Summer Semester: The Joys of Reading

By Christopher Byrne

Last week, I spoke about the need to be active, and I heard from tons of people who remember with fondness the ready accessibility of firecrackers, M-80s, cherry bombs and the like.

And, hey, did you know that there are places that are trying to get rid of sparklers as well? These most benign of fireworks—the ones that the little kids played with—are getting banned. It’s not that kids don’t want this stuff. A bunch of us grownups were sharing our explosive experiences with some kids last weekend, and the envy in their little hearts was palpable. Bottom line: Boys love to blow things up, and while they have to settle for the virtual explosions in video games and movies, I can’t help but think that something is lost by a generation that will be less likely to know what it’s like to light a fuse and high tail it to safety.

But, summer is not just pyrotechnics. In fact, the best part of summer vacation can, and should, be a collection of balanced experiences for kids that complement one another. And that includes reading.

When I was a kid, my school had a required summer reading list—usually about 5 or 6 books that would figure somehow in the curricula for the next year. My parents were avid readers, and we read a loud as a family. Our summer reading list was just the beginning of our summer reading.

I can remember hours spent under trees reading away a sultry summer afternoon. The public library was a favorite haunt—largely because it was a big, dark cool building, and we didn’t have air conditioning in our house. I would take the bus downtown (yes, alone) and send hours looking for just the right next book to read. And it wasn’t just kids’ stuff either. My parents were both teachers, so they set a pretty high bar for what we would read, alone or as a family. As a result, I read Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and, when a little younger, The Hardy Boys and most of the 15 Oz books by L. Frank Baum. But it wasn’t just that I read this stuff, I talked about it with my parents, particularly my mother. She took an interest in what we were reading, and guided us towards some of her favorite books. When we went on vacation, there was no TV, and this was before video games, so we went at least two weeks with no screen time at all.

I know this must sound quaint, but here’s why it’s important to encourage kids to read. First and foremost, it helps them to be better students, to absorb information, to see things in their minds’ eyes. This is a critical skill. Whether it’s reading a text book or being shaken to the bones by The Shining, the power of imagination is essential to virtually any academic discipline.

It’s particularly important for young kids—especially between third and fourth grades—when they make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading for pleasure reinforces this skill and makes it easier for kids to process information as readers.

Best of all, books offer a world of entertainment and imagination that makes the most of the most advanced entertainment medium of all—our minds. As the author Lemoney Snicket said to me when discussing the movie based on his books, “It’s one thing to write, ‘And then the house fell off a cliff.’ It’s quite another to watch someone try to make that happen in a movie.’” As readers, kids enter unique worlds that are brought to life by their unique imaginations. That opens the door to individuality both personally and of expression.

How do you get your kids to read? I get asked that a lot. I think showing them that it’s something you value and that you do is very powerful. Most importantly, though, give kids things they want to read. The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer, for example, is all the rage with a lot of kids. I’ve seen too many reading lists for kids that have novels that were dated when I was a kid. Encourage your kids’ teachers to update their lists as well.

You also need to understand that between video games, DVDs, TV and the internet, kids have a lot of entertainment choices today. Encourage books and reading as one of those.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports lately, and while travel can be demanding, the kids I see who are the best behaved are those who are curled up with their parents—even when flights are delayed—and they’re all reading.

Make it fun. Make it frequent, and make it part of a whole summer of activity, and you’ll probably be surprised at how kids react.

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