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Editorial: Parents: A Vital Link

By Ethel L. Heins

By now it is probably beating a dead horse to talk about the continuing downward trend of the verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and to set forth the variety of factors on which to lay the blame. And it is also laboring the obvious to stress the fact that the reading of books in childhood might raise those deplorable scores by producing more imaginative, more cultivated, more literate young people.

For a long time now librarians, authors, and critics have exhorted teachers to pay more heed to the rich and often untapped educational resources available in children’s literature. But recently we have observed a gratifying renewal of interest in the influence of parents on their children’s reading. Margaret M. Clark, a professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, wrote a book, Young Fluent Readers: What Can They Teach Us? (Humanities Press), in which she proved the importance of parents’ attitudes toward reading, of reading aloud at home, and of library use as a shared family activity. In the United States many children’s librarians — such as Carolyn Sue Peterson of Orlando, Florida, and Tish Andresen of Boise, Idaho — have been vigorously reaching out to parents and other guardians of young children. A year or two ago, impelled perhaps by sheer desperation, even the United States Commissioner of Education “stated that ‘our children will not become good readers if no one reads at home.’ He urged parents to read to their children every day and not fill their bookshelves only with ‘knickknacks and plastic flowers.'”

From time to time disgruntled voices are raised against the faults or inadequacies of current children’s books; but these are usually the voices of ignorance or nostalgia, too often speaking from the heights of some unrelated professional eminence. Last autumn the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing under the promising title” Advice from a Reader-Aloud-to-Children,” revealed in a New York Times article the lacunae in his background with his casual condemnation of present-day children’s literature and exhibited a dilettantism he would never tolerate in his own discipline. Against what he called “the shallow optimism of so much contemporary writing for children,” Dr. Schlesinger recommended a curious, indiscriminate jumble of tried-and-true classics, even advising parents to undertake do-it-yourself paraphrasing of some “antique” prose.

Last month the Horn Book, Inc. published Cushla and Her Books, a volume for both parents and educators that is at once a scholarly, carefully documented developmental study and a triumphant story of determination, intelligence, and love. Written by Dorothy Butler, the book is based on her dissertation for a Diploma in Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand; it first impressed readers in a shortened version in Signal magazine. Mrs. Butler, a bookseller and a lecturer on children’s literature, is the grandmother of Cushla Yeoman, a child born with a bewildering and daunting array of severe physical handicaps. Refusing to have Cushla permanently institutionalized, her courageous, indefatigable parents pressed the doctors for more and more accurate diagnoses and were compelled to live with constant illness and recurring crises. From the time the baby was four months old they beguiled the long, dark hours of their round-the-clock vigils by introducing her to books — which for Cushla became, astonishingly, initial experiences with pleasure and with learning. In the Times of London Brian Alderson recently wrote: “As Dorothy Butler charts the little girl’s development from retarded baby to confident child one marvels at the degree to which the love of her parents and the ‘extended family’ around her has been reinforced by the secondary life that she has gained from stories … and the relish for language richly used.” It is difficult to imagine a more moving testimonial than Cushla to the rehabilitative and humanizing power of literature. Most important, the author establishes unequivocally the vital need for “human links” between children and books. Bravo!

From the June 1980 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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