By Christine Ennulat, Content Manager
One of my favorite things about becoming a mother was the whole new world of children’s books I staggered into — with my kids tumbling into it with me when they were little and then, before long, actually leading me through it. It brought back, again and again, waves of nostalgia for all that books had meant to me in my own childhood. My children are older now, but those days are on my mind again as I learn about how ChildFund’s Just Read! program is helping hundreds of children in some of the United States’ poorest communities find the magic of reading for pleasure.
One thing I’ve learned that I didn’t know: Reading for pleasure trumps socioeconomic status as a determinant of how well kids do in school. (The magic of reading for pleasure, indeed!)
I don’t remember much of my own early childhood experience with books. My parents came to the U.S. from Germany just a couple of years before I was born, and my main memory of any book from that time was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struvvelpeter, a German collection of alarming cautionary tales that included one about a boy who refuses to cut his hair and fingernails (yikes!) and another about a boy who won’t stop sucking his thumb until one day a man wielding giant shears appears and … well.
Honestly, I couldn’t get enough of those gruesome tales. “Pleasure” probably isn’t an accurate description of what they gave me … but I’m not sure pleasure is necessarily that simple. What I can say is that I took to reading in search of similar wild thrills and imaginative flights. But even more, I was searching for myself.
As a weird, lonely kid, I recognized myself in moody Meg Murry, of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and in Milo, the initially reluctant protagonist of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (after whom I named Kid #3). And always, always there was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, and her blue-haired doll with the most beautiful name in the world, Chevrolet, and the Dawnzer, and “BOINNNG!” Oh, the courage of Ramona. I wanted to be Ramona.
Later, I would — and still do — recognize my own heart in Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s exhortation, in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
As my own children grew, I delighted alongside them as they found their own ways down their own rabbit holes toward who they might become. My oldest fell in love with Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, in which a girl becomes a knight in her kingdom, and her Dane books, with a heroine who converses with animals. Kid #3 couldn’t get enough of Al Perkins’ Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which my whole family can still shout-chant from memory to this day, and through which music grabbed hold of him for the first time. (Kid #4 now says he hated that book because, as he learned to read from it, he had to face silent Bs—“thum-BUH,” he says. He became a Calvin and Hobbes guy.)
It was magical for me to be along for this ride, vicariously experiencing their journeys through silliness, love, terror, beauty and more.
Children need these flights of the imagination, these adventures beyond their everyday circumstances. When they use their imaginations, they flex their abilities to think creatively, and that’s key to not only learning but also taking aim at what they want to accomplish in their lives.
Reading is a way toward experiencing difficult feelings in manageable ways, which prepares a child for facing difficult situations in real life. Reading is also a way toward relief of stress — which is rampant and nearly constant for families living in poverty — and a way toward a loved one’s lap.
And reading is a way toward laughter. (I am convinced that laughter has an important role in the fight against poverty.)
Years ago, my neighbor said to me, after having accomplished some crazy plumbing repair without help, “If you know how to read, you can do anything.”
I second that sentiment … and offer a tweak: If you know how to read, you can be anything.
When children read, even amid the most challenging circumstances, they really can.
You can help change a child’s life by donating to ChildFund’s Just Read! program.