What makes a reader? It’s something I ponder as I chase after my three year old, tossing the trucks and crayons and socks left in his wake into any nearby plastic storage bucket but still unable to keep the whirlwind of disorganisation to a minimum. As I heft the baby on my hip and do everything one-handed, because that’s what you do with babies, well, the non-sleeping ones anyway, which are the only kind I seem to create.
What makes a reader? How do I as a parent ensure that these two little humans I am entirely responsible for develop an interest in story, a fascination with the imagination, a desire to be transported into innumerable fictional worlds?
How do I instil in them a love of books, in other words.
As a life-long obsessive reader and writer myself, it is something I’m keen to impart to my children. It’s not just the wonders which come with being a keen reader. We know children who read well generally do better in all aspects of schooling, it underpins all educational achievement. We know, too, that reading has a positive impact on the brain and aids in greater development of empathy and intelligence. Indeed, the benefits of reading are immeasurable, so of course I want to encourage my children to be readers.
But all practical reasons aside, it’s pretty much because I’m a reader myself: of course I want to give my kids the keys to all those secret kingdoms and wondrous worlds to be found inside books. I dread to think of them missing out on it.
So how to do it? It keeps me up at night – well, that and the baby who still likes to demand cuddles and attention at two hourly intervals – wondering am I doing enough? I read to them, of course, every day, baby too. But is there more I should do? My three year old is just starting to learn letters. The other day he ran to retrieve the ‘A’ from the magnets on the fridge, declaring with perfect and smug correctness that it is an ‘A’. Excellent work, my son!
So now can you get me a ‘B’?
Twenty-three fridge magnets later and he brings me the ’B’. Oh well. Let’s forget the individual letters for a while, let’s get back to the stories, the characters, the things that might capture an imagination and plant the seeds of a lifelong passion. There’s a bookcase in the kids room, of course (we have bookcases in most rooms of the house), and that one is filled with picture books of all kinds. Ones I like, often with big round and golden Children’s Book Council Award Winner stickers on the front, and ones he likes, which can be of the highest quality, or can be little more than product-placement-tie-in-franchise-merchandising.
I’ll read it to him anyway. Indeed, I’ll often read it several times over, until I’m insane with it and he’s still asking for ‘again!’. Last week it was The Little Red Caboose, one of the classics, sure, if something of an environmental disaster. All those oil cars and coal cars and flatbed cars (carrying logged old-growth rainforest, I’ll have you know) chugging along, puff puff puff, past the circus with its poor tortured elephants and lions in cages, past the stereotypical native Americans doing stereotypical native American things, all the way up into the mountains. Something of an anachronism, that one.
Thing is, the kid has clued into this never-refuse-a-book parenting policy of mine. He’s figured out that I might say no to a good many things, but never to a request for a book, so bedtimes are drawn out reading affairs with ‘one more, just one more’ and me cracking another spine open. And god help us if it comes to going anywhere or doing something he doesn’t want to, because then the books come out. ‘Read this one! Read this one!’
How’s a girl to say no?
We hang out at the library, we read every book that catches the eye, we make up stories. I model reading behaviour – the kids see me reading all the time, though so often these days it’s on the e-reader and is that enough? Is any of this enough? Because what if I’m missing something? What if some bit of vital parenting falls away from my notice and my kids grow up to not love books as much as I do?
I don’t know what makes a reader. But I know the world around us seems that much less colourful without a myriad of fictional worlds to reflect and refract it, to help us understand it and help us determine who we are and how we fit. And if I can choose to give my kids anything, it’s this: reading. A love of books. The immeasurable lack of boundary that is the imagination.