Reading to Children Is Vital

"I can wead!"  Scotty 1993

I’ve just finished editing a book about linking families and schools. The focus of the book was on helping to create bonds between families who know their children intimately, and schools whose teachers know only what they see at school and what they can measure through academic assessments.

One of the great insights I got from this book was about how important reading is to a child’s development. I knew this intuitively, but it was interesting to read about this from a research point of view.

From the moment they were born, my children saw my husband and me reading, and as they grew, they were allowed to buy a book anytime we went to a bookstore. Our bookshelves are filled to brimming with books for all ages. This is a function of who we are, so it was natural for us to share our love of reading, but I had no idea how important books are to child development.

We read to the kids every night, and often during the day. Once my daughter could read, she read to her little brother all the time. He could read at age three. It appears that our love of books, and our willingness to read aloud to the kids and discuss what we read, helped to shape them as literate beings.

I had never thought about how a child becomes a reader. When we as adults read books to children, we are teaching them language and story. This becomes meaningful patterned behavior, and the more the behavior is repeated, the more likely the child will develop into a literate being. They can become part of what’s called the Literacy Club. Eventually, the child no longer needs to be read to, but can enjoy reading aloud to another child, or even to an adult. 


Over time, they might find that they want to create their own stories, and thus a writer is born.

But it is even more important than that. Through reading, children learn about life. They encounter worlds of people who they might never meet in person, and learn about good people and bad people, about how to handle a crisis or temptation. They learn about places not seen, events and times not experienced, people they’ve never met. Their horizons are broadened immeasurably through books and the shared joy of reading.

These are facts that we, as parents, seem to be forgetting. How often do you take the time to sit and read with your child, and then discuss what you’ve read? By discuss, I don’t mean that you tell the child lessons to be learned, but that you allow the child to provide feedback to you, telling what they heard, and what thoughts and questions arise from the book. We plug kids into computers and other electronics, but these are isolating experiences. They provide no in-person feedback opportunities. And our children are the losers in these encounters.

This happens in classrooms as well, where reading is generally for assessment purposes, quantifying how much a child can read, not how much they learn from what they read, or what thoughts are provoked and actions initiated. Our children read now so that they can pass assessment goals, not for the pure joy of reading. My own son’s love of reading was siphoned out of him by a school system that piled more and more reading on his shoulders, requiring more and more mindless regurgitation of what he’d read, rather than opening the world of literature for him and letting him enjoy his explorations. He is not alone in that experience. Cookie-cutter public schools are doing this to children every day. Assessment is primary and learning and knowledge acquisition takes backseat to the ability to gauge learning quantifiably by filling in the bubbles.

As writers, we must keep in mind WHY literature is important in our world:  expanding minds and horizons, developing thinkers who see beyond their own limited lives and experiences, and connecting the world one page at a time.

Books make connections among people of all colors and creeds, all nationalities and beliefs. Books bind us as human beings. We must never forget that.

Scotty reads to Grandma Lois 1993

A New Reader

Our friend Arthur is a young Brazilian neighbor. We spend Wednesday evenings sitting and chatting. He wants to improve his already-excellent English, and we just thoroughly enjoy spending time with him.

At our last meeting, he mentioned that he had finished reading Tom Sawyer and was looking for more books to read. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I told him I’d draw up a list for him to begin his journey into American/English literature. He wants to read in the original language, not Portuguese translation, so I made sure the books were at a fairly fundamental level. Lots of “juvenile” fiction that is foundational for American students.

He plans to study abroad for graduate school, and perhaps live abroad for a while, and understands that the best way to get to know a culture is through its literature. My plan is to begin reading Brazilian novels, for the same reason. Then, together, we can discuss the books and clarify for one another whatever mysteries lie within: cultural, language, or historical.

