I’m on a bit of a tear today. I received an email this morning about a children’s book summit that is going to take place in New York. It is being hosted by Nielsen Entertainment, the same Nielsen as the Nielsen ratings. The email reads “How do kids discover and engage with books in our connected world?” and ” How do media and entertainment impact and intersect with the children’s book market?” “Real data. Real Insights. Real Business.” The summit is for one day and you can read more about it here: Children’s Book Summit. What I quoted is straight from the email.
Today’s world is completely different from what mine was as a child. We’ve discovered the world isn’t as big as it used to be. Our connections are closer due to technology, and most people are only a hand’s length away from some form of contact. It used to be that if it wasn’t important enough to wait by the (actual) phone, then it could wait, and you didn’t call parents at work for just any little thing. If you or your sibling weren’t bleeding, on fire, or had branches sticking out from your body, then it was not an emergency and you could find yourself in hot water when mom and/or dad got home. And let’s face it, you did NOT EVER call dad at work unless mom were completely unreachable for hours. So, maybe my generation lived in a simpler time since we didn’t have internet. We had to go outside to play and come up with our own games. We had to occupy ourselves because mom and dad were busy and it wasn’t up to them to keep us entertained. Reading was just another thing to do when you had nothing else to do.
I loved reading. From the time I could remember I was being read to, or reading to myself. I’ve stated before how my mom used to say she could put a book in my hands and leave me for hours only to come back and find me where she left me with the book still in my hands. All of my family bought me books, from the Little Golden Books to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott, and to comic books. I loved reading; it was the air I breathed. But my sister, Sharon, did not.
It was Sharon who gave me my philosophy on reading. Sharon hated reading as much as I loved it. Sharon was diagnosed as ADD when she was around 5 or 6 and the Ritalin she was given caused a genetic problem to come to the surface. She had schizophrenia. Both problems exacerbated the other and it was no surprise to find reading came to her like a brick wall falling on her. How can she avoid it? Sharon had a hard time in school because she could not focus long enough to learn. My parents tried everything they could to force her to read and do her homework, but they failed.
To me, it wasn’t a case of Sharon not liking to read. There were often times that I would come home from school to find one of my Little House books missing or put back in the wrong order (shut up-my OCD was not that bad-I just liked things being organized). So, I knew there was only one other person who could be taking it, and it wasn’t my baby sister Sylvia because she couldn’t reach the shelves. No, I knew Sharon had been reading them, or at least trying to. I tried to tell my mom about it but, constantly tired from taking care of us and working, she thought I was complaining instead of explaining. Then came the day Sharon left one of my books outside, and it rained. The book was completely destroyed.
My mom knew I’d never treat my books that way, and so she finally questioned my sister. It turned out Sharon was a closet reader. The problem was that she struggled with reading. My sister was never going to be an honor student, and she knew it. But that didn’t mean she was dumb or stupid. She just had a harder obstacle to overcome. Eventually, she became a big reader and she has shelves of books just as Sylvia and I do.
So, what was the change? What was it that turned Sharon from a struggling reader into an avid book nerd? She found an author, a genre, that caught her attention and held it. What philosophy did I realize because of this? It’s simple. Don’t force reading, have books available, let kids see you reading as often as possible, and let them find what they like. Don’t tell them that they shouldn’t be reading comic books or something you consider dumb. The point isn’t what they are reading, but that they are reading to begin with.
I began in my teens and early twenties buying books for kids I didn’t have but knew I would one day. I bought a collection of Winnie the Pook books, a Disney story collection (I love the excerpt from The Jungle Book), Little Golden Books, and whatever I knew I wanted or remembered from my own childhood. The Little Prince was one of the first books I bought for my future children. When I finally had kids in my home, they turned out not to be my own, but my sisters’ kids. My niece Emerald, especially, could be found tearing the books off of the shelves because I had put them within her reach. I wanted her to be able to get to them. Of course, the ones I put there were age appropriate, being cardboard and easily replaceable. I’d like to think that part of the reason she loves reading so much today is because of that. I wonder if she remembers.
When Sean was born and began crawling around he had access to cloth books which could go into his mouth, and the washing machine. As he aged, he, too, found the board books, then the ‘normal’ books. Sean’s love of reading was as natural to him as mine had been. By the time he was in first grade he had read Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer. He was constantly reading books levels above his class. It was just the way he was. Like me at the same age, he asked for books for birthdays and Christmas. I read to him before bed and he’d see me reading regularly.
