The other day, browsing around a wonderful blog about reading and books, I ran across a discussion about what makes a person well read. There was mention of summer reading lists, the kind schools assign kids who are in academic English literature classes. The writer said that parents had complained about the assigned reading, and the discussion went on to wonder how it could be possible that parents would not want their children to read during the summer.
I started to write a long response, but thought better of it. I’ll just respond here.
I may be in the minority, but I can see a reason to complain about summer reading lists. It’s not that children don’t or can’t or shouldn’t read during the summer. If a child is in a family that values reading (and surely any child who’s in honors English must at some level be a reader from a family that values reading), then that child will read in the summer.
Part of learning to read for pleasure is being allowed to roam throughout the stacks of your neighborhood library, pulling books out at random, deciding for yourself what you like and what you don’t. How to lead children gently toward what they might indeed love is tricky. The summer reading list is one way to do that, but gentle it is not. And in putting a book on such a list, you run the risk that a child will assume it is not very good, just as they do with any other thing an adult gives them and says this is good for you.
I wish childhood could go more slowly and that great books weren’t thrust at our children like broccoli, but that they had time and space to wander in places where the books are there for them to read, when they are ready to read them and adults wait to be asked, are there more like this?, before they tell a child what to read.
As the former English major mother of three reading children, it is hard to see them read comic books for pleasure and ignore the books I leave suggestively on their bookshelves. But then I’ll look up and see that somebody’s decided to read Philip Pullman after all and someone else is deep into a biography of Martin Luther King and the third boy is enacting a complicated dynastic struggle on the living room floor, kind of like the Brontes might have done. Yes, he is using an Archie comic and The Great Brain as tents for some of his soldiers, but it’s okay for books to serve more than one purpose, on occasion.
A love of stories is what makes people life-long readers. Pleasure, physical pleasure in the way books smell, in the way you read in bed with a book under the covers, is part of that too. So is a feeling that books can surprise you and take you places and that you own them because you chose them, even if you have to return them to the library: that’s what makes children life long readers.