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Why I wish my parents were readers

 Why I wish my parents were readers

Yesterday a copy of The Wind in the Willows landed on my desk.'As I flicked through it'I realised that its one of the few highly esteemed books I remember reading with my parents as a kid, and I realised just how important it is not just for parents to read to their children, but to be readers themselves.

I was an independent reader at a very early age, and was happily off reading novels by the time I hit about grade 1. The problem was that my independent reading at this age was also coupled with something that is arguably a lot tougher: independent book selection.

Though my mum instilled in me the importance of reading, she was never actually a reader herself. Our bookshelves were virtually empty, and they were certainly devoid of all those much-thumbed books from a fondly remembered childhood. There was nothing on the shelves that she might drag out from its dusty nook and urge me to read because it had resonated with her as a young reader.

Although she happily accompanied me on my (almost ridiculously frequent) visits to the library, and never said no to my requests to borrow or buy a book, she didnt have her own mental library of books that she might be able to share with me.

And so I was largely left to my own devices when it came to my book selection.

Though Im sure I made the estate of Enid Blyton very happy with my voracious reading appetite, and I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sweet Valley High, its only now that Im beginning to realise just how many gaps there are in my own reading history.

It wasnt until last year that I finally read The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables and The Lord of the Flies and Heidi. I read Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz and White Fang for the first time this year. I still havent read Winnie The Pooh. Or innumerable other books that its just expected Ive read.

The thing is, those early gaps in my reading have compounded. Without someone to guide me as a reader in my teens, I managed to skip past so many wonderful books that should be part of my reading tapestry, and the holes in my reading history are growing wider and more obvious.

These books should be somewhere in my mental library so that I can see their resonances in the books that Im currently reading, and so I can see how literature isnt something that is narrow and linear, but rather something broad and messy and mesmerising in its patterns.

Im certainly grateful that I had access to so many books, and that my reading was never censored, but I wish so much that Id had the opportunity to have a reading mentor who might have recommended texts that worked well together, or provided contrasting approaches, or might have illuminated whole new ways of thinking to me.

I wish that Id had someone to discuss my reading with, someone who had an understanding'both deep and broad'of books and their contexts so that I might have become a critical, engaged reader earlier, and so that I might have developed the skills to select my reading material in a more informed way.

I wish that Id been able to read those books as a'child, not as an adult. Ill never, ever be able to read those books with the eyes of a kid, as they were meant to be read, and the thought makes me terribly sad.

The thing is, for all this emphasis on the importance of reading with your kids, merely opening the door to the library isnt enough. If you want to be able to guide your kids in their reading, and to help them develop into well-rounded, thoughtful readers, you need to be a reader yourself.

Personal reading histories take years to build up'theyre an accumulation of a lifetimes worth of reading experiences, after all. They cant be faked. There arent any shortcuts.

And so I guess Id better set to work filling in my own reading gaps so that when I do have kids I can be the reading guide I always wanted for myself.


  1. My father is and always has been a big reader, but he would probably say that his recommending a book to us kids guaranteed we wouldnt ever read it. Thats not really true, but maybe theres something to be said for letting kids develop their tastes and choose their own books, too. Maybe a combination of guidance and freedom is best!

    • Stephanie /

      Good point, Laurie! I think it does have a lot to do with your relationship with your parents, and also kids conflicting needs to become independent individuals and also be guided by someone that they trust.

  2. Like you, Steph, Ive also got a bit of a gap in my childhood reading. Whilst my father was a reader, he read in Chinese and I dont ;p Plus I grew up in an Asian country which means I missed out on some great English childrens books! at least, Im not reading the ones that the English world recognise as classics.

    Am trying to catch up as well since I now live in Aus & my toddler is about to turn 3! Ive gotta be able to offer guidance and be the cool one who could talk bookish with him ;)

    • Stephanie /

      Excellent point there, Tien. I was a tutor in a school with a large Vietnamese community for a while, and assigning reading work was difficult because the parents didnt read much English. That raises another point: our very western-centric reading habits (which I think are probably reflected in my post).

      Id love for our future kiddos to be exposed to Chinese or Malaysian-Chinese literature, but my husbands Chinese is terrible, and Im not very well read when it comes to Chinese literature. Certainly not when it comes to childrens books. Perhaps we can enlist the grandparents help, or I can start doing some research!

      • aaah I dont read / speak Chinese either ;p

        At the moment, my mom & my in-laws are speaking half English and half Chinese (in 2 different dialects) to my son. He responds in English, of course sighs oh wells, at least, maybe hed understand a bit. Am still considering Chinese school, LOL. Unfortunately, neither side of grandparents are literally inclined :(

        I think weve just got to do some research

        • Stephanie /

          I think my in-laws will probably initially speak some Chinese to our kids, but I dont know if theyll persist with it. They both speak fairly fluent (accented) English, and a mix of English and Cantonese at home. Jonos dad speaks very good Mandarin, and reads at quite a high level as well, but its hard since none of the other sin the family speak it.

          None of them are readers, either, which is interesting, since I thought that reading and writing were highly esteemed in Chinese culture. Perhaps its the Malaysian influenceMalaysia seems to me to have more of an oral tradition.

          Let me know how you go with the research!

  3. Deanna /

    I had largely unguided reading and thus stumbled upon Lord of the Flies when I was 10. Whoops! Probably a little much. Just because I could read it didnt mean I should read it.

