure of delving into a real, live, paper paged book. And yes, they will redeem their promised reward. Fair is fair. A deal is a deal. They’ll pick a cute top or a skirt at Target as we head out of the mountains after Labor Day and begin to brace for the return of school, chauffeuring and schedules.
But here is the thing that gives me hope. It’s the reminder that all of that foundation laying, all of that work we did as parents in the reading department, lurks somewhere inside like the herpes virus, just waiting to flare up.
My 19 year old asked me for book recommendations this summer—she actually asked ME! And please do NOT tell her I’m writing this. Aware that I could scare her off by lending her my more literary faves, I quickly pulled down choices like Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” and “Gone Girl.” I slipped in “The Light Between Oceans,” and that clever Sloan Crosleys “I Was Told There’d Be Cake.” Finally, I thought I’d dazzle her with Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” just to prove my cool factor is intact. I must have smiled all the way to bed that night.
So take hope ye mother’s of children connected to their cell phones and computers. Don’t despair you parents of instagrammers and Facebook friends. I share this as a tale of courage that somewhere, around the bend, you might just witness the payback, all those years after the initial investment.
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