Saturday, April 30, 2005

kids and books

This post by daddychip got me to thinking about the subject of kids and books.

My kids both love books, and one of the things that I look forward to most as a parent is introducing them to my favorite books. We've read to our kids for almost every day they've been alive--even when they were tiny infants. When the Bumblebee was a baby, sometimes I would read aloud to her from books that I was reading myself, because just the way my voice changed when I was reading her a story (versus talking to her) seemed to calm her down.

We have literally thousands of books in our house, that run the gamut from kids' books, to contemporary trade fiction, to junky mysteries, to scholarly tomes (hello Riverside Shakespeare). We've got amateur poetry, family autobiography, literary crit and analysis, theatrical anthologies. We've got a lot of books. Once, my mom asked me if there was any room in our house that didn't have a bookshelf in it, and I told her, "of course not, Mom, I would never store books in the bathroom--water is bad for them." That was before the cookbooks got moved into the dining room, though, so now there are three rooms in our house with no permanent collection.

Both of our kids have bookshelves that are crammed full of picture books, board books, and lately, chapter books. Over the years, we've read the Bee some books that were (at the time) way beyond her comprehension (The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, The Wizard of Oz). When the Bee was born, I started reading kids' and young adult books again, so that I would be prepared when she was ready to read that stuff, and I've found some amazing things along the way (although nothing yet to dislodge my personal favorite, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book I must have read twice a year from ages 8-11). The Sweet Potato is currently in a phase where he drags piles of books (mostly board books) from one room to another, demanding to have them read. And the Bee has gotten to be a good enough reader that she can sometimes read those books to him, which makes him (and me) very happy.

My own parents had very different attitudes about books. I grew up in a house with a lot of books--when I was 6 or 7, my dad built a bookcase from one end of our upstairs hall to the other, to house his own books. He had great, eclectic taste in novels, and was definitely the parent that you wanted to have reading to you at bedtime. I vividly remember lying in my parents' bed with my two brothers, as he read aloud to us from Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and later Charlie's Great Glass Elevator. I think we had every Roald Dahl book that was intended for children, and some that weren't.

My dad played a very important role in my development as a reader, and it continued on as I got older, even as my parents marriage crumbled and eventually fell apart. He always encouraged me to read, and gave me books that he thought would challenge me. He let me read anything on his shelves, although I do remember once or twice having him tell me (when I was 12 or 13) that I should wait until high school to read a certain novel.
His own reading tended to the black humorists. He was a great fan of Vonnegut's, and had all of John Irving's early work (the Irving novels were among the books he thought I read a year or two too early). He also had stuff by Woody Allen, and Steve Martin's first book, Cruel Shoes (which I found hilarious as an adolescent). But I think it was important to his image of himself that he read the work that was contemporary and important. When, in sixth grade, I was given an assignment to write a book report on a biography or autobiography, I went home and looked on his shelf and found The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and wrote my report on that. Needless to say, I was the only suburban white girl in my school who wrote about that book.

My mother had a somewhat different parenting attitude about books. My mom is not really a reader. I don't remember seeing her ever with a book in my childhood, and even now, she tends to read things like The Pilot's Wife. While I read a healthy amount of what's now called chick lit myself, I don't think she ever really enjoyed reading anything that was really meaty. But the other difference between my parents was in the way they felt about my reading. My mom was the parent who would tell me things like, "you've got your nose in a book all the time," or would try to make me stop reading to go out and play.

Looking back now, I know that she wasn't doing this out of some malice toward books. My mom is an educated woman, who values literacy very highly. She sends my kids books. But in my childhood, she came off as a parent who was suspicious of books. When I was 13 or 14, I checked out Lenny Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People from the library, and she was so enraged when she saw me reading it that she made me stop immediately and returned it to the library herself. I'm not sure what bothered her most about it--the cursing or the fact of Lenny Bruce himself. The thing that I came away from that experience with, though, was that she didn't trust me to evaluate my own reading. That she thought that just by reading about Bruce's prodigious drug use and profanity, I'd be sure to head that direction myself.

Now that I'm a parent, I see my own parents differently (of course). My mom, at the time of that incident, was going through a bitter separation and divorce from a person who swore like a longshoreman and drank like F. Scott Fitzgerald. My dad and I had really only one thing in common--our love of reading--and when he moved out, he knew it was a topic we could connect on, and he knew that by treating me as more of an 'adult' reader, we would bond more easily.