Here’s the list of books I gave him (it’s only a start, so if you have suggestions, I’ll consider adding them!):

  •  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  • Alex Rider Series (Stormbreaker, Point Blank, Eagle Strike, etc.), by Anthony Horowitz (series, British)
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley  (British)
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin (series)
  • The Giver, by Lois Lowry (series)
  • A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
  • Lost Horizon, by James Hilton (British)
  • The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton
  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
  • Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
  • The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper  (series)
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Lewis Stevenson
  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Watership Down, by Richard Adams
  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (British)

His reply: The list looks amazing, some of them I had already heard of before, I think it’s gonna be an amazing journey.

My reply: It makes me so happy to encounter a reader! Books open our world and our hearts and minds. … We might never finish!

Now I have to go back and reread all of them. I know I still have miles to go before I sleep, but I can’t help rereading my favorite books. My grandmother used to call any repetition “chewing your cabbage twice.” But, I must read these books for a second, third, fourth, maybe fifth time. Why? Because they’re classics, and so worth the time!

And next, I shall read a Brazilian translation of The Little Prince. I know the story, so I can concentrate on the vocabulary and grammar. After that, perhaps another translation, or a jump into Brazilian short stories.

Art Inspires Art


Last night, I watched “Cirque du Soleil, Worlds Apart,” a gorgeous film by James Cameron, in which scenes from the various Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas are blended together in a sparse narrative, culminating in the most entrancing last thirty minutes. It was a feast for the eyes, and yet, was also a challenge to me.

Watching this, and seeing not only the performances, but trying to understand who created the images and choreography, and how they came up with the ideas…well, it all made my life seem so passionless, so hum-drum, so run-of-the-mill. Who thinks of these things? And what is it about them that makes them think outside the box (or inside the cube, as in one scene)?


Even as I watched, I was battling with myself, chastising myself for feeling lesser-than, and challenging myself to reach for more. And then it struck me anew. That’s why it is so important for writers (and other artists) to immerse themselves in “the other.” Crime writers must read more than just crime novels. Watercolor artists must expose themselves to more than watercolors. Rock musicians must listen to more than rock music. Because, it is through exposure to other works of art that our own art can grow, expand, and continue to enchant.


I’m sure that the artistry of Cirque du Soleil has inspired millions of artists around the world: whether physical artists, musicians, dancers, choreographers, writers, painters, what have you. They are so innovative, distorting senses and space and dimensions…challenging the viewer to reach beyond the normal and embrace the new, the unexpected, the sideways.


I believe that it is only by challenging our daily view of life that we can grow: as humans and as artists.

When I was in grad school, and under the influence of something other than mere life, I wrote:

I think everyone in the world is exactly like I am,

And those who are different are just warped versions of the universal type,

Which is me.

Wow, I thought that was deep! What I know today is that we are indeed universal types, but ah, the differences! That is where the vision lies! It is this difference, each person’s unique way of seeing the world, of experiencing the everyday…this is what makes art!

That said, I am still simply amazed by the vision of the choreography and the artistry of the productions of Cirque du Soleil. It is, indeed, worlds apart.

Libraries Around the World

While editing a book recently, I came across a reference to the Library at Alexandria. So, I looked it up. It must have been magnificent.


This led me to looking up other libraries in the world, such as this, at Trinity College, Dublin.


And this, the University of Salamanca Library, in Salamanca, Spain.


And then, I came across this, El BiblioBurro in Colombia:


I found the image on the Polis blog, and was thoroughly enchanted by the human drive for knowledge and entertainment. According to the blogger, Natalie Echeverri, “Luis Soriano, the creator of this mobile library, travels every weekend eight hours and up to 11 kilometers in the most remote landscapes of rural Colombia. His goal is to fight what he calls ‘the farmers’ ignorance.”

Throughout much of the world, ornate libraries such as those above are simply not possible. In these countries, the mobile library is still king. Here are a few more images from Polis blog:

A bookmobile bus in Chile:

EXPo Museos 005

A camel library in Kenya:



And a donkey library in Zimbabwe:

donkey cart

These folks can’t just order books with a click on Amazon. Nor can they choose from a library of thousands of volumes, but have to make do with what is available to them. I remember reading all of the juvenile fiction books in the library on the Army post at Fort Carson when I was in fifth grade. Once I’d finished reading every book, I started the cycle over. Today, that isn’t a problem: bookstores abound, and any volume I can dream of seems to be available somewhere on the internet.

