I’m told that a lot of parents don’t read to their kids because they find it tedious, boring. I’m not surprised. If the contents of the shelves of my local library are any indication, most children’s literature being produced nowadays is stiflingly banal, as insulting to the intelligence and sensibilities of the kids as to the parents. If this is the trash parents feel they have to read every night to their kids, I don’t entirely blame them if they plop them down in front of the TV or Xbox instead.
Fortunately, however, there is another way. Over the past few years I’ve formulated something of an axiom by which I judge children’s literature: If I’m not enjoying a book I’m reading to my kids at least as much as they’re enjoying it, it’s probably not a book I should be reading to them in the first place.
It might not be an infallible principle, but it works. At the very least, it ensures that I look forward to bedtime as much as my kids do. But it also has some other, more unexpected benefits.
I still remember the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. I was 13 years old. And though I didn’t understand every word (I remember being flummoxed by the repeated use of the word “bane,” as in “Isildur’s bane”) or all the complex ins-and-outs of the politics of Middle Earth, I loved it.
But I’ll also confess to mixed motives. As far as I could tell, no one else my age was plowing through 1,200-page epics in their spare time. Part of me felt that by reading The Lord of the Rings, I had proved myself to be the precocious literary prodigy that I fancied myself to be. I preened myself on the accomplishment accordingly.
When I started having kids, I assumed that I would read The Lord of the Rings to them, at some point. But with my eldest having just turned eight, I also presumed that that point was at least several years away. So imagine my delight when, after finishing The Hobbit last summer, my son and his younger sister (6) begged me to read them Tolkien’s far lengthier and more complex trilogy.
The Hobbit, a moderately slim and breezy book, was written by Tolkien as a children’s story. The hefty three-volume sequel was not. I repeatedly warned my kids that they would have a hard time understanding it, and that we should probably come back to it later. Instead, after reading the first few chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, they pleaded with me to continue. More than happy to oblige, I rolled up my sleeves and we dug in.
A few months later, having seen Frodo and Gandalf safely on their final journey across the sea to the Undying Lands with the elves, I finished the final page of the The Return of the King. I closed the book, and for a few moments all three of us sat there in awed silence. Then one of the kids (I forget which) broke the silence, exclaiming: “I just wish there was more!”
Agreed. 1,200 pages of that kind of story-telling just isn’t enough.
Now, perhaps I’m simply doing for my children what I did for myself all those years ago – preening myself on their precocity. But, in fact, my point is the exact opposite. My children are not precocious. To the best of my knowledge, they’re perfectly normal in every way. Neither, for that matter, was my 13-year-old self especially precocious, as I have come to realize. A hundred years ago, if I had showed any promise at that age I may well already have been immersed in the ancient Latin and Greek epics, in the original languages.
From what I have seen of the curricula of our schools at the turn of the last century, our forebears well understood that children are capable of comprehending and appreciating literature that is far more interesting, sophisticated and challenging than what we currently give them credit for. But for some reason, instead of developing our children’s native abilities by feeding them on a rich and varied diet of the best literature available, we have opted instead to cram them full of junk food.
That is, we have decided to talk down to our kids.
So here’s the solution: don’t. Don’t talk down to your kids. Don’t read them the overpriced new books written by authors of impoverished imagination prone to heavy-handed and politically correct moralizing, and peddled at their schools by the professional pedagogues (who, I expect, get a cut of every book they sell), or by well-intentioned but misguided librarians eager to entice kids to put down their smartphones and pick up a book by “giving them what they want.” In some cases, the smartphone would be more wholesome.
A while ago, my wife and I were given some of these new books, largely based upon popular movies. There was nary a gripping adventure, intriguing character, imaginative turn of phrase, memorable witticism, or lofty sentiment to be found. But there were fart jokes, juvenile romantic goings-on, and a distressingly debased vocabulary.
Instead, try reading above your children. Not so far above them that they don’t understand what’s going on, but far enough that they are forced to struggle to figure out difficult vocabulary or concepts. If you do this, you’ll frequently be surprised at just how much your kids understand. Children, as sponges, are astonishingly skillful at intuiting the meanings of words based upon their context: but if you only read them literature with words they have formally learned, they’ll never be given that opportunity.
The other day my eight-year-old son correctly used the word “gormandizer” in casual conversation. Neither my wife or I taught him that word. I certainly couldn’t have taught it to him. I didn’t know what the word meant: my wife had to fill me in. Instead, he picked the word up from Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Tanglewood Tales, which my wife has been reading to the kids.
It’s the sort of thing that happens a lot these days.
Fortunately (though you might not know it from the reading lists sent home by your children’s schools), there is an unbelievable wealth of this kind of literature to pick from. Beginning with delightful nursery-level classics like Mother Goose, Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, through to high-school-level novels like The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, and everything by Charles Dickens, there are more than enough thoroughly enjoyable books to keep you and your kids entertained, challenged, enlightened, and delighted for decades to come.
(One of the best such reading lists is the “1000 Good Books” list prepared by John Senior, a man best known for his role in the University of Kansas’ Integrated Humanities Program. You can find that list here.)