Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hobbies: Reading

I love to read - always have.

As soon as I figured out in grade school that strings of letters made words, I was hooked.  I read everything I could get my hands on - and I mean everything!

I must have been 6 or 7 when I came across an educational pamphlet (about methods of birth control) that my parents accidentally left laying around.  I remember being very perplexed by the information I was reading.  I also remember thinking that there was no way that kings and queens were doing that type of thing. Obviously, this was many years before Charles shared with the world (not entirely voluntarily) - his aspirations to be a tampon

When I was not playing outside, I was reading - anytime and anyplace. One day, my mother asked me to vacuum the dining room and when she came in the room, she saw me doing this:

(Mom posed the boys in the background... I never noticed anything happening around me until I heard the click of the camera.  I was too busy - reading.)

After we moved to the big city, the library in the Dalberg house was in walking distance from my house. I made weekly trips there and came home with a stack of books every time. To ensure that I didn't accidentally get a bad book twice, I kept a record of the book titles as well as my ratings of the book.

When we received the reader for German class each school year, I would read it front to back - including the poems - in the first few days of the semester.  (Note that German was not a foreign language class to me but the equivalent of the English class for most of the visitors to my blog.) By the time I was 14/15 years old, my German teacher would suggest books to me that he thought I might like, even if they were not going to be part of the curriculum.  He was right more often than not.

One of my brothers (the young man on the left in the picture above), who was raised in the same household, never really did like to read all that much. If I remember correctly, the young man on the right became an avid reader of non-fiction rather than fiction.

When my kids were born, I wondered how I could make them love reading.

I don't think that my parents read much to me when I was little.  I do however remember my mother telling us bedtime stories that she had made up.  I wished she could remember some of the stories about "Fritzl und die Sprechmaus" (Little Fritz and the talking mouse).  I have asked her, if she remembers any of them, but she can't recall them either.

There were lots of books at our house since my parents read, and I had quite a few books that were mine.  But again, this environment did not succeed in turning every child into a reader.

Being a preacher, my Dad would occasionally get books sent to him from publishers.  I guess he was supposed to review them and then send them back.  If he kept them, he had to buy them.  I still remember getting my hands on one of the packages before Dad did. One day, I found a children's bible in that box.  It contained the most fascinating stories - and the most interesting illustrations I had ever seen.  Dad had not planned on buying the book, but after his young daughter snatched it, read it and got dirty smudges on it, he didn't have much of a choice in the matter.

My kids grew up around books, too.  Both their parents read, albeit not the same things.  When they were little, most of my  reading consisted of textbooks and scientific papers.  Their Dad read mostly non fiction books in his areas of interest.  The kids seemed interested enough in books - for nourishment - and to pass the time.

(My daughter clearly learned from her Dad that "though shalt read in the bathroom".... )

It was not until they got to school that I started to get worried.   I was uncomfortable with some of the reading strategies that were employed at the school - and with the reading assignments they were coming home with:

Read at least 20 minutes each night and have Mom sign a paper as proof - read this book and write a report - read a book just above your Lexile level - read *this* book in the summer, because we'll have a test when the semester starts - read the most books in a semester and receive a price.

Reading apparently was a big deal, but somehow all these activities were rubbing me the wrong way.

I had the feeling that this was not about the books itself any more.  Reading was becoming a chore.  It was not something you did voluntarily.  Instead, it was something you had to do - and, what's even worse, Mom had to sign a note to prove that you did it, because clearly you could not be trusted to tell the truth. Apparently, I am not the only person who has a problem with these methods. (If the link does not work, here is a pdf file of the article.)

To be fair, some of their teachers did give the kids choices.  In one semester, they had to read different genres throughout the semester, but they got to pick the specific book.  They had to do a task associated with the book, and the had a choice with regards to the specific task - and not all the tasks were reports.

But all of these tasks and activities are missing the main point.  It's about the book!

If I liked a book, you could not have stopped (!) me after only 20 minutes of reading.  As a matter of fact, I was in trouble with my Dad a lot, because I'd would not stop reading even after lights-out time.  Sometimes,  I would read all night long until I was done with a particular book. Once my Dad had taken to touching the light I was using to read to see if the bulb was still warm, I found myself sitting on the window sill in my bedroom in the middle of the night, reading by the light of the street light below.  (My bedroom was on the 4th floor.)  That's what the kids needed - a book they loved - a book they would refuse to put down voluntarily.

For my daughter, that book came in the form of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell when she was in third grade.  I had read the book and loved the story when I was a kid. Since my daughter was into horses just like I had been, I figured that she would probably like that book.

Apparently, I was right, because one night shortly thereafter, it was probably a school night, I was woken up by something at 3 am and realized that there was a light on in my daughter's room.  When I checked on her, I realized that she was reading.

I will forever remember standing by that door realizing that, as her mother, I should probably be scolding her for being up at 3 am on a school night.  But at the same time, I remembered how much fun it was, when you found that book that would just not let you go.

I remember staying up all night reading the "Unendliche Geschichte"/"Neverending Story" and agreeing with Bastian that sometimes, it was sad to finish a book, because you had to say "Good Bye" to the characters.

That night, when I saw my daughter secretly up at 3 am, I knew that I had raised a reader.

PS: My son was similarly hooked on Harry Potter shortly thereafter.  He had another favorite a few years later - Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events.

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