I had to laugh at this blog post on the New York Times website where the author laments the chore of reading out loud to her son. It’s not that she dislikes books, she’s careful to explain—it’s just that the books her son enjoys are tedious and irritating. Those Richard Scarry books particularly irk her:
“In Richard Scarry’s world, there is a lot to look at, but not a lot to read, and when there’s not a lot to read, you have to make up things. I could go that route, and I probably should go that route, but since I am a writer by profession, having to write aloud someone else’s book to my kid at the end of a long day kind of ticks me off.”
I have to admit, I can empathize, both as a loving adult to the kids in my life, and as a teacher who, in part, reads books out loud to children for her job. The program my school uses for primary school French is story-based, and you are meant to study each one in so much detail that you spend a whole term on it. Interestingly, many teachers I know supplement the program a lot more heavily than its makers intend; it’s not just the grown-ups who go crazy spending an entire term reading “The Three Little Pigs,” it’s kids too, and many of us find that our students need to be exposed to a little more.
On the personal front, I have seen my share of delights, but I’ve seen my share of clunkers too. “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” was delightful, but author Laura Numeroff milks the concept just a little too much for my liking; by the time we got to “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” it just wasn’t clever anymore. And I get that trains are very exciting to toddler boys, but I have to admit, a recent visit with a young friend had me choking a little on this rather ham-fisted racism allegory, snuck into his favorite Thomas the Train book:
Then Arry and Bert arrived.
“Stinky steamies in the way again,” mumbled Arry.
“Why do we have to work near them?” grumbled Bert.
This made Thomas and Percy cross. They didn’t want to work near the diesels either. The diesels were oily, and they seemed very different to the steamies.
There’s no easy answer here. Sometimes, kids like stupid stuff, and it’s our job as the grown-ups to encourage it (or at least, tolerate it) so they can learn what they need to learn from this phase of their lives. The author of the aforementioned blog post likens getting through story time with her son to chewing her way through a kale salad, on the virtue scale, and I don’t know that I’d go that far. (And I have actually had some surprisingly decent kale salad on a few occasions).
But I think that even the most ardent book lover among us can admit that sometimes, anyone who reads to kids does long for the day when they are old enough to read better material—or at least, to have the skills to read their lesser material themselves.