It’s the most wonderful time of the year. This is the season when I visit the Mock Newbery and Mock Printz clubs in our library system. There are three of them, two Newbery (middle school) and one Printz (high school), and the kids in these groups are avid readers. They have to be, since each group reads about 200-250 books each year! Their purpose is to read all of the books published in each calendar year that are eligible for the Children’s Media Awards, and to vote on them using the same rules as the official committees. They hold their votes just before the national committees do, and then wait to see if their choices won the awards. When I worked in a library, I helped to run one of these groups for five years, so now I look forward to seeing them when I can.
We often assume that reading kids are introverts, but that’s not necessarily so. In these clubs, a lot of the kids are very outspoken about what they like or don’t like. Every week, they have to defend their choices. It’s so funny to watch them change over the years! They come into the Mock Newbery clubs as shy eleven-year-olds, saying things like, “This fairy book was so cute and I loved it. I think it will win the Newbery.” Four years later, they say, “Although the character development in this book was phenomenal, the pacing faltered somewhat in the middle, and I found the writing style to be rather pedestrian.” In other words, they come in as typical kids and leave as forty-year-old book critics. Kids who read books and talk about what they read will inevitably become more articulate.
When we read nonfiction, we learn something. When we read fiction, we become something. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, because we can have emotions about our nonfiction and learn a great deal through good fiction, but the experience of losing consciousness of our surrounding environment and seeing the world through another set of eyes belongs in the world of fiction. We all, children included, surrender ourselves to the mind and heart of a well-drawn protagonist, which is why it is vitally important to choose our reading wisely. If we thrill to the adventures of a courageous hero or heroine, we want to be more courageous ourselves. If we read a tragic story in which the main character shows great compassion, we know how to act with compassion when we encounter similar circumstances in our own lives. The reverse, of course, is also true. If a girl reads a steady diet of “mean girl” novels, what sort of person will she admire—or become—in real life?
If a child reads widely from an early age, he will have the opportunity to try on many lives. We all live once, but through books we can live for a short time in another country or another time. We can experience the perspectives of people who are very different from ourselves. A friend of mine once said that when she was going to high school in the early ‘70s in the Illinois suburbs, she had friends living through the race riots in Chicago high schools. Although they were not far away, it could have been a different country. The Chicago kids were drinking in racism with their lunch milk, while my friend, who had not yet met a black person, was drinking in lofty ideals and compassion in the good books that she was reading about the civil rights movement. Later in life, when she moved to a more integrated area, her worldview was already formed by the fictional heroes and heroines she had “lived” with during her formative years.
In the Newbery meeting last week, I heard a twelve-year-old girl talk about a book she’d read in which a character “was supposed to have been killed as a baby because she was not perfect.” I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but the book was probably a dystopian science fiction book. However, this is not a fictitious issue, is it? When the reader confronts this situation in real life, she will have already had this experience. She already knows someone who was a valuable person, even though a more powerful entity thought that she should have been destroyed before she had a chance to defend herself. Thinking through important questions calmly and at a distance is an excellent preparation for more turbulent times when clear thinking seems impossible.
These are just some of the reasons that I think reading kids are so amazing to be around. They’re not afraid to talk to adults because they’ve known so many of them through the pages of books– and they have a lot to talk about. Recommending a book to a child or teen and seeing them light up with anticipation is one of the big reasons that I do what I do. When that reader comes back and tells you how much they enjoyed that book, it’s like getting a gift! These kids will never be bored, and they’ll have the tools they need to learn whatever they want in life. If you have children in your life, be sure to model a love of reading and create an environment full of great books. Start young— and never stop!