By Kim Robson:
“The best way to get kids to read is to say, ‘This book is not appropriate for your age, and it has all sorts of horrible things in it like sex and death and some really big and complicated ideas, and you’re better off not touching it until you’re all grown up. I’m going to put it on this shelf and leave the room for a while. Don’t open it.’” ~ Phillip Pullman
I was lucky enough to grow up in a home that included a spare bedroom converted into a library. Dad removed the sliding doors from the closet and installed bookshelves inside. Stand-alone bookshelves lined the rest of the room. A desk and a pair of comfy love seats completed the den.
I was also very fortunate to be raised by bibliophile parents. I never read so-called “children’s books.” One exception might have been Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, but it was written to expose the cruelty to horses that was common at the time. Parents of a horse lover should consider the many violent and depressing scenes, the abuse of alcohol, and a terrifying barn fire.
Every evening before bed, my mom would read to me. Pro Tip: If you read to your kids at a specific time of day, do it with enthusiasm. Too often, parents leave reading for the end of the day when they’re tired and it feels like a chore. Kids can sense this.
Mom had a master’s degree in art history, so one year, she got an extensive set of books about master artists. There must have been 50 of them. Every week, we’d learn about a different master: Gaugin, Monet, Lautrec, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and so on. I learned about color, composition, hue, various techniques, the use of light. We then took day trips to LACMA to see some of these paintings in person, extending my art education. Don’t end your reading experience at the end of the book: make reading a hands-on adventure.
I spent many an afternoon in our little library, reading with my mom. Nothing was off limits; I was encouraged to read the most challenging books I wanted. If there was something I didn’t understand, the deal was that I could ask and I’d get a straight answer. (In fact, we often watched All in the Family together, which dealt with heavy adult issues such as race relations, war, feminism, politics, socialism, sexism, religion and the economy.)
So it came that, before I was in high school, I’d read some very important books. For instance, I read Teddy Bare: The Real Story of Chappaquiddick, by Zad Rust. This well-researched book details the relationship between Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, rumored to have been pregnant with his child, and reconstructs the fateful events at Chappaquiddick the night of her death and the massive cover-up that followed.
Another adult book I picked up on my mom’s recommendation was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, about the spiritual awakening of a lifelong materialist during his long and painful decline. I’ve reread it several times, and it never fails to impress. The perfect bureaucrat, Ivan Ilyich treasures his orderly domestic and official routine. Diagnosed with an incurable illness, he at first denies the truth, but influenced by the simple acceptance of his servant Gerasim, he comes to embrace the boy’s belief that death is natural, not shameful. He comforts himself with happy memories of childhood and gradually realizes that he has ignored all his inner yearnings as he tried to do what was expected of him. By the story’s end, he is at peace. Pretty heavy stuff for a ten-year-old.
I also remember reading Kamikaze: A Japanese Pilot’s Own Spectacular Story of the Famous Suicide Squadrons. Originally published in 1957, this firsthand account of the fascinating life of a kamikaze fighter pilot was cowritten by Japanese suicide pilot Yasuo Kuwahara. From age 15, he began a life of military service that included brutal basic training before participating in ferocious aerial combat against the Allies, suffering from lack of food and supplies, and narrowly avoiding a suicide mission when the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, near his hometown.
Encourage your child to join reading groups at the local library, or to create his or her own reading group. Every child should have a library card and use it. I spent entire days exploring alone at my local library when I was a kid.
The point isn’t WHAT you read with your kids, but that you DO read with your kids. They are much more capable of handling adult topics than you may realize. The investment in your time will engender a lifelong love of books in your children. I can’t imagine a better payoff.