Cultivating a household of readers

“Did you hear they’re making a TV show of Donald Duck Adventures? You know, the one we had a subscription to?” asked Hugo.

There was no subscription to Donald Duck Adventures. In 2003, I called and told the publisher I would pay for 12 issues up front if they mailed them to us when published.

My eldest son, Claude, did not read until the third grade, the year he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Though clearly intelligent, he had developed low academic self-esteem. The definition of a learning disability is when a person’s academic performance is notably lower than their IQ would indicate. Like the right combination to a vault of riches, once we had an accurate diagnosis, effective remediation could begin.My children live in a home with few screens and endless reading material. Only last year did I break down and get DirecTV after Max bought our only television, located in the finished basement.

I forbid video games in my home. Sure, my big boys played video games at their friends’ homes. My rule is not “no gaming ever,” though I counseled them to avoid violent games (they didn’t).

Instead of passively spending their days in front of screens, my children play and fill their time with books, newspapers and magazines.

At library sales, I buy children’s books like penny candy, most in new condition. Going on a road trip? Head to the library to borrow audiobooks everyone will enjoy. Some of our favorite audiobook authors are Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Roald Dahl, Sid Fleischman and, of course, J.K. Rowling. As a family, we named our only girl Lyra after the main character in The Golden Compass (skip the movie, get the audiobook).

We subscribe to (and read) the Akron Beacon Journal, the Plain Dealer, the Sunday New York Times and the West Side Leader. When Max and I began dating I was shocked he did not have a newspaper subscription. “How do you read the comics?” I asked, a question he found odd from a 40-something woman.

Each night before dinner, someone clears the newspapers off the table before setting it. Nearby on the floor I keep three baskets: one for local papers, one for magazines and one for the New York Times. Every few weeks, I cull through them, finding stories I missed or that might interest someone else in the family. I set those pieces aside and recycle the rest.

In this era of fake news, newspaper subscriptions are more important than ever. Most fake news is generated on the internet where anyone can post anything, whereas legitimate newspapers rigorously fact-check what they put in print (see Doug Livingston’s piece from January at http://bit.ly/2uvigYD). If they get it wrong, corrections are published and if articles are found to be intentionally misleading, those involved usually lose their jobs.

We also subscribe to more magazines than we can all read. However, each magazine is read, if only in part, by at least one of us. Jules, our budding biologist, reads National Geographic, Audubon, several birding magazines and, until recently, Automobile. I receive The Sun and Creative Nonfiction. Max and Jules just switched from Cook’s Illustrated to Milk Street, a new cooking magazine. And we all read the New Yorker, Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Time, Down Syndrome World and This Old House.

Our fourth son, Leif, is now 7 and I see again how this works. He has organized dozens of dinosaur stickers on the four walls of his bedroom by the geological period in which they lived. A new book on dinosaurs guarantees a delighted “Awesome!” but Leif also loves his Junie B. Jones collection. As I type this, I hear him giggling every so often. He’s downstairs listening to the audiobook In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz.

Then there are comics. Until last year, Leif had someone read Garfield to him every morning. Now he reads it, and other strips, to himself. Most mornings, all of us talk about which strips made us laugh and the updates in those with ongoing storylines (in recent years, Sally Forth has developed rich and relevant narratives, while Mary Worth, with a new team of artists and writers, is still like a train wreck I can’t help but glance at). Max, who once looked askance at my love of comics, now reads them while the coffee brews, before anyone else is up.

Cartoons made my kids look not only at newspapers, but also Newsweek (back in the day) and the New Yorker. The last page of the New Yorker is the first page we all read. That is where you’ll find their cartoon-captioning contest, and this page has taught me how the best cartooning is as much the caption as it is the art, for most submissions are heavy on the obvious, light on the ironic and overwritten. Hats off to the pros.

When I was a girl, Harvey, Disney and Archie comics filled rounders near the checkout lanes in grocery stores (Mad, a nonsaccharine favorite, was hidden in the magazine aisle). Like most kids, I read my comic book stash over and over. Reading anything repeatedly develops literacy skills, while the drawings help decode language without the stigma of little-kid picture books. All this makes comic books perfect for struggling readers.

In 2000, when I first purchased comics for children, I couldn’t find any that were particularly kid-friendly. At that time, superheroes all needed serious therapy to get over their dark and brooding psyches. Resorting to the internet, I found reprinted collections of Disney comics by Carl Barks, which led me to Gemstone Publishing and the “subscription” to Donald Duck Adventures. Later, the boys moved on to other comics, including classic superhero collections, and eventually graphic novels.

Today, Claude and Jules (who is also dyslexic), often sit at the table so engrossed with a book, they cannot hear me speaking. Currently, Jules is enjoying the Earth Sea series by Ursula LeGuin and Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Claude, who recently earned a degree in English literature and now writes for the Devil Strip, is reading Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (again).

Meanwhile, the one who needed no help learning to read reads the least. However, Hugo just finished, and wants every American citizen to read, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.

And it all started with comics.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 28, 2017.


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