    • Stephanie /

      I am forever scarred by some of the horror short stories I read as a kid, I have to say! I think thats one of the big challenges of being a precocious reader: you have the reading skills, but not necessarily the maturity to be able to deal with a particular book, or to know whether a particular book is appropriate for you. Its difficult, because kids reading levels and maturity levels vary so much, and I think thats why it can be so helpful to have a parent offer advice or guidance in this area. Not necessarily censorshipI know that if I was told not to read something Id be even more determined tobut perhaps an opportunity to discuss why a book might be disturbing or challenging.

  4. You just reminded me of all these great memories of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, which should be read by all at a young age, the continued reading of books before bed even as my siblings and I got older and could read for ourselves. But I think most of us have gaps in our reading history. I know I do. All parents will have their blind spots and not know what they dont know. Maybe it is a matter of having a great personal library and the willingness to research and learn more to share.

    • Stephanie /

      Theres really something to be said about being read to, even when you can read yourself. It has such an important social element, I think. When I read to my little brother and sister when Im at my parents, I definitely get a sense that theyre in it less for the story and more just to spend some time hanging out.

      Very good point about everyone having blind spots, particularly those about which were unaware. At least being aware of them means that we can do something about them, whereas people dont know that theyre missing something will probably never get that opportunity.

      • I do think it is very important for kids to be read to as social interaction and for critical thinking about books. I love reading to my nieces. One of them has trouble with shyness, but even when she was one would come up to me and say, Read story? Cutest thing ever! And one of the ways I was able to bond with her even though I dont see her very often.

        • Stephanie /

          Definitely. Theres something about being able to form critical opinions and ask questions in a safe environment thats very important. It can be intimidating to do so in a more structured, scary environment such as school, and I can see why kids can be put off asking those important questions. I dont see my little brother and sister often, either, but reading is a great way to get some personal time with them.

  5. My grandmother introduced me to the classics, neither my mum or dad were big readers but I dont feel like I have many gaps because I read out the school library and mobile library on my own initiative.

    As for the Chinese/English thing, I was a Director of a long day care center in Cabramatta for a Chinese community charity for a few years (the only person in the place with English as a first language) so I can point you towards some resources if you want, both for appropriate childrens books and on nurturing bilingualism.

    • Stephanie /

      Lovely to hear your thoughts, Shelleyrae. Im trying to think back to whether the classics were readily available at my local library in the kids/teen sections, or whether they were shelved separately, but honestly cant remember. I think for me it was just a lack of awareness that they were out there, or what they had to offer. (I do, however, remember pooh-poohing Anne of Green Gables for its girly covers, and refusing to read them. What a mistake!)

      Some resources on Chinese literature would be wonderful, Shelleyrae! Im certainly interested in bilingualism, toomy background is in linguistics, so Im always interested to learn more about language and language acquisition!

  6. What a lovely post so full of yearning and regret.

    I relate to you experience in a number of ways, Stephanie. My mum and dad were way too busy raising and supporting us kids to read. Also, mums childhood books had been destroyed after a mouse plague on the farm. Our shelves were bare except for Agatha Christies (I quickly read all those) and some lurid old paperbacks.

    The thing that really turned me on to broader literature was when I visited my cousins farm during one long summer holidays. Instead of going out riding and helping to round up sheep, I holed myself up in their library for weeks. And when I say library, it really was that: a whole room stacked to the ceiling with shelves of books. Thats when I discovered the series by Mary Grant Bruce and other Australian classics, books Id heard of from my mum but never read. Ancient, dusty, well-thumbed, much loved classics (including Heidi and the rest).

    I spent so much time in that room my aunt secretly asked my mum if there was something wrong with me. (Why didnt I prefer to be out treating fly-blown sheep?!) That magical time really gave me a taste for more difficult books books from an older time with language that wasnt totally familiar though that had drawbacks for me, too, as I was later exposed to some more adult themes without any sense of their context. I dont know what kind of reader if I hadnt had that experience. It helped to start me on a lifetime of loving books.

    Thanks for the topic. It really has me thinking.

    • Stephanie /

      What a thoughtful response, Elizabeth. Thanks so much for sharing your reading experiences.

      My mum grew up on a (very remote) farm as well, and my dad comes from an immigrant background, so I wonder whether that did influence their own habits. Although my dad and his siblings are very highly educated, they tend to read as a way of acquiring cultural capital/for their careers rather than for pleasure or personal growth. My husband, too, I think has a similar experience: his parents are both from Malaysia, and they have a mindset of reading being more valuable as a study aid than as something valuable in itself.

      I loved your anecdote about holing yourself up in your cousins library. (It sounds like something out of a book!) Theres something so beautiful about picking up a pre-loved book, I think. They appeal because of their history, and because you know that someones found them worthy enough to read and re-read, and to keep on their shelves. Im so glad you had the opportunity to be acquainted with them!

      • That would explain a lot about the immigrant background and the utilitarian view of reading. For them, no doubt, it was a matter of survival. How lucky we are to be able to read for pleasure.

        As for the pre-loved book yes! We inherited a few from my fathers father (who, unlike my dad, was self-educated). I loved those hardback volumes which the plain single-colour covers, and still vividly remember some of the stories. They were probably published in the 40s or 50s, but of very good quality. Perhaps a Years Best collection from the New Yorker or somewhere which meant nothing to me back then!

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