Recently, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote: “The list of what a child needs in order to flourish is short but nonnegotiable. Food. Shelter. Play. Love. Something else, too, and it’s meted out in even less equal measure. Words. A child needs a forest of words to wander through, a sea of words to splash in. A child needs to be read to, and a child needs to read. Reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination, and if they don’t blaze well before and during elementary school, a child’s education—a child’s life—may be an endless game of catch-up.”
I would add to this that children who aren't read to – whose days are filled with television shows and computer games – lose the ability to create their own stories. Not only does their power of imagination atrophy but also their ability to envision other possibilities and outcomes beyond what is presented to them dwindles. Reading leads to questioning; questioning leads to critical thinking; critical thinking leads to challenging the status quo; challenging the status quo leads to innovation and growth.
Without exposure to the "sea of words to splash in" a child's natural curiosity begins to dry up. And from there it's an easy downhill descent into the no-nothing land inhabited already today by some claiming to govern who proudly deny climate change because "they're no scientists."
The glare of a TV screen is no substitute for the spark of imagination that is lit when a child listens to a story. The first experience, however delightful, is passive; the second, active. Wandering in "a forest of words," children learn to navigate and find their own way and, in the process, develop discernment and confidence.
In pre-literate cultures, oral telling served this purpose. In our modern society creating a haven of time for children to read and be read to on a regular basis is a necessary antidote to the visual cacophony and consumption-as-story line that constantly bombards them.
Just for fun, I put together a quick list of books that includes both ones that were special to me when I was growing up, and ones that I especially enjoyed reading to my daughter when she was young. This is by no means inclusive. I was read to for many years and was, myself, a voracious reader, and Naomi and I enjoyed reading together every night from the time she was 2 until she was a teenager. I encourage you to think what books would be on your own list.
And, if the spirit moves, please consider donating one of your special books this holiday season to a local children's daycare center, or homeless shelter for families, or healthcare facility – or wherever in your community giving a child a forest or a sea could open up the world.
Here is a very short list of some of my (and/or Naomi's) favorite books (in absolutely no particular order or age range):
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (A.A. Milne)
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak)
The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman; actually the entire series, His Dark Materials)
The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (J.R.R. Tolkein)
The Redwall series (Brian Jacques)
The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson)
The Story of Babar: The Little Elephant (Jean DeBrunhoff)
Matilda (Roald Dahl)
Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (Shel Silverstein)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Eloise (Kay Thompson)
Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans)
The Neverending Story (Michael Ende)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
The Frog and Toad Collection (Arnold Lobel)
We're Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen/Helen Oxenbury)
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (James Gurney)
Gwinna (Barbara Helen Berger)And…any book by Jane Yolen