I’ve known that I wanted to be a librarian since I was a teenager and I got high marks and honors all throughout high school, college, and graduate school, so it may come as a surprise to some of y’all that I was a late bloomer in terms of learning to read (also in terms of a LOT of other things) and (brace yourselves) I am now an extraordinarily bad reader and rarely get through more than maybe one or two traditional, paper books a year.
I know! I know. Take a minute to process that and let me know when you’re ready.
Just kidding, I don’t care. And neither should you! Well. You sort of should. You should care because although this posts starts out sounding like it’s about me, it’s actually “for the children.”
Okay so if you actually want to know, my personal history with literacy is that I adamantly refused to learn how to read until I was about 7 years old. I was home schooled most of my life, and of course my mom would encourage me to learn but thankfully she also let me dictate my own pace for things as long as I had a good argument for why. She explained that reading would let me learn about the thoughts in other peoples’ heads, and I told her that I already had enough thoughts in my own head and I would learn to read when I started running out and needed new ones. Then one day I picked up Green Eggs and Ham, and then really quickly moved into juvenile chapter books about horses and babysitters, and then catapulted into Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Garden, and then regressed slightly back into Cut and The Perks of Being a Wallflower in early high school, and I was voracious at every step of the way. I remember reading almost every book on the Summer Reading list before I began my sophomore year of high school, which coincidentally was my first year in public school, and being really surprised that my classmates had reluctantly dragged themselves through the requisite two or three.
But that’s also when everything came to a pretty screeching halt. Let’s be honest – reading for a purpose, for a deadline, for a grade, is awful. A steady diet of increasingly dense texts (or light texts made dense by endless discussion questions) is what I consumed for the next decade, with few exceptions, and my ability to read for pleasure more or less atrophied in that time. Obviously Harry Potter books were always a thrill, I savored every moment of the Poisonwood Bible one summer during college, and I really liked Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan when I picked it up on a whim right after graduation, but those are some of the last times I can remember genuinely attaching to a paper book.
(Amusing anecdote: I didn’t purchase any books during library school. I also can’t recall really reading anything new at all during that time. Sorry I’m not sorry, professors, but I faked most of those book reviews. Whoops…!)
But wait, does this mean that Miss Emily the Children’s Librarian is a big fat phony and doesn’t care about literacy’s history, present, and future? How can she make sound book recommendations if she hasn’t read everything on the New York Times Best Seller list?? All she “read” last year was Elizabeth Smart’s memoir and the Tales of Beedle the Bard!? ARE THERE NO PRISONS? ARE THERE NO WORKHOUSES!?
Don’t be such a Scrooge, man.
No, it doesn’t mean that, at all. What it actually means is that the act of reading words on pages bound together in a novel generally makes me fall asleep within about 5 minutes – not sure why, but it is what it is. However, I absolutely love audiobooks, I devour brief articles online and in print, and I frequently dig works of non-fiction. I also happen to genuinely enjoy children’s books as a medium because I’m really visual and I continue to be astounded by the beautifully rich illustrations and deep, duplicitous storylines that go into so many of them, especially now-a-days. Seriously, have you seen some of the picture books that came out this year? Outstanding.
What it actually means is that I tend to be hyper-judgey and think that most book summaries and first sentences or paragraphs sound incredibly lame so I dismiss them quickly, and this puts me at least a small step closer to the majority of the kids and teens that I interact with on the regular and I think this makes me easier to relate to. What it actually means is that I don’t mind if your kid hates reading cause I totally get that, but there are still a lot of ways to get around that and be successful and have fun and I can help them discover some of them. What it actually means is that I have no real stake in whether you prefer e-readers or if you have many leather-bound books and your apartment smells of rich mahogany, because I’m just glad you’ve found something that works for you and helps you learn and/or relax.
Literally, this is what everyone who gets all blustery about the whole e-readers vs. paper books debate sounds like to me. Please stop.
What it means is that I actually finished about a dozen books last year, not including all the children’s books I read for library programs, and then also probably a couple of hundred professional articles about librarianship and even more about, for lack of a better word, adulting. I could recommend many of them because I thought they were awesome but guess what – what I like to read is basically irrelevant because what resonates with me may not with you at all. For the same reason it’s usually stupid to ask the bartender what drink they like best, it’s also kind of stupid to think that what I’ve read recently will affect you in the same way. Some texts are universal, but most are not, and we are incredibly lucky to live in a time and (not to go all ‘Murica on you) in a country where we have easy access to virtually everything we could ever want or need to read, so just communicate those desires and necessities to me and let me work my magic! #librariesforlife
And no, I don’t find it ironic that someone who has difficulty reading in the traditional sense became a librarian because if you had any idea how little of my day at the library involves reading and how much of it is devoted to programming and restarting computers and wiping up boogers and being an unofficial guidance counselor, you wouldn’t find it ironic either.
You might think that being a librarian but not loving books is like owning a record store and hating music, but that’s just not the case. If we’re gonna go with this analogy, then the library is a music store that distributes records, CDs, mp3s, and even cassettes (for better or worse) and my preferred method is mp3s – but we also serve coffee, host local bands, teach kids to play music, and a plethora of other things. I LOVE music, and LOVE literacy – I just don’t have a compatible listening device for 78s or a brain for reading physical books most of the time.
Holy libraries, Batman!
So here’s where it becomes a piece that’s for the children, and it’s the real reason why I bothered even writing a post about this topic because as annoying as it can be to have people endlessly give me grief if/when they find out that I rarely read, it’s more unsettling to me when I see people give kids grief about the same thing.
One of my main take-aways from my Literacy Methods course in college, and one of the main take-aways that I hope you get from this post, is that it really doesn’t matter what or how a kid is reading, so long as they’re reading something, somehow. The brain stimulation alone is essential, and the content and lessons will always find a way to be relevant to their lives. Yeah, stepping outside of your comfort zone is cool, but so is becoming really well-versed in a particular topic and medium.
tl;dr – I’m a highly educated and pretty successful children’s librarian, and in my opinion, if your child is struggling to learn how to read or is just not into it right now, it’s probably no big deal. I was and am a reluctant reader in the traditional sense to this day, but I turned out fine. Be patient, read to them and with them at every opportunity, give them real reasons why reading is important, give them a variety of texts, topics, and mediums to choose from, and then back the fuck off them. Your judgement and insistence probably isn’t going to help – it’s actually more likely to do damage to their understanding of what reading can and should be all about. Like children, literacy comes in all forms and you can’t totally predict when it’ll start to bloom, so let your kid embrace what works best for them.