Comfort is king when coping with a pandemic. Just look at the nostalgic family activities that have returned to so many homes: arts and crafts, card and board games, cooking and gardening. As we all continue to nest against our will, our Zoomed-out brains and bodies crave non-virtual, low-tech, familiar experiences.
Fortunately, one of the retro family experiences that has been coming back (or at least holding steady) has been the pleasure of reading print books. Anecdotally, I can confirm this by the increased use of our family’s Little Free Library in the front yard. As a writer and former English professor, this cheers my heart. It also makes sense.
Here’s why: Think back to your earliest memories of reading (or being read to from) a print book. Remember the sights, sounds and smells. Chances are you’re feeling calm and cozy. In my case, I hear the raucous laughter I shared with my sister as she read The Emperor’s New Clothes to me before bedtime. I see the “Reading Corner” in my kindergarten class where I devoured the same Curious George books I read at home to help me adjust to school.
The power of a printed book is hard to overstate, especially for growing children. The rise of screens in family life has been unavoidable and has only accelerated during the pandemic. But there are still ways for parents to foster appreciation of what pages offer that screens do not.
Reading screens not same for kids
In their recent book How to Raise a Reader, Pamela Paul and Maria Russo hope that even in our digital age, reading for pleasure can remain “as much a part of the timeline of growing up as climbing a tree or learning to ride a bike.” Reading print books at home helps “self-regulation and executive function — those life skills that make us happier and well adjusted: controlling impulses, paying attention, setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them.” Also, “studies have shown that children, even more than adults, absorb and retain stories better when they read them in print.”
Paul and Russo’s tips involve developing family rituals around reading print books when children are quite young. For example, read to children often, model your own book reading, and make sure print books are part of your home environment. Keep age-appropriate books in most rooms, in the car, and in your travel bags. Make it easy for children to “discover” quality books, whether new, used or from the library.
My favorite tip, and one that has worked wonders in my house, is to provide a child with “his own bookcase or small standing bookshelf.” A child’s own bookcase can be filled with both already-read-favorites and to-be-read-soon titles, whether chosen by your child or you. I remember stocking my daughters’ shelves with recommended reads over the years. Some never got read, but others became cherished keepsakes. For example, my younger daughter “discovered” R.J. Palacio’s Wonder thanks to product placement on her shelf at home. Gradually, we both read this novel about a boy with a deformity entering school and then compared it to the film version together.
Regarding how to stock a child’s bookshelf, Paul and Russo emphasize identity, diversity and empathy. They explain: “Literacy experts talk about the need for a child to be exposed to books that are both ‘mirrors and windows,’ in the words of the scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. Some should be mirrors in which a child can see herself; others, windows into the experiences of people who are different.”
To find quality books, they recommend winners of the American Library Association awards (like the Newbery and Caldecott). Also, the A.L.A.’s “Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, and Robert F. Sibert awards honor the best African American, Latino, and nonfiction books of the year.” An example would be Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, a “memoir-in-verse, perfect for readers ages 10 and up, that sweeps personal and African American history into one lyrical, flowing story of one girl’s experience of growth, change, and family and community bonds.”
Children become readers at their own pace
If you’ve tried to foster reading print books at home and it has not worked, fear not. Late bloomers abound. I did not become an avid reader until 10th grade, when Richard Wright’s Native Son — both the story and the way it was told — made a huge impact. Also, consider alternative forms of screen-free “reading” — e.g. audiobooks, podcasts, spoken word poetry, graphic fiction, comics, humor or photography books that overlap with your child’s interests.
Either way, just keep modeling the value of printed books, especially during the pandemic. Try to imagine what will come to your adult children’s minds when they are asked to remember their first experiences of reading print books. Hopefully, the same warm sights, sounds and smells we remember will zoom through their minds regardless of how digital their future becomes.