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Too Much of a Good Thing?

I used to be afraid my daughter would never learn to walk. Every time she tried to take a step, she immediately came sliding back down on one of the board books invariably littered around her like so many banana peels. She had better success remaining upright once I began clearing paths for her. I’d cram all the books I could into a bottom bookshelf and stack the leftovers several piles deep on the coffee table. This actually gave her incentive to totter around after me, swatting her books to the floor again where she could look them over and decide which one — or two or five — she wanted me to read to her next.

Rosemary Wells, inside the front covers of her “Bunny Reads Back” board-book line (and ubiquitously elsewhere), says, “Reading together twenty minutes a day is the most important gift you can give your child.” Before my daughter came along, I accepted without question the mantra that only good can come from a child’s relationship with books. But now I wonder, What happens when the twenty minutes stretches into six hours? Everyone seems to agree it is possible to drink too much, eat too much, watch too much TV, spend too much time at the computer, even exercise too much. Yet no one seems ready to admit any such thing about reading, especially in regard to children. According to the parenting manual Your Child at Play: One to Two Years by Marilyn Segal, reading with young children carries “none of the negatives associated with many other toddler activities. It is not noisy, wasteful, or destructive, and it doesn’t make a mess.” Never mind that I can provide numerous examples of noisy, wasteful, destructive, messy reading taking place at my house; Segal obviously hasn’t witnessed my toddler belting out the lyrics from Paul Zelinsky’s popup Wheels on the Bus while ripping off the “wipers on the bus” and shoving them under the refrigerator. While I still believe that those “negatives” — minor irritations, really — are easily outweighed by the many positives of interacting with my child through books, I must admit that the prospect of bequeathing my life-long literary obsession to her has raised some unanticipated misgivings in me. Or maybe I just can’t help being suspicious of anything shown in a perpetually favorable light. Everything, even an activity with as unsullied a reputation as reading, has a dark side. Doesn’t it?

For one thing, it troubles me to see how thoroughly parents today, including myself, have been programmed to view reading as prescriptive. According to the “experts,” reading aloud to young children isn’t simply an enjoyable way among many to spend one-on-one time with them. Instead, it’s akin to getting them vaccinated or offering them proper nutrition. Consequently, I have trouble setting limits on my daughter’s book consumption without feeling like I’m robbing her of “that most important gift.” She usually wants to bring her books to the table during mealtimes. If they were toys, I would have no qualms about taking them away and telling her we’d play with them later. But these are books, after all, as vital to one’s well being as food, and perhaps more so. Thus, my husband and I find ourselves trying to sneak in bites of dinner between readings of The Carrot Seed or One Was Johnny. It starts to feel as though the only way we ever connect with her is through books, and although she’s not even two, I want to say to her, Can’t we just sit here and have a conversation with you? Can’t we do something else together besides read?

Out in public, my anxiety level rises whenever it appears I am not providing my child with an adequate literary diet. Once or twice a week I take my daughter to the library not only for the books but for the wide-open carpeted space where she can zoom around and I can easily keep an eye on her. While I’m sitting there watching her climb all over a stuffed bear in the children’s section, I’ll notice other parents diligently directing their offsprings’ attention toward the shelves, and I’ll feel guilty, as if I’m doing something wrong by letting my child engage in non-book-related play (for a change!) in the temple of literature. This may sound paranoid, but often the guilt is exacerbated by vibes from the other parents. Once, in response to a pointed gaze from an otherwise friendly mom with a young son, I rose to my feet and called over to my daughter, “OK, Sweetie, let’s see if there are any books here for you,” and the mom chimed in with a presumably well-meaning, “Oh, I’m sure there are!” Instead of responding, “Look, lady, you should see us at home,” I said nothing. I actually felt I deserved this warning from the reading police.

All the emphasis placed on the importance of reading with children seems to promote a certain arrogance in the people who are successful at it. If you read to your child often and she enjoys it, you feel, at least in this one respect, like a better parent. You feel your child is intellectually superior to the kids who would rather watch Barney videos. “Best of all, a toddler’s absorption in a reading activity carries with it the promise of future scholarly interests,” says Segal. She might as well have said that a toddler who likes to play catch will grow up to be a professional baseball player, for all the truth that statement holds; but you still can’t help picturing yourself, years down the road, at your child’s Harvard graduation. I try not to feel smug when I go to other homes where there are young children and I don’t see many children’s books in evidence (of course I go out of my way to hunt for them), but it isn’t easy. And I don’t doubt this reading-as-status-symbol attitude will carry over to my daughter, if she remains an avid reader. This isn’t a terrible fate, I suppose, but I hope she’ll be able to curtail the impulse to look down on people who choose to spend their time in other ways.

We literary types do tend to be pretty proud of ourselves, as I discovered when I tracked down volumes at the library purporting to show the wormier aspects of being a bookworm. In Ruined by Reading by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for example, I expected to find a look at the downs as well as the ups of book obsession. Instead I found the title to be ultimately a mask for just another treatise on the rewards and nobility of the literary life. Even the promisingly named Biblioholism by Tom Raabe turned out to be a faux self-help manual that made “the literary addiction” and the lost fortunes, jobs, and relationships that come with it seem more commendable than debilitating.

Of course I don’t seriously worry that reading Sam’s Potty thirty-one times in a row to my daughter means she will someday end up buried under first editions in a filthy studio apartment. So what am I worried about? Schwartz strikes a chord when she ponders her own childhood, inundated with reading material. “Did I choose or was I chosen, shepherded into it like those children caught out early on with a talent for the violin or ballet, baseball or gymnastics, and tethered forever to bows and barres, bats and mats? We didn’t know any alternatives; there was no chance to find them out.” By collecting books and more books for my child, am I just another stage mother, forcing my passion to become hers before she knows she has alternatives? Will this cause her any regrets? When I reflect on my own history as a reader, I do feel as though I missed out on things, as if I may have traded real life experiences for literary ones. “A book is no better than, and usually not as good as, a rock, a tree, a creature of the wild, a wisp of cloud, a wave, or a shadow on the wall,” wrote Henry Miller (in Reading in Bed). I’m probably the only parent who gets some satisfaction from watching her child rip or color on her books because then she’s actually doing something physical, and not just reading about doing something. I do believe it is possible to achieve balance. Books can lead us out into the world as well as help us escape from it. But there are only so many hours in a day, after all. For myself, timid by nature, I wonder whether I’ve spent too much of my life hiding within my imagination, and whether my daughter may someday come to feel the same way.

When all is said and done, I realize I am privileged to have this dilemma. My daughter has something many kids don’t: access to good books. Her books — all two hundred or so of them — are like friends to her, and she can call practically every one of them by name. Her vocabulary and memorization skills expand with each new page she turns. And, most importantly, she spends a lot of time perched on Mommy and Daddy’s laps, receiving their undivided attention, instead of sitting alone in front of the TV. Sometimes, when I think about the innumerable characters and stories waiting for her to discover throughout her lifetime, I get giddy with excitement. It’s only occasionally when the doubts set in and I can’t help picturing the scene from the movie Barton Fink, where John Goodman runs down a fiery hotel hallway with a shotgun, screaming, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!”

A former children’s bookseller, Christine Heppermann is a member of the Horn Book review staff and is also a regular contributor to the Riverbank Review. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter. 

From the July/August 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Christine M. Heppermann About Christine M. Heppermann

Christine Heppermann is the author of Ask Me How I Got Here, Poisoned Apples, and the Backyard Witch series, co-authored with Ron Koertge (all Greenwillow) and of Backyard Chickens (Houghton).

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