Summer Reading (and Writing)

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I really listened to an interview with Nancie Atwell, famed for her advocacy and innovations in workshopping writing as part of the K-12 curriculum. She made a firm point that seems obvious and yet we often ignore: The best way to read and write well is to do a lot of reading and writing. Concordantly: the best way to do a lot of reading and writing is to enjoy doing them.

If I have any advice to give to parents for keeping up academically over the summer it is to encourage kids to do as much reading for pleasure as they can. It doesn’t really matter the quality or content—fiction, non-fiction, chapter books, board books, graphic novels, manga, newspapers, magazines, blogs. I wouldn’t be bothered if your 16-year-old has a thing for Curious George—as long as he reads them by by the dozens. One thing that disappears when kids graduate into middle and upper schools is the time and opportunity to read of one’s own volition. I was always rueful about that.

Yes, yes, there are ways to nudge, of course. Biggie was always a voracious reader; I made a half-hearted effort to give him some reading instruction when he was very young, but he’s mostly self-taught. I did, and do, read to him as part of his bedtime routine, though, and when he was five we started with The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, Biggie was a precocious five-year-old—but not that precocious. However, bedtime stories is one of those perfect opportunities to present something a little challenging, a little bit out of the reach, a little bit mystifying and magical. C.S. Lewis himself spoke of children’s literature, folklore, and fiction as ways of making difficult or profound ideas understandable from a distance. It gave Biggie a taste, and a foretaste, of language and lessons that I hope he will aspire to.

After Narnia was Harry Potter. By this time I was becoming more and more inconsistent with bedtime reading, and Biggie was starting to read on pages and chapters ahead without me. Furthermore, Biggie’s interests and obsessions were leading him more into non-fiction reading, and he sometimes had spells where stories, even Harry Potter, lost their appeal. I’ve lately used our time before bed to tether him back to the books and boost his interest, and I’ve taken to bribing him: finish The Order of the Phoenix and I’ll let you see the first Harry Potter movie.

We’ve eschewed any of the Narnia movies, and I managed all this time from letting the Harry Potter movies appropriate Biggie’s imagination, but we’re now in the home stretch, the books are getting dark and anxious, and Biggie needs a little help holding together the massive story arc of the series, so I think I’m going to start feeding him the movies in 10 chapter intervals as he gets through The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows.

As for writing… well, we’re taking baby steps. Biggie wrote a lot in first grade, and I love the approach they took: write about whatever you want but plan it out, workshop it, revise it, publish it, and celebrate it. With me, Biggie and I are writing one-sentence journals (an idea I got from the Happier podcast). I presented him with his very own Moleskine, and every night, as part of our bedtime routine, we write at least one sentence about the day—me in my journal, Biggie in his. The next day, I publish our entries (lightly edited for mechanics and privacy) on a blog (tomahto.wordpress.com).

Again, the idea is to just make it a natural part of our lives, something that is meaningful and fun. And we do it together.

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