‘Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.’ So said author Emilie Buchwald.
Recently, though, it was reported in the press that just half of preschool children in the UK are read to daily. A survey commissioned by Nielsen Book Research found that the number of parents reading to their children is in decline. The reasons: parents said they struggled to find the energy for reading, that reading had become a chore. A preference for digital content was also cited, with children watching online videos rather than having bedtime stories.
This news saddened me, because I think reading is so important, not only to a child’s mental development – building language, knowledge and imagination – but to developing that bond between adult and child. The many, many hours I spent reading to my own children I look back on so fondly now; our time with each other was special and precious, and what adventures we went on together via the pages of books.
I think, too, of my own childhood, and of how prominent books were in my home. My parents treasured books; they were in just about every room of the house. I remember that when some friends of the family had to leave the country suddenly, my father came home with cardboard boxes full of books he had ‘rescued’. I was read to every day, by my father, my mother or my governess, and I loved it – I couldn’t wait for story time.
In retrospect, I understand it must have been hard to find the time to read to me (and my sister) so often. That perhaps whichever adult was reading to me was not as enamoured of the story as I was; that perhaps they were bored stiff, having read that same book to me over and over and over on my request. But they read to me anyway, and I was made a reader on those laps.
Not only a reader, though; a writer too. For children are also made writers on the laps of their parents.
Had I not fallen in love with words – with language and stories and the beauty of the printed book – I would never have formed the ambition to write my own books someday, an ambition that has lit my way for so many years now. It is thanks to my early reading that I grew into a woman who not only read voraciously but also aspired to write.
Where will we be if future generations grow up to read less? We know, from research, that reading does not only educate you, but it makes you more empathetic – a better person (see https://hannahfielding.net/staging/1129/reading-your-way-to-empathy/). It improves mental health too (see https://hannahfielding.net/staging/1129/reading-an-escape/ and https://hannahfielding.net/staging/1129/deep-reading/). And it alleviates feelings of isolation: remember, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ (William Nicholson)
And where will be if future generations grow up to write less? For if you are not read to as a child, it surely follows that you are less likely to become a writer. That means fewer books to inspire and educate and comfort; fewer story worlds into which you can escape. Less beauty in the world.
No wonder that news story awakened a sadness in me. Somehow, in this modern world of digital, we need to remember what really counts and see the big picture.
Another news story caught my eye this past week, and this one sparked a quite different response from me. It was about the ever-so-tiny book that Vita Sackville-West wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house (http://lithub.com/vita-sackville-west-wrote-a-very-very-tiny-novel-for-the-queens-dollhouse/).
Do you know of the dolls’ house? It was made for Queen Mary in the 1920s, and was astonishingly true to life, down to the monogrammed linens, electric lights, running water and – the part that fascinates me – miniature books by well-known writers of the day, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to AA Milne, Rudyard Kipling to W. Somerset Maugham, JM Barrie to Thomas Hardy.
The article on Vita Sackville-West’s tiny book, A Note of Explanation, features the most wonderful close-up pictures of the library in the dolls’ house. As soon as I saw the little library full of the tiniest of books, I was filled with the kind of delight I would feel as a child towards books – the bibliophilia that my parents instilled in me.
Please do take a look at the article for yourself; the pictures are absolutely fabulous. And if you have the opportunity sometime, say ‘yes’ to a little one asking you to read a story. Just think what spark you may create in their imagination!