Experts tell us that children who read are better informed, have improved concentration levels, are more sociable, employable and empathetic. Parents know all this, they love to see their child engrossed in a book, but still there’s a chasm between the dream and the reality.
Books often become undesirable to kids, along with school work, music practice, parents, washing and even speaking, from around the intermediate age, but as parents we still insist on continued involvement in nearly all aspects of their lives — except books. Books seem a step too far, too hard. It’s an avoidable battle and I often hear parents say, ‘I’ve given up.’ Buying a real book takes time, some book knowledge, some not-always-available cash and a tough skin if your gift isn’t greeted with enthusiasm.
Let’s imagine a New Zealand, where every child owns a collection of books to take into adulthood. If we can agree on this, then I suggest the task of building this library may need to fall to that under-utilised commodity: grandparents.
Today’s grandparents are from the generation who managed to escape life, or understood other perspectives, through books. We had no option but to read and reread. We know the value of a book that makes a reader care, cry, ponder, imagine and think about themselves in terms of bravery, their place in the world, or the world as it was — or might be. We need someone to access the real books that make this generation’s children feel, and who better than the old folk, Generation Hard-Copy?
On my sixth birthday, I was given a book called Oh Essie. The gift was well-intentioned but the story was ghastly. A forgetful, little girl in Africa, picks up someone’s baby from the market place thinking it was her own sister. She searches from house to house trying to return the baby as darkness creeps up behind her. My sister and I read that book many times, horrified for Essie, and dismayed by her memory issues. But today, if one of us forgets something and sadly, that dismaying nightmare is now a reality, we only need to whisper, Oh Essie to make each other laugh. The book is ingrained in the fabric of our shared past.
It can be difficult to know what’s current or what’s suitable for older children and young adults, so find a book lover — they’re always keen to share their knowledge — or read reviews, find books that have been short-listed for awards, ask a librarian, or go into a book shop and ask for recommendations. Another option is to visit second-hand bookshops, or buy discards from the library. Pre-loved or re gifted books from your own shelves are better for the environment and can keep past generations relevant.
When one of my sons was born, my late father gave him his own copy of When we were very Young. The original dedication and date (1932), defied the austerity of the era that it was first gifted and the new dedication for my son, in Dad’s distinctive handwriting, was also a thing of beauty. As children do, Chris put the book aside for 25 years, but he recently rediscovered it. What might have once been a disappointing gift is now a keepsake. It places him in his family; it grounds him with a sense of longevity and the gift is a time-capsule of sorts.
If there’s one thing grandparents understand, it’s the fragility, the brevity of life. We need to keep giving books as if we missed the memo that ‘technology rules’. We know that big, sullen teenage lump really wants something techie, or cash — mostly cash, and that you are just a means to providing the latest gadget. But teenagers are sullen and oafish because they’ve learned a thing about life, so you can play them at their own game. Keep handing over books, but maybe slip in cash as well, if it’s doable . . . or shamelessly leave the cash as an incentive to get the book read first.
So, grandparents, let’s unite and turn the reading tide. If we decide to gift at least one book a year to the children and young adults we love (young adulthood is a term that loosely extends to age thirty these days), then we might be able to improve the dismal reading stats.
Inscribe and date the book you give, read aloud to the child if they’ll let you, follow up on how they enjoyed it, but most of all, continue the tradition yearly, trusting that you’re doing something important for your grandchildren.
‘Happy Christmas, darling, you’ll thank me in twenty-five years.’