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Who Will Read Bedtime Tales?

By Jim BencivengaJim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. / November 2, 1990



HERE'S a loaded question: Who is more likely to read bedtime stories to his children sometime early in the next century - Bart Simpson of the animated TV show ``The Simpsons,'' or Calvin, the tiger-fantasizing six-year-old of the comic strip ``Calvin and Hobbes''? School holds all the appeal of a toxic-waste dump for Calvin and Bart. Try to imagine these spike-haired marauders sitting in a high school English class in the year 2000. Each perpetuates the American love affair with antiheroes. Each projects the next generation's poor attitude about school into the millenium.

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Calvin and Bart bug their parents no end. But a key difference lies in what their parents are doing when their kids antagonize them. As often as not, Calvin's mom is reading a book, his father a newspaper. Homer and Marge, Bart's folks, are watching TV.

However great his resistance, Calvin knows that adults read. His father even reads him bedtime stories. Bart will have difficulty imagining such an endeavor. He fights with his father over who gets the TV remote-control.

Research funded by the United States Department of Education makes plain that dinner-table conversation is a critical ingredient in developing the verbal imagination of young children, an essential building block for success in reading. All effort by a school to support and encourage reading can prove futile if a child never sees a parent, book in hand, reading and discussing the ideas.

There are three critical periods in which children make or break reading habits: as toddlers, if parents read out loud to them; as elementary pupils, when schools shift from picture books to textbooks; as young teens in junior high, when books can help a child navigate the new world of adolescence.

We read about Calvin in our newspapers. We watch Bart on our TV sets. Any doubts as to who has made greater inroads into the psyche of today's youth? When they grow up, publishers will mail book-club applications to Calvin; videotape clubs will profile Bart in 30-second spots.

Who is more likely to read bedtime stories to his children? Cool Calvin has it all over bad Bart.