I am asking every parent who reads this to do one special thing for your children: Take them to the library or bookstore and get them a pile of books. A big pile. Oodles of prose and poetry and whatever else catches their fancies. Romances. Adventures. Biographies. Graphic Novels. Science Fiction. Horror. Mysteries. Get a variety. Be aggressive. Don’t take no for an answer, but make it fun. Stop for coffee or soda together and look through the books. Discuss what looks interesting and why. If you don’t want to spend the money on new books, go to a used bookstore and hunt for bargains. If you don’t want to spend any money at all, dig out or sign up for a library card. Please. Do it today.
My parents were Polish immigrants who had to work hard to make it in America. My father was picked up from the family farm in 1939 and spent World War II–all of it–as forced labor under the Nazis. When he came to America after a stint working for the American occupiers, he felt like the luckiest man in the world, even if he had to do back-breaking factory work for many years to support his family. Life was really, really hard in many ways, but there was hope, not so much for himself but for his children, and all those hopes were tied up with education.
Because his own schooling was cruelly interrupted by war, there wasn’t much he could do in the way of helping with homework once we moved out of elementary school, but he knew one thing and knew it well: The more my sister and I read, the better our lives would be. To this day I have no idea why this idea took hold in him so strongly, but books were practically thrown at us throughout our youth. No matter how tight money was, any time we wanted to go to the bookstore, money would appear. However busy he was, rides to the local library were always forthcoming. You could even get out of chores if you were engrossed in the pages of a book. If you were home sick in bed, books were placed on your side table along with a warm bowl of soup and expected to have the same curative properties; I suppose the simple act of flipping the pages helped your fever to break
My curve ball may have suffered because I was always massaging my eyeballs with some novel or another, but my life has been made infinitely richer by the lifelong habit of reading I picked up. Best of all, because good reading is simply a matter of practice, it all operates in a divinely circular equation: the more you read, the better you will read, and the more you will read as a result. Just as children have to spend countless hours learning how to dribble a basketball or draw a flower before moving from struggle to simple competency to sheer enjoyment, so the time must be spent now honing skills at reading to make sure the habit takes hold.
Books will turn your children into better readers, writers, and individuals. Reading now will make school easier later. Books will become companions and comfort in times of trouble. Reading challenging material will make your children examine their own values and the values of the world around them. Books will help them to imagine a better future and dream dreams you cannot imagine they would be capable of dreaming. With apologies to J.K. Rowling, reading is magic that doesn’t require a stint at Hogwarts, and even mere muggles can enjoy its wonder.