As I packed my overnight bag in preparation for my son’s birth, one of the first items stuffed inside (even before the slippers and toothbrush) was a copy of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. This 50+ year old picture book was the one I had blithely chosen to be my son’s first book. Since I am such a voracious reader; I chose to begin the routine of book-before-bedtime while we were still in the hospital. I knew he wouldn’t be able to see the pages or really understand the words, but I knew that it would be soothing for him, the rhythmic feminine rhyme, the closing out of the day to all the objects in Bunny’s room. I was too excited to postpone what I hoped would be the seeds of a lifetime of reading.
If anything in this life, I wish to instill in Xander a love of the written word. It’s the glue that holds my life together and has segued perfectly into each aspect of the glittering events that make my existence purposeful and beautiful. I was reading a book when my husband spoke to me for the first time (Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece), I was reading a book quietly when I made the firm decision to pursue writing as a career (Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), I was reading a book when I knew that I would never smoke another cigarette (Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking), I was reading a book when I truly believed in the existence of a Higher Power (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre). I look forward to learning the books that guide my son through his life: will it be an epic? Will Beowulf or The Hobbit ignite a love of adventure? Already his heightened imaginative mind loves to hear Peter Pan, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Chronicles of Narnia: hopefully this will blossom into a love of all things grand and true. Perhaps he’ll find a hero in King Arthur, a contemporary in Jim Hawkins, a nemesis in the Sheriff of Nottingham.
But my dreams for a love of literature in my son aren’t all lofty and austere. I also hope he’s not afraid to appreciate the fluff, the silly, the brain candy that reading can provide. Not all books ingested must be chock full of vitamins: some are pure high fructose corn syrup red dye number five fun.
So far our evening reading ritual (we typically read three picture books a night or occasionally a few chapters of a longer book, like Pinocchio or some classic fairy tales) has been exactly what I have hoped for before he was even born. They’re relaxing, a nice routine of closure for the day, a time for the two of us to step back and into another life for a half hour or so. Personally I have to read a few chapters of a novel to fall asleep, and my dreams are sweetened by prose and plot. I think it was the ritual of my parents’ reading to me at bedtime helped instill this need.
My unsolicited advice for the preschool years is this: read to your children in the evening, but please don’t force it upon them. Make it something they enjoy. If they don’t want to hear something verging on the high brow equivalent of picture books (like Yashima’s Umbrella) and would rather read an Easy Reader about Star Wars, so be it…read it to them. Forcing a child into a shoe that doesn’t fit can only stand to turn a kid off to reading; try to find books that match their personality (if they love Star Wars, maybe introduce the dream-worlds Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express) into their libraries. Sadly, in my time as a Children’s Library Assistant I often saw parents getting upset with their children for making their own choices, if a child wanted the His Dark Materials series his parent would insist on the Boxcar Children (and vice versa!). Pouting and empty checkout baskets were the only result in those offspring/parent tête-à-têtes. Why not allow your child to read to their tastes? I don’t force myself to read True Crime when I’d rather be reading the black comedies of Vonnegut and Palahniuk and I don’t expect Xander to be interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Reading can be a pastime that takes over your entire life, in a beautiful way. A child who loves to read is usually a calm and fulfilled child, with a powerful imagination. It should be a routine as common as brushing teeth, as eating breakfast. I can think of a more vital legacy to pass down to our children. I want to help make my son’s life like one of the great epics; hopefully by reading to him he’ll have the foundation to create his own adventures.