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The Joy of Books in Childhood

Today is National Read Across America Day, held annually on Saturday, March 2 – Dr. Seuss’s Birthday.

In the third grade, I got hold of a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie at a school book fair.

It seemed huge. By far, the biggest book I’d ever thought about reading.

As a slow reader, it took me some time to finish – if memory serves, over a month. Somehow, I stuck with it and finished it.

I do not remember the details of the story. But I still remember, nearly 25 years later, how it made me feel. There was a sense of freedom in books, a sense of traveling to another world that was all mine.

These books, and their cultivation of imagination, became the signposts of my childhood.

Maps, for instance, became something of an obsession, and ignited dreams of traveling to far-flung places. When I grew old enough to drive, I relished the freedom to explore. This turned into road trips to state parks and faraway desert mountains, fly fishing for tiny Guadalupe Bass in crystal-clear Texas rivers, visiting small towns in out-of-the-way places.

The whole time, in a sense, I was just looking to create my own adventures, something akin to the books I loved as a child. Even today, that’s how the world appears. Each day feels like another chapter in a story, or at least, it does to me.

After age-appropriate books such as Little House on the Prairie and the Gertrude Chandler Warner series The Boxcar Children, I was captivated by stories about nature and the outdoors. The first adult book I read may have been Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which later inspired me to take up fly fishing.

This outdoors emphasis did not stop there. Somewhere along the way I picked up a book of Robert Frost poetry, and that led to Whitman – but I didn’t like Whitman as much – and then to Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Hemingway found an opening in the library of my mind, as did Tolkien, and I enjoyed the early Harry Potter books’ releases as they happened. The more I read, whatever it was, the greater my sense of possibility.

For most of my early childhood, I was a socially awkward kid without too many friends. Books, their characters and their worlds, became dear friends. Readers of this who have had a similar experience understand how important that can be for a child.

And, thank God, a love of books stayed with me over the years.

America, however, is giving up reading for pleasure, according to this June 2018 Washington Post story entitled “Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low.” It states that a dismal 15 percent of men, and only 22 percent of women, reported “reading for personal interest” on a typical day.

Parents who want their kids to be readers have their work cut out for them.

Before I put my young children to sleep, I try to read them one or two stories. It’s something we all enjoy. Last night it was Hans Christian Andersen. Tonight? Perhaps one of Beatrix Potter’s tales about Peter Rabbit.

Lest you think I’m some purist for children’s classics, we’ve got books about Disney characters, too. Those are fine – but there’s something special about a story not based on a cartoon or movie. Without a previous concept of what a character or story looks like, the imagination is empowered to do its job.

Recent research shows that keeping books in the home is linked to academic achievement. As nice as that is, I’m not one of those parents who will be disappointed if my kids don’t go to Harvard.

Rather, I’d love to see my kids develop the same lifelong relationship with reading that I’ve been blessed with. Not simply because it will make them smarter – though I am sure it will.

No, I want them to love books because to do so makes life richer, and childhood more joyous. They become, as it were, part of who we are.

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