People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think; and the business of schools is to see that all their scholars shall belong to the former class …
– Charlotte Mason
That there are two categories of people — those who read and think … and those who don’t — is fairly obvious. That it is the teacher’s business to make sure her pupils end up as readers and thinkers — to ponder how that might be accomplished — is fodder for a million future blog posts.
Today, we’ll just talk about the capable but active boy. The kind who doesn’t sit still much. The kind who’d rather be outside. The kind who wants to finish his school lessons as quickly as possible. The kind who irritates people as a hobby.
The kind who, you suddenly realize, hasn’t been reading much lately.
What’s a conscientious mother to do?
Many many years ago, a woman approached me at a homeschool conference to ask about reading. She had heard I was a reading tutor and wanted to pick my brain. Her son, she said, wanted to read books “below his level” and she didn’t allow that sort of thing. Now she had a problem: he didn’t want to read at all. What did I recommend?
I honestly don’t remember my advice to her, but I do remember my horror at her rule about reading “levels.” I recently saw my 16-year-old reading our tattered copy of Margaret Hodges’ St. George and the Dragon picture book, and it thrilled me. He loved that book as a little guy; I was glad to see him still enjoying it. I read that book for the first time when I read it aloud to him as a preschooler. I had learned to love that book as an adult.
The best children’s books, as CS Lewis once told us, are still worth reading when we are grown.
When a little boy stops reading, we are often told to give him low quality books. Twaddle is just the thing, they say. It doesn’t matter what he reads as long as he is reading.
Those of us who know that reading cultivates the soul shudder and die a little on the inside when we hear this sort of thing. But still we struggle. Because we have a problem: he’s not reading on his own time at all.
We could use compulsion, of course. I’ve done that before; in the right spirit it can be effective rather than crushing. You must read for 15 minutes (or even 30 minutes), we say. And they do.
And then eventually you don’t have to require it anymore because the habit is built.
I’ve used a number of different approaches. Most recently I decided to try wooing.* I remembered that the little boy at my house who wasn’t reading very much adored Henry Huggins and A Bear Called Paddington. These were both below his reading level, but still: not twaddle. Not appealing to base desires.
I wondered what would happen if I gave him more from these series.
And so I did. I hunted down all the books with Henry and Paddington, and I added in three Ralph S. Mouse books as well.
At this point, I feel the need to give a disclaimer: it’s not that these specific books will always do the trick. Curating books for children takes time and thought. One of my favorite Mom Jobs is that of family librarian. It’s like matchmaking only instead of bride and groom, it’s child and book.
Sometimes, the result is magic.
In this case, my little guy disappeared into his room on a Saturday. I panicked when I couldn’t find him; it never dawned on me to check his room. But there he was, sitting at his desk, reading.
He read and he read and it took a couple months for him to finish them all (he had a garden to plant, after all).
When he came to the end of his pile, I wondered what would happen. Was this enough to build a habit of reading?
His sister had just finished The BFG. Did he want to read it? No, he said.
When he finished that book, he was really in a bind. We were about to take a week long trip. He needed something to read on the plane and in the car. What was he to do?
We all made recommendations. Each was rejected. I added “book” in large capital letters to his packing list, just in case.
On the plane (to my surprise) he pulled out a thick copy of The Mysterious Benedict Society, a book he’d received for Christmas, which had been gathering dust for months. He’d initially complained about the size of the book (it’s over 500 pages), and set it aside.
When we returned home from our trip (at 3:00 am Monday morning, but who’s complaining?), I canceled school for the day. Again, he disappeared. This time, I checked his room earlier in the search process. There he was, reading more of The Mysterious Benedict Society. He proudly declared to me at lunch that he’d read it for over 90 minutes.
Today, he’s not reading. He had all sorts of other plans after school lessons were over: gardening, pestering his granddad, karate. But I’m no longer concerned about his lack of reading. A few well-chosen books seem to have re-awakened his affections.
I think he’s been firmly reinstalled in the category of readers.
* Note: This child is and always has been screen-free (except for an occasional family movie night). My guess is that the wooing approach would be less effective if the boy is exposed to a lot of screens.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.