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Starting the Habit: Children and Reading

February 5, 2014 11:36 am | 7 Comments

Last night we escaped the clutches of giant spiders in Mirkwood. My kids, aged six, five, and three, all began to run around the room shouting about spiders and elves. I shut our copy of The Hobbit and set it back on the shelf for next time.

Since the kids haven’t yet seen any of the animated or live action adaptations of Tolkien, the images in their mind of what’s going on in the book are their own. The imagination is at work as they listen. Sometimes they will sit back during more exciting sequences and direct their unfocused gaze at the ceiling. You can almost hear the gears whirring in their minds as they interpret what’s happening on the page.

This is our second big chapter book we’ve read together. The first was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, a 1954 work of science fiction for children. The kids were a little disappointed to hear that there wasn’t a movie based on it, but after each night’s reading they would often run off to draw pictures of rocket ships and planets.

In a recent interview on the website Aleteia, poet and teacher Dana Gioia (last mentioned on our blog here) gives his take on the importance of reading:

…the answer really is that reading is fundamental to developing a full personal and public life in people. As you take it away, it is substituted by passive electronic entertainment, most of which is commercial entertainment. It’s people selling you things, trying to get you to buy the next new thing — a movie, a video game, clothes, etc…

…In the last three years, I’ve taught at University of Southern California. These are superb students — USC is now harder to get into than Berkeley — but what I‘m seeing are kids who dwell almost entirely in the electronic now. There was a study that USC did a few months ago showing that the average American — and the number is slightly higher for teens — now watches 14 hours a day of screens. What I’ve noticed in the young is something that is deeply troubling: most of what they watch is really crap (and they know it’s crap; they’re not dumb). They end up cultivating a kind of cynicism and skepticism to the very media which has addicted them. So we’ve got a generation which is kind of ironic, skeptical, sarcastic, and detached; you have this highly cultivated class of kids sitting there, making comments, and I think there’s a kind of terrible erosion of civic consciousness — of community consciousness — to that. They’re detached rather than being part of it, because the thing about being part of it is that you start to fix it.

It’s a rather harsh assessment, but one that seems somewhat fair to me. Though if you scratch below the surface irony and detachment of many modern TV shows and movies, you’ll find streaks of sincerity. (Comedies such as 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation are—I think—examples of seating heartfelt sentiments beneath layers of ironic humor.) What’s more troubling to me are the movies and TV shows aimed at kids that cultivate that kind of attitude when the target audience is unable of sorting through what’s sarcastic or ironic and what’s meant to be taken seriously. Pixar seems to have been able to avoid this in their films, but they are the exception.

So, as to reading: where do you start? Back when I was a typesetter at Bethlehem Books, I helped lay out an extensive book list by the Bethlehem editors that can be found in the back of Michael O’Brien’s book on children’s literature A Landscape with Dragons. It’s well worth taking a look at. (I have some differences of opinion with Michael O’Brien’s take on contemporary children’s fantasy literature, but he’s worth listening to all the same even if you disagree with him on that score).

And readers, if you have recommendations for other books (whether about literature or good read-aloud titles): add them in the comments!

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children. You can also find his writing on his personal site at herreid.org.

Tags: children education reading

7 Comments

  1. February 5, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Pew research did a survey of the reading habits of young people and found that young people (ages 16-29 years old) actually read a lot more then people give them credit for. Yes they may have a screen on at the same time, but they are also reading. Especially with the explosion of great books in the YA literature, to say that kids don’t read anymore is a crotchety assumption.

  2. February 5, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    My husband is reading a book called God bless this mouse we picked up at albertsons….it was a good start….taking months to finish as they are 2, 4 and 6…action packed helps!

  3. John Herreid

    February 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Laura: That’s good to hear. As another aside–an informal observation is that when I commute on BART and MUNI, I see more young people reading actual hard-copy books than I see with e-readers. The e-readers seem to be more popular with middle-aged and older readers. Make of that what you will.

  4. John Herreid

    February 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Elpasomom: Our guys are around the same ages and love a wide range of books, so we’ve been reading everything from Ben Hatke’s “Zita the Spacegirl” graphic novels to Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the pigeon books by Mo Willems. We’re also going through a lot of the Ignatius/Magnificat books, especially the Maite Roche ones.

  5. February 5, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    I have 5 kids, ages 1 to 13. My oldest boys (13 and 10) just got Kindle paper whites for Christmas. I have to say that they are really cool. The experience is not as bad as a computer screen or ipad. It is more like a book. And they read so much that it is challenging to keep them in books without racking up library fines.

    My kids loved the Narnia books, and an excellent, excellent series to read together is the Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Classic Winnie the Pooh is great, too. When they get older the Mysterious Benedict society is a lot of fun.

    I personally read more YA and children’s lit then books marketed at adults these days. I want to read what my kids are reading, but also there is just a lot of good books out there today. I loved the main idea of Landscape with Dragons, but also think his evaluation of contemporary lit is a little too cautious.

    I loved the Harry Potter series, and my oldest 3 have read or are reading them. In the end I think this is a great series and has a place among Narnia and Lord of the Rings.

  6. John Herreid

    February 5, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    I haven’t read too much of the most recent YA fiction. I read the first Harry Potter book and thought it was kind of derivative of Diana Wynne Jones (try reading “Charmed Life” to see what I mean.) From what I understand the series acquired more depth as it went along. I might go back and read them once my kids are older.

    My five year old daughter loves Pooh, but my son doesn’t much like it, so I end up reading it to her as a solo treat.

    I’ve heard good things about Anthony Esolen’s book on imagination, “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child”, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet.

  7. February 7, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    I love Diana Wynne Jones! I can see some similarities between her work and Harry Potter series, but they are both different in tone and the worlds they create. I think it is lovely that the HP series does grow with the reader, and become more complex as you go through the books. I won’t let my kids read the last 3 until they are over 10 for sure.

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