During a recent visit to my grandson’s home, Pistol Pete invited us upstairs to his bedroom. He refused to take one step until we were all lined up and following him – Pa, me and his momma.
It wasn’t his toys that Pistol Pete was eager to show us; it was his books. Everyone in the family started buying books for him as soon as we knew his momma was pregnant. Whenever I travel, I pick up books for my grandson (and my grandchildren yet to come). He has an anniversary copy of Walter the Farting Dog that I bought at Reed’s Gumtree Bookstore in Tupelo, Mississippi, and his most recent acquisition was a book about Salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains.
His momma and his daddy read to Pistol Pete at bedtime. They are avid readers themselves, having grown up in homes where they were read to with regularity.
But Pistol Pete may be in the minority in this country. Many children growing up today are not read to on a daily basis. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more money parents make, the better educated parents are, the more likely it is a child will be read to daily. While it may be true that we are all created equal, by the time we get to kindergarten poor children are at a definable disadvantage.
There are all sorts of reasons for this. Parents working two or three jobs trying to make ends meet have precious little time for the sort of nurturing activities a child needs. Not to mention very little discretionary income for books. There are kids in your community, and in my community, who have never owned a book. They don’t have grandparents bringing them books back from all corners of the nation. Their grandparents may be across the border, or in jail, or, most likely they are too poor to be buying books. Who can afford books when milk is $4 a gallon?
This isn’t just a problem for disadvantage children, however. It is a problem for all of us. There are long-term consequences to not reading to our children, not nurturing them. Dr. David Arredondo is an expert on child development and founder of The Children’s Program, San Francisco, which provides consultation and training for those working with troubled youth.
“I think it’s pretty important to note that most kids in this country do not get read to at all when they go to sleep,” says Arredondo.
That lack of interaction between parent and child is troubling.
“There is nothing in the cosmos, nothing known to man, that comes remotely close to the complexity and the elegance of the architect of every child’s brain as it is developing. Neglect of a developing child’s brain is a terrible thing.”
We hex our children when we fail to read to them. A child’s developing brain makes connections at the rate of a 1,000 per second. That’s why children require copious amount of attention and stimulation. When they are denied that, they suffer.
When children are neglected, the nation suffers.
Becoming aware of this growing trend prompted me to join the local chapter of Altrusa International, a service group dedicated to the promotion of literacy. This was a big step for me. I’m the girl who dropped out of Brownies and ROTC after less than a month. Something about people dressing alike scares the beejesus out of me. Fortunately, Altrusa has no dress code.
Our local chapter works diligently on all sorts of fronts – from making clothes and blankets for African boys and girls, to teaching disabled children how to ride bikes, to introducing middle–school girls to a host of career-choices for women, to filling backpacks with food for children who may not otherwise get a meal over the weekends.
And for the past several years they have enthusiastically funded a One Book One Community Read, giving away some 1,200 books, and bringing in nationally-renowned authors for readings and discussions. And, perhaps best of all for young children, Altrusa of Hermiston has spearheaded the “Little Free Library” cropping up around town.
I’m not at all sure we understood how well-received the Little Free Library program would be. It has been a challenge to keep up with the demand for children and teen books. Stacked before me as I type this are dozens of books, nearly $500 worth, purchased specifically for young adult readers.
We have purposely sought to focus our efforts on the young adult readers because all studies show that kids between the ages of 8 to 18 are the least likely to read for pleasure. It is as if the pressures of school and sports rob kids of the one thing innate in all of us – the love of a good story.
I am proud to partner with Altrusa because I understand how the love of reading can change a young girl’s life. It wasn’t all that long ago that I stood on that dusty corner along Morris Road in the blistering Georgia sun waiting for the Bookmobile to turn the corner.
Just recently I met a charming woman who volunteers with the Literacy Council of Kingsport, Tennessee. Leigh Ann Hoover wrote a book, Reading with Ralph, about her successful efforts in teaching a grown man to read. Hoover’s account is heart-wrenching and humorous. I laughed and cried as Hoover honestly admitted to her own fears in pressing beyond her comfort zones. When I finished the book, I was reminded again that reading changes lives.
It is through reading that we learn to empathize with one another. It is through story that we learn how much we have in common. Reading may not be the answer to world peace, but it is a good place to start.
I urge you to find some way to get involved with reading programs in your community. This week buy a book for a child, any child.
Consider it an investment in your own future.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).