I just finished reading The Child that Books Built: a Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Metropolitan Books, 2002). In it, a self-described book addict details the intense and visceral thrall in which books have held him since the age of six. Books, and his relationship to them, made him who he is.
Spufford’s particular love of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, which transported him as no other books could, is echoed by Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: a Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), in which Miller explores the Narnia books and her own childhood obsession with them in detail, trying to figure out why and how they affected her so profoundly.
Frances Clarke Sayers, children’s librarian extraordinaire at New York Public Library, UCLA, and many other institutions, wrote and spoke eloquently about the power of children’s literature. In her speech “Of Memory and Muchness,” given in 1956 at a California Library Association conference and published in Summoned by Books, she makes a strong case that children’s literature is important not just because “the good life, at least inwardly lived, is assured to the child who loves reading” but because children’s books are amazing enough in themselves to have a deep and lasting effect on their readers. Sayers cites numerous luminaries, including C.S. Lewis, who name particular children’s books as the awakeners of deep and powerful thoughts and emotions.
Any of us who read intensely as children can attest to the importance that books have had in our lives. But what about people who don’t find that connection to books in childhood? I know many adult readers who didn’t discover their love of books until they were 12, 14, or even older. Is their connection to books any different than mine? And of course many adults never discover the pleasures of regular recreational reading at all. If my passionate childhood reading shaped my very being and the way I still approach both books and the world, then what is it like to be a child who doesn’t read – and how does not reading affect the adult this child will become?
According to a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation called “Generation M,” kids ages 8 to 18 only read 43 minutes a day (as opposed to almost 6 ½ hours a day using media — mostly television). Literacy rates are abysmal. About half of all 9-year-olds read for pleasure almost every day, according to the NEA report “To Read or Not to Read,” but that figure goes down to 22% by the time they are 17. I sometimes think that reading for pleasure is a dying pastime, reserved for a few unusual children who become unusual, possibly even freakish, adults. However, this same NEA report makes clear that reading well can lead to great success in life, whereas not reading proficiently often dooms people to low-paying jobs and worse — only 3% of the current prison population reads at a proficient level.
Children’s librarians today are well aware of their mandate to, as Sayers says, “bestow upon the young, while they are still aware of the wonder of life, one of the greatest of gifts — the gift of a love of reading.” And we do this however we can, using all the persuasive powers at our disposal — fabulous storytimes for little ones and their parents, dramatic read-alouds for school-aged kids, exciting programs, plenty of booktalks, and most of all the books themselves.
Sayers would certainly say that it is the “good” books that will bring about that life-changing experience that she, Spufford, and Miller all write about. I think she’s right. But I’m not sure that books that are less than stellar — paperback series, books with goofy bathroom humor, and so on — are actually harmful to kids, as so many librarians, parents, and teachers have felt for at least a century and still sometimes feel to this day. Books that are fun to read make children want to read more. The more children read, the better they get at it. The better they get at it, the more they want to read. It’s a lovely ever-rising spiral.
Give children books. If they don’t like reading, convince them that it’s only because they haven’t found the right book, and then find that book for them, whether it’s a joke book, a graphic novel, a series paperback, a book about mummies, or a Newbery winner. If it doesn’t click, try another. And another. Know the books. Know the children. Keep introducing them to each other. Never give up. Reading is vital. Children are worth the effort.
Not every child will become an avid reader. Perhaps most children will never experience the deep pleasure of immersing themselves in literature again and again. But if we don’t assume that any child might become not just a reader, but a Reader, then fewer children will. Every child deserves to the chance to forge a life-long love affair with books. It’s not essential to their well-being, not essential to their becoming fine, successful adults. But Spufford, Miller, Sayers, and I (and you too, I bet) know that a childhood, an entire life, enriched by books is a rare and wonderful life indeed.