In June, my 6-year-old son got very excited about our town’s summer reading program, in which kids who read for a certain number of hours vote for a movie that gets screened at the library. For several days, he reminded me we had to track the time we spent reading and check boxes off his chart so he could participate. But then he spent time with a California friend whose library’s summer reading program offers passes to Disneyland. A free movie suddenly seemed lame by comparison. He lost interest in the program and, for a while, in books, too.
Across the Commonwealth, public libraries encouraged schoolchildren to read this summer by offering prizes, often related to the big screen or sports, for those who met the minimum number of hours or books. In Arlington, we had the free movie. In Boston, if you read three books, you were entered into a raffle for Red Sox tickets. Maynard’s raffle was for a new bicycle.
There’s nothing wrong with movies, or sports, or amusement parks — or with programs aimed at spurring children to read. What’s wrong is the underlying message that books are a chore and that kids who endure them deserve payback.
Why, I wonder, are civic programs framed around this assumption? Is it because most kids don’t like books? Because adults don’t like them, either? Or because parents and educators and even doctors talk so much about The Importance of Reading that we have forgotten it once was (and still could be) a widely enjoyed activity?
Once upon a time, novel-reading had no purpose other than recreation. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, both set in and published in the 1860s, opens with four sisters at Christmas discussing what each plans to buy with her spending money. One mentions “pretty things”; two others crave music and art pencils, while Jo, the heroine, yearns for a new novel. No adult offers to buy her the book because it’s good for her. Literature is not virtuous — it’s just fun.
Actually, books were once popular enough to be threatening. The recent controversy over the TV version of Thirteen Reasons Why echoes 1774’s “moral panic” around The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Von Goethe’s tale of a young man who kills himself for love. The novel was blamed for a spate of copycat suicides across Europe.
Yet somehow in recent generations novels have shifted from something exciting enough to be dangerous to something your kid has to slog through in order to boost her grades. That’s probably because research out of the US Department of Education suggests kids who read for fun do better on reading assessments — and that fewer and fewer kids read for fun these days. Still, it sets up a conundrum: If the real reason for pushing literature is to boost test scores, well, that’s not really quite the same as reading for fun, is it?
Librarians, and educators like me, must walk a fine line. Most of us do consider reading to be fun — and inspiring, and maybe even life-saving at times — and we scratch our heads a bit at those who have never been moved by, say, the devastating ending of 1977’s Bridge to Terabithia or have never told a story about “a friend” only to realize the event actually happened to a favorite fictional character. I am saddened that binge-watching has replaced binge-reading for so many.
I admit, it’s a little depressing to see my favorite hobby reduced to bland educational nutrition. But the need to understand and evaluate complex written information is still essential, maybe more so than ever, and if kids aren’t developing this skill as a byproduct of reading for fun, they must develop it another way. It may indeed be that the right incentives can draw a nonreader in, and then he will get hooked. But, ideally, these incentives would grow out of the reading, rather than seeming to compensate for it. And libraries can do this with some fairly minor tweaks of their current summer offerings.
Next year, rather than raffle off sports stuff, why not raffle off a chance to have a minor character named after you in a local author’s book? Instead of movies, how about parties to which kids come dressed as a character from a favorite book and play games to figure out who is who? Or a library could offer events related to specific books that show what a social activity reading can be: A party at which kids who read the first three Little House books get to make (and eat) maple candy the way the characters in the books do. Or a Harry Potter trivia party.
The messages we send to kids (and adults) about what is and is not fun are both subtle and powerful. When we set something up as a chore, we make it a chore. And when we declare it fun, well, almost anything can be fun. Remember how Tom Sawyer persuaded his friends to paint a fence?
Oh, you’ve only heard tell about that? Well, the book’s version is even better. You, and your kids, will love it!Alison Lobron is a writer and high school English teacher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.