Good Reading : June 2004
54 goodreading Will handing out free books to families make children into readers? It’s not only Australian Labor leader Mark Latham who appears to think so, with his enthusiastic adoption of author Mem Fox’s mantra of reading three books a day to your child, and his plan to give out three free books to each newborn child if Labor wins the next election. In the US, Illinois Governor Rod R Blogadevich has thrown his state’s weight – and finances – behind the Imagination Libraries Project, which aims to give 12 free, age-relevant books to every family with children in Illinois. In both cases, it seems to be assumed that if only children had books in their houses, then not only would they learn to read, but that they’d become lovers of reading itself. A great idea, right? Well, um … not really. It feels odd to be arguing against something as well-meaning as this. After all, not only have I always loved reading, not only did I read to my children when they were small, not only do I think that reading widens your imagination, your understanding and your experience, but I’m a writer of children’s books. Surely I should be unreservedly behind the idea? But too many things trouble me. Some are practical – who’s going to decide whose books get sent out? What kind of unattractive competitive jostling will there be amongst publishers and authors? How will the scheme guard against commercial muscling-in? How on earth do you account for things like cultural sensitivities? Or will it be a kind of voucher system, where you can choose your own? Most parents already read to their children – how are you going to force the recalcitrant ones into wanting to, or will you just have to accept that some of these free books will be tossed into a corner, never to be looked at again? A simplistic panacea of this kind might be beloved by politicians, but it certainly doesn’t take into account the complexities of human nature and family life. Besides, literacy isn’t the same as loving books. Of course every- one should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee they’re going to love it, just as there’s no guarantee that being taught to swim, say, will make you love swimming. Sending free Speedos to every house won’t overcome that. In fact, you might hate it.We lovers of reading can’t assume that it’s univer- sal; a lot of people prefer to do other things. Loving to read is a choice, not a coercion or a social duty. I certainly don’t want children to be coerced or harried or even lectured into read- ing my books; I’d rather they actually chose to do so because they wanted to. What’s more, it’s not always true that a family atmosphere that encourages reading will grow lovers of books. I grew up in a family of seven children, with parents who are both great readers and who encouraged us to read. But only three of us are what you’d call voracious readers; two of my other siblings never read (and indeed hate it), while the other two only read occasionally. My own three children are all good readers, who enjoy books – but none of them has quite the enormous love I have, despite the encouragement they’ve had from me and their father, and the groaning bookshelves, and the hundreds of books we read to them as children.Yet one of my non-reading siblings has a son who would rather read than do anything else at all – ‘just like you!’ as she ruefully points out to me. It’s said that there are fewer kids around now who love reading because of competition from other entertain- ments – film,TV, computer games, etc. I dispute that. Not only is the propor- tion of voracious to desultory readers exactly the same as it’s ever been, but it’s wrong to assume that we live in a unique time of distractions from read- ing.There have always been lots of distractions, if reading isn’t your bag. WhenIwasakid,wehadnoTVor computer games or videos in the house, yet it didn’t make the non-readers among my siblings into readers. The love of reading is a natural, temperamental gift. It’s not something you can force into blossom. But it can lie latent in a person; I know people who couldn’t see the point when they were kids, and then somehow, in adolescence or adulthood it clicked in, and they began to love reading, mak- ing up for lost time. And I also know other people who loved reading as children and somehow lost the urge, emerging in adulthood as people who never open a book. For love of reading means much more than just having books thrown at you; it most especially means leav- ing your ego at the door of someone else’s imagination, being willing to follow into other worlds, other space, other time, other skins. And I don’t think that’s something that any politi- cian or public figure, no matter how enthusiastic or well meaning, can will into being. have book, will read last word Author, parent and passionate reader SOPHIE MASSON questions the usefulness of the latest plan to put more books into the hands of children. Of course everyone should learn to read, but there’s no guarantee they’re going to love it.