If you were one of the estimated 200,000 readers who enjoyed this fall’s National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., you were treated to presentations by two members of the same writerly, readerly family: David McCullough and his daughter Dorie McCullough Lawson.
Turns out that Dorie already has a couple of books under her belt, the newest being a children’s story called Tex. But there’s more to this storyteller than just the story. Dorie has become an advocate for getting kids to read in ways that matter.
Since Levenger has just introduced this year’s batch of recommended gifts for young readers, we thought it was a good time to also introduce you to Dorie. Here’s her conversation with our editor of Levenger Press, Mim Harrison:
Levenger Press: How did you come to be such a thoughtful champion of children’s reading?
Dorie McCullough Lawson: I was lucky to be raised by parents who love books. My mother has always said, “If you can read, you can do anything.” When you grow up hearing that, you know books are powerful things. As a child I was read to, I read on my own, we talked about books. The characters and scenes from books were simply a part of my life and consciousness from the beginning. And I’m sure it had an effect knowing that books were being written right there at home, by my father.
Something else that was important: from about third grade on, my friends and I talked about books. I still remember which books we read. Once my friend Shannon and I were both crazy about a book called The Blind Connemara, and the school library had only one copy. It was quite a war over that book!
LP: Many advocates of children’s reading believe that as long as kids read something—anything—it’s a good thing. Do you agree?
DML: I disagree. There are so many wonderful books out there that in a lifetime we couldn’t read them all. There just isn’t time or brain-space to waste on anything that isn’t terrific. It’s true at any stage of life, but especially in early childhood, because what we read and put into our brains during that precious time tends to stay there forever and in turn influences who we are.
LP: What role do sports play in children’s willingness to read?
DML: As a culture we do spend an inordinate amount of time and money on sports. Families are consumed by children’s soccer or hockey and the task of transporting the players here and there. And the players are becoming younger and younger. I wish a greater proportion of that time and effort and interest were spent on reading and books and the life of the mind.
It’s really pretty simple: Children are very good at knowing what’s important to the adults in their lives. If we adults are interested in sports, talk about sports, buy the right equipment, the likelihood that the child will be interested in sports is very high. If we are interested in books, and read to our children, and talk with our children about books, if we spend time in bookstores and libraries, then the same will be true for books and reading.
The question also raises the issue of scheduling. If our children are too overscheduled with athletics and lessons of all kinds, reading and time for the imagination suffer. Kids need more time to just roll around on the floor and have a few hours of boredom to give their heads time and space to go to work.
LP: There are plenty of opportunities for children today to escape into a fantasy world. Do you think that’s beneficial?
DML: I think there is certainly a place for fantasy, and it is valuable to children to have fantasy in their lives, but I do think that we tend to blur the distinction between fantasy and imagination. It’s imagination that we need to propel us forward. It takes imagination to put oneself in another person’s shoes, to build a tunnel or develop a new surgical technique, to come up with a new evolutionary theory. It definitely takes imagination to get an obstinate child to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. We need imagination every day.
With children, we should remember and appreciate the value of simple things. We need to help them use the power of their minds to envision themselves doing things they can’t already do, or going places they’ve never been. I’m not crazy about over-filling their heads with talking trains and sponges and avatars and powerful robots.
LP: Do you read aloud to your kids?
DML: Yes. We have four children spanning nine years, and my husband and I read picture books whenever we can to the littler ones, but we also read aloud every night to the whole family. It’s only for about twenty minutes, but everyone sits down together in the living room to hear the story. We read longer chapter books aimed mostly for the older children, but the little ones are there and they absorb some of it. They often color or draw while we’re reading, but no matter what, they know it’s a time of day when we’re all together and it’s important to us.
It’s most definitely not always a beautiful, cozy happy scene of family bliss! Often someone is disruptive or fussy, or someone is complaining about the book, or someone has just learned how to make himself burp and can’t seem to stop, or my husband or I wish we could make a phone call instead, but we stick to it. If it goes badly one night, there’s always the next day to try again.
For us it’s like dinner—sometimes the food is delicious and the conversation is wonderful, and sometimes it’s none of those things. But just because dinner doesn’t go well one or two nights, you don’t give up on it. And we don’t give up on reading together.
LP: In an age of e-books, is there still value in putting tree-books in little hands?
DML: There’s huge value in real books! Children learn to get enjoyment from something that isn’t plugged in. A child’s attention span is strengthened by spending time with something that doesn’t have any flashing colors or changing pictures or whiz-bang technology. The only excitement with a real book, and it’s real excitement, happens inside the brain.
I also think there is a connection when you give a child the actual book that you enjoyed or a grandparent enjoyed. The real book reaches across time.
Now to you, dear reader. When it comes to kids and reading, is there too much time for sports and not enough for books? I’d love to hear your comments. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).