What heaven such digital access might be to these folks. Ah, but what joy, also, to get a new book in your hands and curl up to read it!


If you have books that you no longer want or need, I ran across this website, Books for Third World Countries, a not-for-profit organization that will send your books to other countries free of charge. Their goal is to promote literacy across the globe, one book at a time. If you have the books, why not open the world to a new reader?

The Moby Dick Big Read

Oh, be still my heart! I just learned today of a project that delights me. It is called the Moby Dick Big Read, and here is written on the site’s About page:

Moby-Dick is the great American novel. But it is also the great unread American novel. Sprawling, magnificent, deliriously digressive, it stands over and above all other works of fiction, since it is barely a work of fiction itself. Rather, it is an explosive exposition of one man’s investigation into the world of the whale, and the way humans have related to it. Yet it is so much more than that. It is a representation of evil incarnate in an animal – and the utter perfidy of that notion. Of a nature transgressed and transgressive – and of one man’s demonic pursuit, a metaphorical crusade that even now is a shorthand for overweening ambition and delusion.

Out of all this, Herman Melville created a unique work of art – as unique as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, as mythic as Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner – a true force of nature, set in a century that challenged every tenet of faith that had been held until then. Melville’s book – is it barely a novel – exceeds every expectation of a literary work. It bursts out of its covers with the enormity of its subject – as if the great White Whale itself were contained within.

Now, in the 21st Century, a century and a half since it was first conceived and launched onto a misbelieving world, Moby-Dick retains its power – precisely because we are still coming to terms with it, and what it said. Incredibly prophetic, it foresaw so many of the aspects of the modern world with which we deal with. The abuse of power and belief; of nature and the environment; of the human spirit. It deals with art and artifice and stark reality – in an almost existential manner. It is truly a book before its time – almost ancient myth, as much as futuristic prophesy.

In the spring of 2011, artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare convened and curated a unique whale symposium and exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University, under the title, Dominion. Inspired by their mutual obsession with Moby-Dick and with the overarching subject of the whale, they invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to respond to the theme. The result was an enthusiastic response which evidently could not be contained within the physical restrictions of a gallery space and a three-day symposium.

‘I have written a blasphemous book’, said Melville when his novel was first published in 1851, ‘and I feel as spotless as the lamb’. Deeply subversive, in almost every way imaginable, Moby-Dick is a virtual, alternative bible – and as such, ripe for reinterpretation in this new world of new media. Out of Dominion was born its bastard child – or perhaps its immaculate conception – the Moby-Dick Big Read: an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.

My favorite book. A book I will happily reread time and again, and discuss with whomever, whenever. It is a book about mankind and nature, about the God-filled and the godless, about human interaction and brotherhood, and all about whales. “Call me Ishmael.” Why Ishmael? Why that name exactly? The moment I first asked that question, and set about finding an answer, I became a student of literature. I had always loved books, but Melville opened a new world to me. Where once I read, I now devour.

If you haven’t read this book, listen to it now. Free access! There is no excuse not to step into the labyrinth.

Books That Disappear

A friend sent me this story. I haven’t yet digested the need for such innovation, however.

“Book printed in ink that vanishes after two months

“We’ve seen a few innovations that have offered a twist on traditional reading habits, from offering short works by new authors based on the duration of train delays to a temporary edible book made of pasta and a smokeable book with pages made from rolling papers, printed with the lyrics of rapper Snoop Dogg. Taking elements of both of these ideas, Buenos Aires-based bookshop and publisher Eterna Cadencia has released El Libro que No Puede Esperar – which translates as ‘The Book that Cannot Wait’ – an anthology of new fiction from Latin American authors printed in ink that disappears after two months of opening the book.

