Since before my children were born, I’d fretted about television’s effect upon their reading. On our bulletin board I had thumbtacked the warning: “We do not need to burn all the great books to destroy our western civilization. All we need do is to leave them unread for one generation.” (Dr. Robert M. Hutchins.)
The winter that our boys were eight, six, four, and one-on-the-way, I complained to my husband that we were rearing a brood of nonreaders, and TV was the culprit. “It’s really not what they watch or how much they watch that worries me,” I wailed. “It’s that they don’t read.”
B. G. responded in his lawyerlike tone, “Actually, my dear, it doesn’t matter whether our kids discover books prekindergarten as you did, or postgraduate as I did—as long as they discover them and amount to something.” Returning to his newspaper in a “case dismissed” manner, he added whimsically, “But if you think television’s going to hamper that discovery, you can throw it out the window.” I took him at his word and the next day I took the TV to the dump.
Back home I wondered uneasily what we’d do that night during prime time. Third grader Barrie and first grader Kyle might bring home their readers, and I could listen as they ground words into unpalatable chunks. But frankly I didn’t enjoy that any more than they did. So what could we do now that the portable had been deported?
By the time the boys came home from school, I’d outlined a two-point reading program: (1) atmosphere and (2) encouragement.
And I’d worked all afternoon on Atmosphere. Suppressing my obsession for having a neat house, I’d littered the place with my worn copies of Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, Little Women, Pinocchio, Old Mother West Wind, Lady of the Lake, Anne of Green Gables, The Little Minister, Lassie Come Home, Oliver Twist, and about a dozen others. Of course, the boys couldn’t read them. But they could hold them as I had done many years before, puzzling over the pages. And then one day the people of the books would speak, and my sons would join in their endless conversations.
Four-year-old Rulon had helped me unroll 12 feet of white shelf-lining paper. On it we printed all of the poem “Opportunity” by Edward Rowland Sill. From magazines we cut pictures of prince and coward, sword and battle. We pasted them on to illustrate the poem and hung the sprawling poster in the kitchen. At dinner I told the story of the poem and then read it three times. The boys played prince and coward before they went to bed. But no one said anything that night about the books. It was as though they didn’t see them lying about, placed with tenderness and hope.
When everyone had learned “Opportunity,” we did Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem,” then Emily Dickenson’s “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” and several more. Our favorite was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Mountain and the Squirrel.” Barrie won a school contest with that one.
“The TV didn’t work well anyway,” I purred when the children asked about it from time to time. Meanwhile, I flooded our home with bright, dazzling books of the modern variety, enrolled our children in two book clubs, gave gift books, purchased a set of encyclopedias, and twice a month went to the public library.
Barrie and Kyle got library cards and checked out volume after volume that they wouldn’t read. But I read them—over and over in the evening as I sat in the hallway between the boys’ bedrooms. Our sons (there were four of them now) would lie on their beds listening and finally falling asleep.
One night, cross as a bear in a bottle, I put the boys to bed without a book. As I came to cover Kyle, he sobbed, “Oh, Mother, you have caused one heart to break.” Of course, he and Emily Dickenson had me there, and I took my usual place in the hall. Several months and books later our children loved hearing poems and stories. But for Barrie and Kyle, reading was still an ordeal.
As summer came, I hoped the boys would succumb to the reading habit. But Little League baseball invited their total involvement. I came up with a counter plan designed for Barrie and his friends.
We called the organization Read-A-Little League. Twelve ten-year-olds and Kyle, now eight, met Wednesday mornings at our house. I read to them—biographies, because they wanted stories that were true. We began with Babe Ruth and later slipped in Michelangelo, Helen Keller, and Beethoven.
After I’d read for an hour, the boys took turns telling what they’d read the past week. At first Barrie was bored. Then one day he came, eyes aglow, and asked to be first to tell about his story. Clutching an abridged edition of Treasure Island, he spun word pictures for half an hour. For everyone there’s a book that opens the world of reading for him. I saw my boy discover his. I won’t forget his excitement and my own. The following year, Barrie began carrying a book to read in spare moments. Once while reading Big Red he told a friend he wanted to finish the book before coming out to play. “Do you really dig reading that much?” his friend demanded.
“Naw,” replied Barrie after a moment. “I just can’t wait to get to the end of this story.”
