My parents taught me to love books at a very young age. My father enrolled me in a book of the month club from Disney. They were those jacketless hardcover picture books that retold fairy tales like Robin Hood and Cinderella, but with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in the illustrations. I remember my dad grumbling about how stupid the art was, but he was secretly pleased how much I loved those books and looked forward to getting them. He also bought me two huge collections of fairy tales that were fully and beautifully illustrated. I read the stories over and over. When we were older, my dad would take my brother and me on outings to the bookstore in the mall and let us each pick a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. I remember making my collection on my shelf in my bedroom, thinking about which book to get next (we never bought them in order), and compulsively making lists of all the books in my personal library.
My mom helped me build my personal library too. We had the Scholastic book fairs at school, and I remember where most kids would get one or two books the day the orders came in, I always had a big stack. My mom was a professor at Brigham Young University and she would take my brother and me to campus with her lots of summer days when we were out of school. We would play outside on the quad, and we would spend a lot of hours in the library there. I remember one afternoon reading through several of the original Wizard of Oz series, and another afternoon I found the section where all the Caldecott picture books were kept and went through pages and pages of different artists with different visual styles from so many years past. We also spent time in the BYU bookstore. I distinctly remember my mother telling me that you didn’t have to count money spent on books—you could always buy a book if you wanted it.
My brother and I had a lot of time and space to roam as children—much more than we give our children now, which is a topic of discussion and interest to those who study creativity and child psychology. We would spend time on our own at our family cabin, where we could drink impure water from streams and run into moose and fall out of trees (which we did), or play on our own at my father’s family farm, where we could be cut on rusty barbed wire and and shocked by electric fences (which we were). That space to play and risk and discover had a big impact on my own creative life. In the same way, were also allowed a lot of space to read.
As I look back on these parts of my childhood and what instilled a love of reading in me, three points stand out.
First, my that my parents encouraged us to own books—to have those physical objects that we chose for ourselves and that belonged to us. Libraries are great, and I love libraries too, but there is something magical about a bookstore. That you can go in and chose from among all the books the one that speaks to you. And then you take it home and keep it. It becomes a part of your world and a part of who you are. We teach something to children when we buy books for them. We teach them that books are worth spending money on. We teach them that books are important physical objects to have in our homes. And we teach them that books are permanent—that they are something we want to keep.
The second point is my parents encouraged us to spend a great deal of private, quiet time alone with books. We could read as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted. I was never told to go to bed or turn off the light or not to stay up late reading a book. I remember reading the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books in the middle of the night, in a space that was so quiet and transcendent that it almost became sacred. Books became my own private space. They were a space out of the regular world and out of time. I could choose to go there to find safety, autonomy, and solace.
Finally, looking back, I think it was important that all books were valued. My parents didn’t make value judgments about what we wanted to read. My brother was a big comic book reader. We spent time as a family in comic book stores, and I learned to love Spiderman and Batman and the Hulk because my brother loved them. When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to read Nancy Drew mysteries. My parents didn’t tell me Nancy Drew wasn’t good writing, or that I should be reading the classics, or not let me buy a Nancy Drew book but force me to choose another book that they thought would be better for me. They let me choose what to buy and what to read.
I work a few days a month at The King’s English Bookshop, and this is something we talk about a lot. That any reading a child wants to do is good reading. Any reading is reading that will make them bond to books. I have to remind myself of that when my step-daughter wants to keep reading the Warrior Cats books. I want to give her Harriet the Spy, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The War that Saved My Life. And I do. I do give her those books. But she is still most excited about talking, fighting cats with special spy names and that is okay. I am trying to make a reader out of her, and once she is a reader, she will grow and explore and find all sorts of books with worlds and private spaces of her own.
When you think about wanting to teach your children to love literature, there are so many things you can do. Read to them from the time they are born. Read out loud to them and let them read out loud to you. Let them see you spending time reading your own books too. Take your children to libraries; take them to bookstores. Buy books for them—let them own books that they choose for themselves. Give your children time and space to explore and think—both physically in the world and intellectually and emotionally in books. And, finally, value whatever it is they want to read. If you do, their love of books will only grow and deepen. And once you make readers of your children, they will be readers for a lifetime.