“Silk-screened using a special pink ink, the book comes sealed in air-tight packaging that, once opened, allows the printed material to react with the atmosphere. The result is that after two months, the text vanishes. The more the text is exposed to light the faster it disappears, so unread pages may retain the text as long as the reader doesn’t skip ahead in the book. The ink is made from a “secret” formula that is highly reactive with sunlight and air.

“With much discussion currently centering on portable electronic readers and e-books, deemed to be bringing about the death of the physical novel, the creators aimed to add a bit of magic to the anthology, as well as encourage buyers to actually read it once they’ve received it instead of leaving it in their ‘to do’ pile. As the authors inside are all previously unpublished, the concept, developed with help from ad agency Draftfcb, acts as a way to ensure that readers engage with as much of the material as possible while they have the chance. The sense of urgency was important for the publishers to encourage readers to give new authors a chance and force them to digest the content quickly.

“The book has proven popular with Argentinian customers, with the first printed batch selling out on the first day it was put on sale. There is no word from the publishers on what they propose readers should do with the book once the text has vanished — however, leatherbound and with thick pages, it could easily be re-used as a high quality journal, for example.

“El Libro que No Puede Esperar adds an element of urgency to reading — motivating readers, promoting authors and benefiting physical book publishers by creating a buzz around a new release. Is this a business model that is as shortlived as its product, or could this be developed into something more sustainable?”

Ok, so a book that vanishes. I guess that’s okay for an author who isn’t interested in writing the Great American (or French or German or Swahili, etc.) Novel. But even then, to say you’ve written a book that vanishes is almost as bad as saying (as I have twice in the past) that you’ve written a user’s guide to software (which is almost immediately obsolete upon publication).

I know that articles in People magazine are written in lengths that are conducive to the “average bathroom visit,” but books that can be read during the time of an average train delay? What. Is. The. Point? And, weren’t those once called “short stories”? And edible books printed on pasta? Okay, novelty, but why not just print the dictionary on pieces of pasta and let people construct their own pasta prose before consuming? (Hey, I like that idea!) And books written on rolling papers…folks, they get the munchies, not the must-reads!

Still and all, folks will say, at least it’s getting people to read. To which I answer, baloney. (Ah, and there’s another idea!)

Cockroaches and Science

I am a firm believer that more you read, the better your writing will be. One reason is that if you read good writing, it will somehow be “absorbed” into your psyche, and your inner voice will be accustomed to the rhythms and cadence of good writing, and the proper use of grammar and punctuation. Of course, by reading, I mean reading good writing…the classics, or even respected authors today, both in print and on the Web. It’s a matter of value in, value out, and garbage in, garbage out. It won’t do you any good to read many of the blogs on the net, where ideas are primary and writing is secondary. Oh, read for ideas, by all means, but don’t use these as guides for your own writing.

In that vein, I recommend reading for another reason: to broaden your horizons, which is vital for a writer. Read about people and places you have never experienced first-hand. This is valuable, not because you’ll likely write about those new people and places, but because they will now inhabit your stable of characters and locales, from which you can draw as needed when you write. I’ve just edited a book about memoir writing of Muslim women of the diaspora. Likely, I might never have encountered this subject on my own; I read voraciously, but this wouldn’t have been high on my list. But, as a result of editing the book, I opened my horizons and read on some of the subjects mentioned in the book. As a consequence, my stable of characters has new dwellers.

And then, there are the bizarre facts that you will learn, facts that can later be used to enhance your storyline,  or your characters’ backgrounds. Take this, for instance: cockroaches and science (watch the video at the bottom; fascinating). The subject matter initially repelled me, but I overcame my repulsion and read the article. I’m glad I did! What wonderful ideas now come to mind, for plot lines and interesting ideas for character background.

Read. You have no excuse not to. You may be overworked, but at some point, you must relax. Read. You may live out in the boonies, but if you’re reading this, you have Internet. Read. Prowl among the shelves in libraries and bookstores, pulling out books on topics you might never before have broached. Read. Broaden your horizons, and enrich your writing.