The last hour of Read-A-Little League was best—for the boys, at least. They played ball in our backyard. Ball was my bait. But eventually the boys competed not only in ball games but also for trophies awarded to each boy who met his reading goal for the week. By fall, books had been swapped in all directions, and we had an outdoor graduation. B. G. made a speech and gave each boy a certificate with a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it and the inscription—“Great men read great books.”
Kyle’s reach that summer truly exceeded his grasp. He matched other League members in number of 100-word “pages” read and the following school year scored 99 percent in the achievement test in school. At Christmas he said as he wrapped a gift for exchange at a Cub Scout party, “What I hope I get is a good book.” Later he brought home a paperback biography of Benjamin Franklin. “You got just what you wanted!” I exclaimed.
“Nope,” he grinned, “I swapped a truck for it.” The reading program almost backfired with Rulon. That first summer he begged for his own league and got it. On Tuesday afternoons I read to seven boys, age five, and my six-month-old Kent. Rulon gloried in stories morning, noon, and night, and the following year he bounced happily through kindergarten and a second story-filled summer. But the next fall, three weeks into first grade, he announced, “I hate reading!” Grabbing his primer, he opened it at random and stumbled through Come down, Puff. Come down. Down, Puff Down. Then in a superior tone he exclaimed, “Isn’t that ridiculous?”
I tried to help Rulon with phonics and to convince him that he had to read little books before he was three, Kent knew the sounds of the alphabet and played for hours with alphabet flash of shelf liner on his closet door with numbers from one to 20. When a boy fills his “Books I Have Read” chart, he and I have an outing of his choice. For me, the best outgrowth of our reading is these special hours with each child.
During first grade Rulon ploughed through 20 thin books about roly-poly dogs. When he entered second grade we promised him a dog of his own if he’d learn to read. By November, Rulon was filling his third chart. By March he had advanced in school from the lowest to the top reading group. In his preoccupation, he forgot about the dog. But we couldn’t. One earth-shaking day in May we brought home a male Pomeranian pup we named Jacob.
“Reading is neat,” says Rulon, “when you get the hang of it.”
An exciting moment for Kent came shortly after his second birthday as he lay on the floor saying “mmmmmmmm—” to Dr. Seuss’s mumbling mice. Then, pointing to the letter M, he exclaimed, “Mommie, this is mmmmmmmmm!” Before he was three, Kent knew the sounds of the alphabet and played for hours with alphabet flash cards; verb, noun, antonym, homonym, and alphabet puzzles, and homemade sandpaper letters. But he liked best of all to play lawyer at Daddy’s old typewriter. While I played free lancer at Mommie’s new one, Kent typed from memory a dozen or so words. Words still delight him. No one had to teach him to read.
I must confess that during the past six years our family has not been entirely without TV. When something important was to be broadcast, we’d rent one (for example, to watch general conference sessions, moon walks, election returns, and, of course, the New Year’s football games). “Our family,” mumbled B. G. as he lugged the sets in and out, “is the only family in the community to have pay TV.”
Recently, we finished a family room in the basement. Along the north wall we built a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. We also built in a television set. Centered in the many-volumed library, its hand-varnished sliding doors move open at appointed times—after homework, after piano practicing, and only for programs our family has previously selected.
I like the advantages of living in a world where television sets and libraries stand side by side. But my biggest bonus came one evening when one of B.G.’s colleagues dropped in unexpectedly and found us all bookbound.
“Well, actually, the kids weren’t born with this keen interest in reading,” B. G. explained to our amazed visitor. “You see, a few years ago we found it easier to throw out the TV than to turn it off—so that’s exactly what we did.”
“And after that you all just sat around together and read?” our guest asked quizzically.
“Well, not at first,” B. G. said with a smile. “This kind of an evening takes a few years of preparation.” He gave me a wink.
“You know,” he mused, turning back to his friend, “it was different when we were kids. You and I kept getting exposed to books until finally one ‘took.’ But today, with television competing, we have to make the effort to help our kids find out that reading is fun.”
“Perhaps,” our guest admitted, “but how many parents are going to throw out a TV set to do it?”
“Not any, I hope,” replied B. G. “We’ve discovered that a library and a television set can coexist.” He summarized our experience of the past years.
“Okay,” our visitor responded. “So we limit TV watching and set up reading incentives. What happens eventually when we’re not around to provide the structure and discipline?”
“No problem,” replied my husband. “Once reading turns kids on, indiscriminate TV watching turns them off. The push-button phenomenon can’t replace books. Reading, my friend, is a total involvement, mind-stretching experience—and absolutely habit forming.”