Sunday, July 12, 2009

Snoopy and the Destiny of Reading

Well, it finally happened.

Yesterday we had a big Friends of the Library book sale, where I help set up and tally and - well, everything that needs to be done. The monkeys came with me, and helped sort kids' books and run boxes and - well, everything they were asked to do. Prizes for young helpers are 5 books (or movies or whatever) of their choosing.

Toward the end of the sale there is generally a "bag sale", where you can purchase a shopping bag for $4 and just load it up with books. I don't usually do this, as this house is already swimming in books, but yesterday the monkeys insisted - and Ben was willing to split a bag with me, while Tanner insisted on buying his own (his $5 bill from losing both front teeth in one day still burning a hole in his pocket). I finally relented, with dreams of suffocation by books brewing in my subconscious.

Last night, after they had strewn the bags of books all over the living room floor (akin to the much-awaited sorting event on Halloween night), I read to them from Magic Tree House #33, then they were off to bed while I went back to canning peaches. I agreed to let them read in bed, which I could hear Tanner doing, a sort of halting running monologue of the words of Snoopy. Tanner is a collector (gosh, I wonder where he got that tendency), and yesterday he got five Snoopy books as the beginning of a new collection (to add to the Magic Tree House and Boxcar Children collections).

I noticed that his reading was becoming smoother as he went along, and then I could hear him come out of his bedroom and take up position on the living room sofa, still reading. He asked for clarification on a couple of words, which I gave him, then I politely stated, "I thought you were supposed to be in bed." "Yeah, but Ben just wants me to turn off the light," was his reply. He was counting the pages he had read, in competition with Ben's declared page tally.

And so it has finally come to pass. Two years of homeschooling, a boatload of books, two years of checking out every audio book in the library, two years of season tickets to the local children's theatre and countless hours of my voice reading to them: my boys have become readers. Thank you, God. I focused on math for two years because of Ben's resistance to reading, and finally it has just seeped into their pores, like living in a superfund site. They live with the constant outgassing of every author from Shakespeare to Silverstein.

I don't believe that one day they will come to me in arms, screaming, "Mom! You TRICKED us! It was a plot to make us read all along, and we were DUPED!" Because in my heart of hearts I know that we all want to read. We want to understand the signs around us, communicate with people who are not here and now, record our lives and our thoughts, gain understanding of the history of this earth and humanity, open a work of fiction and expose ourselves to villains, protagonists, and minor characters that allow us to see a larger and different world.

You can walk through this house and find the complete works of Hemingway, Wodehouse, Doyle, McCarthy and Poe, the poetry of Sharon Olds, Billy Collins and Pablo Neruda, two complete Oxford English Dictionaries, and five translations of the Bible. That only scratches the surface of the printed works. If exposure to books were a crime (a la Fahrenheit 451), they would have incarcerated me for life.

I don't believe in the tabula rasa theory of child rearing. I don't believe they come into the world as blank slates, and whatever you write upon the slate is remembered, whatever you focus on becomes a talent. I believe in giving tools to children, and they will wield them in whatever way suits them. To my boys I give the written word and the hair-pulling experience of English phonics, the attempt to make sense of the most cross-cultural and historically rich language alive today. This is my best.

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