My grandchildren live with their parents in the downstairs apartment of our house, which brings me the good fortune of being able to read with them every night. I cherish everything about our evening reading routine: choosing the books, sitting side-by side on the couch with a small head leaning against my shoulder, listening to one of the children read aloud, reading aloud to them, silent parallel reading of our own books in our own chairs, and anticipating the encounter we’ll have with new ideas and beautiful language every time we open a book. Best of all is talking about what we read—including laughing, crying, being scared or thrilled together. It’s an extraordinarily simple way to orchestrate learning and loving and growing-up thoughtfully with one pleasurable activity.
Research says reading makes kids more empathetic, more socially aware, articulate, knowledgeable, and better able to negotiate their world. Reading expands vocabularies, predicts future academic success, and lends greater opportunity for professional careers. Who doesn’t believe in the power of reading and reflecting on the array of important topics found in a wide variety of books?
So when a young mother I know asked me recently if I’d allow my 8-yr-old grandson Nick to write short book reviews for a kids’ blog she was organizing, I said yes without hesitation.
I wasn’t sure Nick would like the idea of writing about his books for a blog, even if for kids only. I plotted my strategy. With a little sweet-talk, I convinced him it would be as easy as the talking we did during our bedtime reading. All he’d have to do is write down his talk, but he’d have to promise to keep it short. He fell for the short rule, but he did some sweet-talking of his own to convince me to let him dictate what he wanted to say. Also, I was to type as he talked. I agreed to his conditions, and we had a plan. Nick has since posted three reviews and completed a fourth, eager for his next turn to contribute.
The young bookworms’ blog is a delightful example of how kids instinctively make connections between what they read in books and what they experience in the real world. They use simpler language, but they make the same links adults do: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. When they identify with the characters in their books, they gain awareness of self and other. When current stories remind them of previous books they’ve read, they confirm and strengthen ideas they’re already beginning to develop. And when conflicts in books mirror what they hear about in their communities, they build confidence in their own abilities to deal with similar issues. The entertainment value alone builds a lifelong love of books. And along the way, especially in the case of non-fiction, young readers are painlessly amassing a wealth of background knowledge and interest that may help them choose their life work.
In just 150 words each, the book reviews posted by these seven and eight-year-olds show a remarkable deepening of their understandings about how the world works. Because the blog is open only to the families of the kids who write for it, and rightfully so, I can’t share the link here, but I did secure permission from the owner to select a few anonymous excerpts as cases in point.
In his review of Secret Agent Jack Stalwart: The Mission to Find Max, by Elizabeth Singer Hunt, one seven-year-old made a direct link from text to self: “My favorite character was Jack Stalwart because he’s like me.” In the same review, he demonstrates a clear example of how reading expands vocabulary and builds knowledge: “I also learned about Egypt and the diadem on the geography section that’s six pages long.”
For the record, this adult reader had to look up the word diadem.
Growing social awareness is definitely at play in a review of Charlie Bumpers vs the Perfect Little Turkey, by Bill Harley. An eight-year-old reviewer wrote: “Chip was totally annoying to Charlie and I know how it feels. Charlie learned that…even when you want to blurt out stuff, you have to keep your thoughts inside yourself. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue…. Ouch! I liked when Chip was annoying because sometimes I annoy my sister. This book teaches you not to annoy someone and how to deal with someone that annoys you.”
Another young reader wrote about the importance of checking one’s behavior in her review of Ivy + Bean, Bound to be Bad, by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall. “Bean had been sent outside by her mom because she got in trouble by stealing yarn, licking her plate, and asking her mom to pay her for holding a cord. She went over to Ivy’s house. Ivy was trying to be good….Bean wanted to be good too. They each thought good thoughts….They wanted to make the meanest person on the street good….They decided to kind of put on a play for the birds where Bean was bad and Ivy was good and Ivy stopped Bean from being mean and reformed her.” Charming social activism in its purest application.
The implicit message in Runaway Ralph, by Beverly Cleary, was clearly received by this eight year old, who said, “I recommend this book because it teaches you not to run away.”
Here’s an astonishing recommendation for Humphrey’s Creepy-Crawly Camping Adventure, by Betty Birney. “If you like The Thirteen Story Treehouse, you will probably like this book because they have the same style of humor.” This, from a seven-year-old, already making text-to-text connections and beginning to analyze different kinds of humor.
And then there’s this cute response to a book. “I recommend it to you if you are 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, or a teacher.”
Ha! Yes! Being a retired elementary school teacher, I’m often asked what I miss most about teaching. My answer is always the same. I miss the kids. I miss reading with them and hearing their responses to the important topics we read about. I miss the funny ways they experiment with oral language—the way they are not afraid to try out big ideas on any problem. In short, I miss hearing how they think.
After 30 years of teaching, then reading with grandchildren, and now, enjoying these youngsters’ book reviews, I think the most prevalent impression children have left on me is that their ideas and reflections about the world are every bit as profound as those of their adult counterparts, they just have cuter ways to express them. Their oral language skills aren’t as sophisticated, they haven’t fully mastered the art of spin (but oh how they try), they’re vocabularies aren’t as developed, and they don’t waste a lot of time on tact, but they go straight to the core of an issue with full-force honesty and refreshing willingness to think in divergent ways.
We have but to give them the right encouragement to read widely and reflect openly, because kids who read have shown again and again that they will dig into big problems with all their hearts and minds and souls. They will grow up to tackle the hard issues of their time and make a difference in the world. Inspiring children to read, read, and read some more, is to call them to responsible adulthood. Happy reading, young bookworms!
Now let’s hear from you. Were you a young bookworm? If so, how has your childhood reading influenced your adult life?