Lock was a different story. In a way he was like Sharon. He struggled with reading, but for a different reason. He was born with a speech disorder called Apraxia. The language mobility switch, which allows us to put our tongues in certain places to be able to speak certain sounds, did not get flipped on. So, when he would say ‘cup’ it would come out ‘pup’. Whenever he was in distress, he’d stammer. I was told, often, that Lock had a stutter because of that, until I took him to this wonderful speech therapist who had experience with stutters. She tested him and correctly identified his disorder. We began therapy when he was two and by age 6, he was released because he was speaking like a normal kid his age. How did this affect his reading? He would hear the sounds said to him but he couldn’t repeat them back properly. This frustrated anyone who did not understand what was going on with his language. Think of it this way. How frustrated do you get when you are asked to repeat something because the person you are talking to misheard you? Try being a toddler and then a little boy just starting school and having to say your alphabet to your teacher. Reading was not fun for Lock, but I didn’t force it on him. When he would have to come home and read for twenty minutes in first grade, instead of him reading it, Sean or I would read it out loud while we sat with him. Sometimes Lock would read, until he got to an especially hard word. I gave gentle corrections if he mispronounced a word. (To this day he still says the word “adult” as “adalt”-we tease him about it now and he takes it with a good nature and tries to say it correctly-he will struggle for the rest of his life with unknown words, although it is easier for him now.)
Then, Harry Potter was introduced to the world. This was like Sharon with the author that immersed her into reading. Lock did not read Harry Potter. Sean did. But Lock saw the movies. He was 8 years old and it was his birthday when he found the Wizardology book set. Laura, my best friend, was spending it with us with her daughter Abbey. We took Lock to Medieval Times in Dallas and then we went to a bookstore afterwards, and when Lock saw those books, it was like Christmas right then and there. We bought him the whole set. My friend Michelle bought him a wand, and Lock and I read the books and even blessed the wand by moonlight like the book said to do. I’m not a pagan in the least, and Lock lost a good friend because he was reading these books because the friend said he could not be friends with someone who liked wizards. As I said earlier, it was not what he was reading, but that he was reading.
Jack is Jack. Jack likes to read, especially nonfiction. I don’t even try to encourage him to read anything else. Like both Sean and Lock, he has chosen what appeals to him and I know better than to force anything else onto him. He surprised me last week, however, when he came home from school lugging a heavy backpack. I looked inside and found two thick Ranger’s Apprentice books that he had chosen from his school’s library because he ‘wanted to try and read them’. In fact, I just asked him if he is still reading them and he says “yes” but when asked if he likes them he says “not really”. But he’s still reading them. You should know that all of my kids are stubborn. They come by it naturally.
Ryan is still little, and I have no idea what kind of reader he is going to be. But he’s already showing signs of being a reader. He picks out books from our shelf and brings them to me to read. Recently, he’s begun disappearing from sight for more than three minutes and when called he yells back at us “be quiet, I’m reading!” When we go look, he is indeed sitting on a stool with a book open on his lap looking at the pictures and making up stories to what the words say. Remember, he’s 3 years old. His favorite books right now are anything with Thomas the Tank Engine and Richard Scarry.
Now don’t think I don’t monitor what my kids read. With the exception of Sean, who will be 18 in October, I pay close attention to what books my boys bring home. But I don’t have a problem with them reading controversial books. Chances are I’ve already read it, or I know someone who has. I wouldn’t let Lock read D.H. Lawrence right now because he isn’t mature enough. But, were he to come home with Lady Chatterly’s Lover in a few more years, I might raise my eyebrows and ask him why he’s reading it, though I wouldn’t stop him. I believe that kids need to be trusted in this area. They know what they like, better than you do, I assure you. And most CAN be trusted because they have teachers and school staff who lead them. I don’t know about all school libraries but our elementary school library has color coded their books into age/reading level. The kids can check out a book in their level or above. They should read the book and once completed they can take a test on a computer about the book’s content. The program then calculates the child’s actual reading level and what books they can read in that level. Then, in Texas, the kids all take the STAAR test in April. Everyone hates this test: students, teachers, parents. It’s a horrible test and all of us are feeling how inaccurate its testing is. The biggest thing we hate is that if they fail it, they do not graduate to the next grade level. Yet, they make the test so hard that teachers are having to teach how to take the test. More and more kids are having to see counselors because of test anxiety when STAAR comes around. I had a brief moment this last April when Jack had to take it for the first time. He struggles with Math and I was afraid he’d fail that portion of the test. Yes, they do allow you to retake the test. But I think (don’t hold me to this) that they can only retake the test once before the next school year. I don’t think this is a ‘take until you pass’ exception. I could be wrong about that, and I will definitely ask about it so I have my facts correct. Fortunately, Jack passed. He had to take a Math STAAR and a Reading STAAR. So far, not one of my kids has NOT gotten less than an above average on the Reading STAAR. All of them have tested strong in Reading. And I’m thankful, and grateful to them, for that.
