RAISING READERS by Ellen Donker
Our Experiment Worked
When our children were born, I had several aspirations for them. Two of the big ones were that they would be able to sing on tune and that they become avid readers. Early enough, I learned that they had good pitch, but a love of reading took longer to emerge.
As parents, you can stack the deck by sharing your love of whatever interest you’re passionate about. If all goes as planned, your kids will be afficionados before catching on that you were nudging them in that direction all along. Maybe that’s what happened with us.
Our kids have always been surrounded by books. In their early years, we spent hours reading to them. We were regulars at the Maplewood Library, participating in story time and the summer reading program. And they often saw Rob and me relaxing with a book. That was their normal, and it mirrors how I grew up.
My husband, Rob, did not come from a family of readers. But somehow, as a young boy, he got ahold of a book, and never stopped reading. Maybe that scarcity of books explains why we have different approaches to book ownership. I get most of mine from the library, knowing that we can’t possibly fit everything we read on our shelves. Rob, on the other hand, needs to own every book he reads. On occasion he has bought his own copy of the very book I already own. That means that even with occasional pruning, our shelves are overflowing.
You’d think that locating a book in the many shelves around the house would be difficult, but we have a system that probably makes sense only to us. For example, if I want to find a book on my mental list of favorites, chances are it’s housed in the bookcase in Christian’s bedroom. Over time, I placed on his shelves the books I particularly enjoyed, hoping that our kids would appreciate them just as I had.
A few years ago, it finally happened. One of my happiest literary moments was seeing Christian leave for college with a grocery bag full of books pulled from the shelves. One of the first he plowed through was Steinbeck’s East of Eden. As he read it, he’d update me over the phone with his progress. And when he was finished, he expressed the same satisfaction I had felt upon completing it. I’m still waiting for Christian to read Cry, the Beloved Country or My Ántonia.
Madeline became an avid reader when the COVID lockdown separated her from her college friends. To stay in touch, they created a book group and have been reading novels together ever since. She and I have overlapped on a few titles and it’s great fun to see how her taste is developing and to receive recommendations from her. The club is presently reading The Joy Luck Club, a favorite I had mentioned to Madeline a while back.
Out of our three, Timothy, was always the least inclined to read, unless it was the sports page. Since he and Rob share a love of running, Rob tried to get him to read books authored by runners he admired. No dice. This past November, though, Timothy visited a used bookstore and bought a book by a famous cyclist. Another visit yielded a book on Andre Agassi. And then Emmett Till. He even put a few titles on his Christmas list.
Of course, I suggested that he utilize the library instead of buying his books (after all, he’s a poor college student) until he texted me a picture of his stack. He is growing his library and using his knowledge gleaned from the books to have some interesting conversations.
And that makes my heart sing because I know how much better reading can make us – how it opens us up to new perspectives, challenges us to a life of learning and offers respite from a long day.
Now that our children are about to graduate college come May, they’ll be setting up places of their own. When they do, I may just buy them their first bookcase, hoping to see it overflow with favorites of their own.