Towards the end of A Hunger Artist the protagonist – who achieved notoriety for going days on end without food – revealed the truth behind why he stopped eating. “I had to fast. I can’t do anything else.” When asked “why?” by a supervisor of the facility where he remained caged and on public view, he simply explained, “Because…because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made such a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
If only he had found food which he had enjoyed! The tragedy of it…
How many of us have known kids who complain, “I can’t find anything I like,” whether they are talking about food to eat or books to read? Our job then, as the big people in their lives, is to help lead them there. Whether you are a teacher, parent or play another role in the life of a child, you have the ability to positively or negatively influence a kid’s eating and reading habits. Just as we want them to make good food choices, we also want them to get hooked on reading so that they don’t starve themselves on a diet of TV, electronics and, well, ignorance. Following are some parallels and suggestions for helping those reluctant or stagnating readers:
Follow Their Lead: You like snap peas in salad? Lets put them in a stir fry. I might parlay that into a taste for sugar peas, and then string beans, and then who knows what green vegetable? You like Cam Jansen? Try The Hardy Boys and other serial sleuth stories. Build on what kids already like to make connections to the next new thing.
Choice: You can choose between cauliflower or broccoli tonight. You could read your magazine or your comic books. The choice is what to eat or read, not whether or not you are going to do it.
Repetition: My daughter eats a salami sandwich almost everyday for lunch. I asked her recently, “Are you sick of this yet?” She’s not. For now the repetition is a delight for her – she knows just what she’s getting when she opens her lunchbox. Same with books, especially for young kids.
Some of my fondest being-read-to-memories are of my dad reading Ten Apples on Top to me. I still remember which character reminded me of him, and which one reminded me of my brother. I would delight, too, when twice a year I would go to the dentist and see that they also had a copy of this fantastic book in the waiting room. Oh, how the apples spill all over the place at the end, pouring out of that big, absurd truck. As adults we need to remember the joy a kid experiences when they revisit the same book over and over and over again. They’ll let you know when it’s time to move on.
Eat Together / Read Together: My family doesn’t have the opportunity to eat together every night, but we cherish the time we have when we’re all around the table as a complete unit. Now that my daughter is an independent reader we’ve started a new family ritual, “family reading time.” Like family dinners, we don’t get to it every night, but when we can we gather in the living room and cozy up with each other and our own books. Sometimes we don’t want to stop; showers get postponed, bedtimes get extended and we just keep going in our own little worlds, together. It’s the feeling of these times I know I’ll miss when the kids are grown.
Don’t Give Up / Keep putting veggies on the table: For kids that swear off fruit or vegetables, we keep trying. That first taste of summer squash or a particular salad dressing…that could be a game changer. Same with reading material. Expose your kid or student to a wide variety of reading, a little bit at a time. A taste of this or that genre, varying magazines, etc. Whatever you do, just don’t give up and tag him or her with the label of “non-reader.” He or she just may not be a reader yet, which is exactly why we shouldn’t stop trying.
If I’m going to carry this metaphor further (is that possible?), I would add that refrigerators are like bookshelves, and that libraries are like grocery stores. I would point out that many kids and families live in communities known as “food deserts,” where healthy food choices are not abundant. Same with books, and exposure to great material. While many families have thousands of books in their homes, and make frequent trips to libraries, we have to acknowledge that for many kids, schools are their best and only resource for books. Let us never stop investing in great books, in great quantity, so that no kid will ever be able to make the claim, “I just couldn’t find any that I enjoyed.”