Did I have any influence on any of their reading ability? Of course I did. You don’t fill your house with books and not be influenced by that. Did I have to fight with technology to get them to read? Not one bit. If anything, technology certainly encouraged them. But is that because I monitor their time on the computer and video games, or is it because I made sure to buy some learning games as well as fun games? I honestly don’t know. What I can tell you is that I used my common sense. I paid attention to my kids and I watched them and learned from each one. I didn’t push reading, choosing, instead, a subtle encouragement by making sure books were available, that they had complete access to books, and that I bought books I thought they might like or were popular with other kids their age. I have read a lot of young adult books, not because they might be trending right now, but so I could see and understand what my kids were reading. And when one of them comes up to me and tells me I should read this book, I try my best to do so. Sean encouraged me to read the Mortal Instrument series because he really enjoyed it. So, when I got around to reading it I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it as well. Currently, he and I are both collecting the Richard Castle books because we both liked the first one. Whenever a new one comes out he texts me (he did this on my birthday this year and said “don’t you wish this was your birthday present?”-the stinker), and I do the same to him. It gives us something to discuss and bond over.
So, why was I on a tear about this summit if I approve of the underlying idea of encouraging children to read books? Well, honestly, I’m upset because it’s a one day summit that you have to pay to get to, pay to enter, pay to have businesses take advantage of the book market so they can
get rich off of us build their businesses (and probably pay to eat as well) just to hear what I probably already know. Nowhere in the email did it say that it was about how to build your business based off of the children’s book market. It made statements such as “actionable insights from across the children’s consumer experience”. Now, you might say ‘but there is probably something new or some good advice in the lectures.” Yes, that is true and you would be right. I might learn a thing or two. But I really am not happy about taking advantage of parents when kids struggle with reading every day. And, frankly, our kids and grandkids are living, and will live, in a world where books are becoming extinct. Kindle, Nook, and tablet readers are the norm now. I myself use a tablet to read if I find myself without a physical book. Although, you can also bet my kids know my feelings on physical books versus electronic readers as well. Maybe the summit is trying to target companies that put together learning games for kids, and I can definitely understand that, and support that kind of ideal. But there will also be companies there to make a buck for the sake of making a buck. They don’t care about kids really learning to read or even enjoying to read. Basically, they go to learn what will sell a kid so the parents will buy the product. I’m not a fan of Nielsen and their ratings anyway. I prefer to decide what I like and not have someone tell me this is what everyone else likes so you must like it, too. Maybe I’m being naive, but I am really having a problem with a company that sends out an email that targets certain clients in relation to taking advantage of children and their parents just to make a buck. Or am I reading too much into this?
I’m trying to become a published writer. I have two children’s stories that I wrote for Sean and Lock and Jack when they were younger. I’d like to see them published. I’d love to see my grandkids holding a physical book in their hands that I wrote. But I really don’t care one way or the other if it’s physical or electronic as long as they know that I wrote it and that I did it for their dads and them. I could probably learn a lot from this summit and I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be nice to go. I’m interested, certainly. Intrigued, surely. But I’d much rather attend a summit where the focus is on teaching parents how to influence their kids to read, not one that says ‘come read our focus group studies and learn how to make a lot of money off of kids and their parents”. The area I live in is really quite diverse economically, and I know kids here whose parents could care less if they read. I also know parents who encourage their children to read the same way that I have. I came up with my tactics on my own. I didn’t ask other people what worked for them. But then, I didn’t need to. I have been fortunate with my kids, very fortunate. However, there are so many kids who need help still, and they need that encouragement. But should they get that from a game company that is out to serve their own interests and not the childrens? Or would you rather your kids be encouraged by seeing how you read, and what you use to do it with?
I am a supporter of Reading Rainbow and Levar Burton’s Reading Rainbow: Every Child, Everywhere campaign. This is a fundraising platform to bring Reading Rainbow’s library of books and interactive videos to classrooms in need. All kids should have access to books in any and all forms available. Please, if you can, donate to this campaign. Even $1 helps.
Thank you for reading this long post. This is just a subject that is very close to my heart since my sister Sharon was little. Please feel free to comment on this, even if you disagree with my opinions. I’d like to hear your views.