I don't know how I'll react when my kids want to read something that I think is "too old" for them. I get to make those choices now--I've read the BB the first of the Lemony Snicket books, but not yet Harry Potter, because I think she'll find the Potter book scary, while the Snicket books are not. But what would I do if she wanted to read The Cider House Rules at age 12? I'm not really sure. I'm open to advice, though.

• Posted By landismom @ 4/30/2005 01:30:00 PM
Funny you should ask that...

First though, what a great post on reading! We're book hounds too with way too many books. And I'm finding it hard to get rid of even the old kids' board books.

On your last point. There are definitely things I would not want my 14-yr old daughter to read. But if she read them I think she'd be okay, she wouldn't be traumatized.

We're pretty open with her in discussing things like sex, drugs, death, misogyny, etc. and I think that while I wouldn't choose Cider House Rules for her, for example, if she decided she wanted to read it, we could have a discussion with her about it.

I'm not thrilled that she's reading the Georgia Nicolson stuff (which is aimed at teens), but I have to believe that we've been open enough with her on all these topics that she can handle them, she knows enough to put them into context and perspective.

Actually we just found out she'd borrowed a book from a friend that deals with some gruesome rape/murders of girls. We did talk to her and tell her we didn't think that was appropriate for her to read. But again, I don't think she's scarred for life or damaged by reading it.

The thing about kids and reading is it's like a pandora's box. Once opened it can't be closed. That's good overall, but clearly has a downside.

So you just have to prepare your kids as well as you can for the real world. And you start doing that from the very beginning years. I have a strong feeling that your kids are gonna be real well prepared for whatever they come across.
I loved reading this post (hah! no seriously!).

Both of my children are avid readers, and I (like you) started reading to them as infants. Sometimes, if I wanted to read a book or magazine, I would just read aloud with the baby on my lap. Both kids began to read on their own at 3.

My daughter is now almost 20, and not only is she still an avid reader but she's a fantastic writer. I can't remember her reading anything really WAY too mature for her as a teen...although she became a Buffy fanatic and some of the "fan fiction" is pretty racy. Still, I was always open with her about sex so it wasn't much of an issue.

To this day, I think she'd say Jane Eyre and Gone With The Wind are her favorite books, and she read both when she was 10!

I think there is no finer gift you can give your children than the love of reading. Sounds like you have already done that!

I agree with Chip...if your daughter chose a book you were unsure about, let her read it (and you read it too) and have a mini book-club discussion about it.
When I was about 12, when I was the girl-everyone-loved-to-hate, I dreamed of running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hiding among the treasures there. Books have a powerful influence, stories ingrained early stick with us forever. When I finally visited NYC with my children in 1999, what do you think was on our "must see" list?

Ovations to Bumblebee Sweet Potato. Keep reading to those little ones.
chip, thanks, I feel basically the same way (have a conversation, don't censor). I'll have to check out the Georgia Nicholson books--I'm not familiar with her work.

panthergirl--yeah, I did a lot of writing as a teen, and my extensive reading helped to shape me in that way (although I don't think the concept of fanfic was invented in the early 80s).

ovations--welcome! glad to see I'm not alone having wished to fish coins from the fountain. I grew up in NJ, so it didn't even seem like a far-fetched fantasy to me.
I'm not sure, having no kids of my own. But I am glad that you are going to encourage reading. And thinking about it early is the way to make it work. Nice site and great post.
I agree with the "discuss" people. I'm a part-time stepmother, so my situation's a little different. I find that the stepkid (who's 7 1/2) has Playstation games and sees movies that I think are completely inappropriate (Mortal Kombat? For a 7-year-old?) but his mother & maternal grandparents seem to be okay w/ it, so my options are limited. My opinions come out, though, and he actually wants to talk about it. I make it clear that I'm not criticizing or mad at him, or even at the other adults; I just tell him clearly what I don't like and why. I expect this will continue as he reads.
CC--thanks for visiting! And what a great concept you have on your own site, btw.

Emma--great username. It's great that you are employing such sensitivity as a step-mother. I think it's important for kids to know that the rules can be different at different houses, without judgements being made about anyone else's rules.
What's amusing to me is that (a) many people characterize my relationship w/ my stepson as "sensitive" (which I take as a HUGE compliment, mind you), even as (b) the kid almost certainly also regards me as the biggest pain in his butt. But I can live with that.

Thanks for stopping by
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  2. My daughter is the Bumblebee. My son is the Sweet Potato. You'll have to ask their father.

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