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How My Parents Raised a Reader

As a high school teacher of 34 years, I have often been asked how parents can get their child to read. I think I have been asked that question every single year of my career by the parents of my students. Parents of small children too have asked me what they can do to encourage their child to read. I have always loved reading, and that is probably because I am reasonably good at it. It comes with some ease. The reason for that is a simple one. My parents raised me to be a reader. I credit them for a lot of it, my teachers for some of it, my friends for some of it, and my son for some of it. And I suppose I should give myself at least some of the credit, since I am the one actually doing the reading. Is “LOL” appropriate in essay writing? Just kidding.

My Parents Were Always Reading Something

As far back as I can remember, my parents were always reading something. Mom had her Readers Digest on the kitchen table, where she would read the articles in between watching her soap operas or talking on the telephone to one of her friends. Dad always took his trusty Milwaukee Sentinel to the bathroom to read. In the magazine rack alongside his recliner resided numerous magazines, and occasionally a book he was reading. Sometimes in the evening, Dad would read stories to us out of a book of children’s stories. Dad was a good reader, and the inflections in his voice and his facial expressions helped bring the stories alive. During trips to larger stores, my dad could be found in the book section while Mom shopped for, well, whatever was on her list this time.

There was always reading material lying around.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In our house there was always reading material lying around. On the kitchen table there was a short stack of the last few days’ newspapers. Mom’s Readers Digests were always neatly stacked on the dining table, usually on top of the newspapers. Unlike the newspapers, however, she did not throw the Readers Digests out when she was finished reading them. In another room in our house was a small bookshelf with all of the Readers Digests that we owned. One of the bigger events in my reading world came when my parents purchased a set of encyclopedias. Therein lay all the knowledge of the world, or so it seemed to me at age 8. During my downtime, when kids today play video games, I would randomly read articles in the encyclopedia. At the end of each article was a “see also……….” and other entries were listed there for further reading. And further reading I did. I wanted to know everything about everything, and I knew I could accomplish that by reading the encyclopedias. In retrospect, I look at my reading of the encyclopedias like surfing the internet today in a quest for knowledge and answers. In the 1960’s, the encyclopedia served that purpose.

My parents took me to the library.

When I was in second grade, my dad took me to the library to get me a library card. Back then in the mid-1960’s in my small hometown, library cards were nothing more than yellow index cards where the librarian stamped the date the book was borrowed, and the date it was returned. My dad’s library card was nearly filled, and my eyes bulged when I saw how many books he had checked out, read, and returned. My virgin card looked stark, staring at me in its emptiness. I resolved to make my card look like Dad’s, filled with dates that books were checked out and returned. With each new entry, I felt like I was catching up with Dad, even though he didn’t know I was in my own little competition with him. Little did I know that his nearly-filled card was not his first by a long shot. In the months and years to come, those empty spaces on my card became filled with the dates I checked out books, read them, and returned them. In time, my card looked much like my dad’s, and the ancillary benefit of my secret competition with him was that I became a much better reader.

My parents made suggestions and encouraged me to read.

My parents also made suggestions on what to read. The library in our town was housed on the second floor of city hall. The church-like quiet that resided there took on an almost sacred feeling. Talking out loud was looked at as almost sinful. This was a serious place. The library had the unmistakable smell of books as well, as quiet adults strolled slowly through the stacks looking for their next read. Being so young, I really didn’t know where to begin as I had no idea of what kind of books even existed, other than the ones I saw my parents read. My dad suggested I read Tom Sawyer. He told me that he read it when he was young and liked it. Tom Sawyer became the first book I read on my own, and not just as an assignment at school. I still remember Tom calling out to his mom at the beginning of the book that his toe was “mortified.” I had no idea what that word meant, so I got in the habit of looking up words I was unsure of. I could picture Tom talking the other boys into whitewashing the fence he was tasked to paint. The story came alive with the events in the cave with Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe.

I was hooked.

Image from Landmark Books

In the months and years to come, I became a serial reader. I discovered the Hardy Boys and read book after book in the series about the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy and their detective father. I read the Indian Mummy Mystery and learned about the area around Mesa Verde. The Power Boys took me on adventures like the ones Frank and Joe Hardy did. In my school library, I discovered the historical novels by Landmark Books, where I learned about Lewis and Clark and their exploration of the Louisiana Territory with Sacajawea. I read about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of the American Revolution. I read and learned about Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. I read of the Barbary Pirates, Lee and Grant at Appomattox, and Monitor and the Merrimack, as well as the Alamo. To this day I can still picture the covers of many of those books.

My parents bought me books I wanted.

My reading was not, however, limited to what books I could procure at the public library or the library at my school. My parents were more than willing to buy books when I asked. Christmas. My birthday. Just because. When a new Hardy Boy book came out, I would approach them about buying it for me, and I don’t ever remember them turning me down. Not only did they buy me the books I asked for, they bought me a reading lamp for my bedroom so that I could read at night before going to sleep. They extended my bedtime from 9 pm to 10:30 so I could stay up later reading. Many was the time I would wake up in the middle of the night with my light still on and the book resting open on my chest.

I used the same approach in raising my son to be a reader.

Many years have passed since I laid awake at night reading those books. When my son was old enough to read, I imitated my parents. I gave him my antique collection of Hardy Boy books, many of them the ones my parents bought for me. I recommended a book by Agatha Christy titled “And Then There Were None,” which he devoured. In time he would ask for the Harry Potter novels and the Twilight series. As my parents had done, I never refused a request to buy him a book. He is now out of college, and even today we talk about books we have read, and refer to books that both of us read long ago. We joke about Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum in “Something Happened,” or about our guy Yossarian in “Catch-22.” We allude to Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim getting unstuck in time in “Slaughterhouse 5.” Even now, he will sometimes mention the first book he read and loved, “And Then There Were None,” even after all this time.

My parents gave me the gift of literacy, and I in turn, gave my son the same gift. What they did for me, I did for him. As my dad once told me, you pay your parents back by being good to your kids. I’ve always tried to live up to that, and by giving the gift of literacy to him the way they gave it to me, I feel that I have paid back my parents at least a little. So how does a person get their child to read? By being a reader yourself. By letting your child see you read. By having reading materials in the house. By introducing your child to the public library. By buying books for your child. And by showing an interest in your child’s reading. That is how my parents raised a reader. That is how I raised a reader. And that is how YOU can raise a reader.

I am a teacher in an alternative school and work a small hobby farm in southeastern Wisconsin with my wife Kathy.

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