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Family Literacy Day: The secret to raising readers

If you don’t give your kids books they can treat every which way, how will they ever learn to care about books at all?

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Photo: iStockphoto

Browsing in a bookstore recently, a friend of mine had the misfortune of encountering one of those strangers who exist to dispense unsolicited advice to people with children. My friend, the mother of twins, was perusing a rack of books that claim to be baby-proof, books whose paper is impervious to mouthing, gumming, and tearing by even the grubbiest hands.

“Oh, leave those books alone,” said the woman who had suddenly appeared at my friend’s side. “What a terrible idea. Give your kids a book that they can treat any which way, and how will they ever learn that books are something to care for?”

I wish I’d been to respond to her atrocious advice: If you don’t give your kids books they can treat every which way, how will they ever learn to care about books at all?

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“When I was four, I liked to build castles with my father’s pocket-sized 22-volume set of Anthony Trollope novels,” recalls writer Anne Fadiman in “My Ancestral Castles,” an essay about how she inherited a legacy of reading from her parents. And while we’re all familiar with the notion of books and reading as a metaphoric building block in our children’s development, Fadiman’s suggestion of the book as a literal building block is just as important to consider. In an era of book apps and tablets when the physical book is said to be disappearing from our homes and our lives, we shouldn’t forget that experiencing the “thing-ness” of books is just as essential to our children’s early literacy as being read to.

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It is through loving reading that children will learn that books are objects to be cared for. Or maybe they won’t—some of us care very much for our books by reading them to pieces and scribbling in their margins. But nonetheless, an appreciation for books and reading is the point, which can only happen when children are permitted to enjoy books on their own terms. And for the littlest children, those terms have nothing to do with text and reverence, but instead with how a sparkly image catches the light, how pages feel on aching gums, how a book tastes, the weight of the thunk as a big book is hurled from the highchair to the floor.

That thunk is important (and not just for babies, but big kids, too). So imagine a pile of books as a tower to be toppled; picture a child hugging a book as she falls asleep at night. Think about Fadiman’s Trollope castles and all the other ways that, as objects integrated into play, books (and by extension, reading) are made familiar and accessible—an extraordinary part of ordinary life.

Five great first books to throw or chew on

Little You written by Richard van Camp and Julie Flett
Indestructibles: Plip-Plop Pond! by Kaaren Pixton and Amy Pixton
On My Leaf by Sara Gillingham
Welcome Baby by Barbara Reid
Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg