Birthday Books: Start a New Family Tradition Today

A verbal Wunderkind, I began reading at age three. I don’t chalk that up to my own sheer brilliance, because no part of my literary progress would ever have occurred, were it not for my mother. Thanks to her, books and reading have always comprised a huge part of my life. As a child, I went to sleep every night only after she had read something, anything to me. I became friends with Laura Ingalls Wilder and learned all the Uncle Remus tales by heart. I devoured books. Sometimes I got in over my head, like the time I tried to read The Shining at age 10.* Overall, though, my experiences with books have been positive.

It bothers my soul when people don’t read to their children. Being linguistically advanced made it difficult to remain patient in elementary school while children who read slower than I took their turn at reading. Patience is not a virtue that comes easy to anyone, and it is far more difficult for children to master. Because children are naturally cruel creatures, my mother had to teach me a valuable lesson, à la Daddy Carraway: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Many of the children who read slower than I grew up in homes without books of any kind. There are numerous reasons for this tragedy, many of which cannot be blamed on anyone. My mother is a children’s librarian, and in that capacity she attends several conferences each year. At a recent one on early literacy for at-risk children, she heard a colleague remark that such efforts were useless, because low-income parents just didn’t care enough about their kids to bother fostering an appreciation for books in them. My mother took offense, and spoke up.

You see, we were—and still are—a low-income family. My parents were lucky enough to be able to survive on a single income during my formative years, providing me with a stay-at-home parent who could provide homework help and take me to library events. Most lower-class families today, however, are not so fortunate. Avoiding starvation and eviction take up so much space in low-income parents’ lives and minds that there simply isn’t enough time or energy to devote to academic achievement. If parents are forced to decide between keeping food in their children’s mouths or books in their hands, I’d say the former is the logical choice; a living mediocre student is far preferable to a dead genius.

This is not to say that the problem of poor academic performance only exists in low-income families. Far from it. However, when we think of dumb celebrities who say incredibly stupid things—Jessica Simpson, anyone?—we don’t usually attribute their lack of brains to parental negligence. Whatever, they don’t have to be smart because they’re rich, right? Wrong, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Books cost money, whether you buy them outright or take trips to your local library. For struggling families, this expense can preclude accessing literature. Luckily, Kara Fleck over at Simple Kids** has come up with a solution. On gift-giving occasions, her philosophy is for children to receive: “Something they want / Something they need / Something to wear / Something to read.” For most families, integrating Fleck’s gift-giving policy would not be costly. One less toy could easily equal one more book, and children’s individual libraries could be increased by 2-3 books per year.

But this message isn’t for just parents; it’s for anyone with a child in their life. If you have the choice in what to give as a birthday or holiday present, give a book. Whether you’re a parent and make books a new family gift-giving tradition, or you’re a relative or friend who just wants to see a kid read: do it. We can all do our part to encourage early literacy, and there’s no reason we can’t start today.

*In my defense, the only reason I didn’t finish this book at that time was my ignorance regarding the word “officious.” I asked my mother what it meant, and she asked me to use it in a sentence. Well, okay: “officious little prick.” I didn’t see that book—or that word—again for quite some time.

**I am not trying to be rude by not linking to this site. As of this writing, Simple Kids has a malicious popup from globalfwdingDOTcom. I have contacted Ms. Fleck on Twitter and hope to hear back from her soon.

What traditions does your family have regarding books and/or gift-giving? Let me know in the comments!