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My nine-year-old son, Ryan, is an avid reader. We visit the public library every week. During the summer, Ryan and I often have “reading dates” at our local Coffee Bean. We pack up a bag with some books to read aloud. I order a blended mocha, he orders a Malibu Dream (with lots of whip cream), and we sit, and we drink, and we read. We love to visit our local Barnes and Noble, seeking out interesting new books and then retreating to our favorite quiet corner in which to read them.
Reading has been a part of Ryan’s life since I was pregnant. My husband would read Goodnight Moon aloud to my growing belly. I would read aloud recipes while I cooked, and I would read the writing assignments my fourth grade students had written to my unborn child.
Each night, Ryan’s bedtime routine includes us all sitting on his twin-size bed reading together. Sometimes he reads, sometimes I read, but what we read is always Ryan’s choice. Some nights we read old favorites, like Eric Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug, Don Freeman’s Corduroy, or Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Other nights we read a few chapters from Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. What we read isn’t nearly as important as our special nightly family reading time.
One year when I was still teaching fourth grade, an administrator asked to speak to me in her office. She wondered why I had allowed some of my students to read comic books on the playground during recess. She said comic books weren’t “real books,” and certainly not “proper reading material.” This was long before a graphic novel was the inspiration behind a Tony-winning Broadway musical.
I told her comic books were definitely real books; they had words on the page. Words that my students (several of them usually reluctant readers), really wanted to read. After all, they had forfeited the chance to play handball in exchange for extra reading time.
The conversation made me think of my own fourth-grade teacher, a woman who had chastised me for reading Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and told me I needed to read “the classics.” I did. I enjoyed Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women. But I also liked reading about these identical twin sisters who attended Sweet Valley High. I didn’t want to be told what to read then, and I find that, regardless of their age, most people feel the same way.
Periodically, Ryan’s teachers send home Scholastic Book Order forms. I never say no to books. The only rule being the number of new books coming in must equal the number of old books Ryan chooses to donate to Baby2Baby. So we go through his bookcases, weeding out titles that haven’t been read in quite some time.
Ryan often plops onto our couch and reads without prompting, reads simply because he wants to. His tastes in books are more varied than his tastes in food. On his bookcases you’ll find Curious George adventures; biographies of Buzz Aldrin, Ronald Reagan, and Michael Jackson; Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series; and several Todd Parr titles including It’s Okay to Be Different, The I Love You Book, and the always funny The Underwear Book.
When I was teaching, my fourth graders learned that, generally, there are four main reasons an author writes: to inform, to persuade, to instruct, or to entertain. Likewise, we read (and watch television) for those reasons. And there are plenty of times when my son, like me, like most readers, wants to read something that doesn’t require him to “think” too much. Something he can simply sit down with and enjoy. I know some of Ryan’s reading material isn’t necessarily challenging — it’s not expanding his vocabulary or giving him the opportunity to learn new facts. But those books are still fun, still enjoyable, and still worthy of being read.
I had plenty of parent/teacher conferences when I was on the teacher’s side of things, telling my students’ parents that what their children read wasn’t as important as the reading itself. And with the internet, e-readers, and smart phones, it’s easier than ever to have reading material available all the time. Digital newsletters, websites, sports recaps — they all count as reading.
On the parent side of these conferences, I’m told Ryan scores high in reading. His fluency, his comprehension, and his writing are all at or above grade level. Other parents have told me I’m lucky that Ryan is such an enthusiastic reader. But I don’t think it’s luck. I like to think it’s because Ryan sees his parents reading, has always received a book as a birthday present, and because he genuinely likes to read.
Because we let him read, with no restrictions or strings attached.
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