A young son unwraps the gift of reading

My older son, Alyosha, age 16, is not a reader. When he was little, I had hopes that he would be, and he certainly gave some indications of an interest in books. Once, when he was 8 and we were visiting a used bookstore, he found a $5 bill wedged in the very first book he pulled off the shelf. The proprietor told him to keep it, and Alyosha left the store, clutching the volume to his chest, proclaiming, "I love books!"

Alas, he soon learned that books do not ordinarily contain cash, and his interest in reading began to wane. Today he remains a lovely, decent person with a magnetic personality, but if one were to shackle a book to his leg, he would wear it until it fell apart with no thought to taking a peek inside.

This whole topic of children and books has sparked volumes of commentaries and studies. Why do some kids have a desperate hunger for reading and others feel nothing for the printed page? It has been suggested that it is a matter of parenting: If parents are readers, then their children will emulate them.

I don't think it's quite that simple. As a teacher, I've had students from homes bereft of books, and these kids are voracious readers. Similarly, I have taught the children of college professors and writers, children who approach books with the same unease and caution with which they regard poison ivy. So why be coy? I believe that a "sense" of books is largely innate, like an affinity for music, art, or math. Parents can encourage the interest, but they cannot create it.

I often think of a boy who grew up in my community, the son of friends. He was in the unusual position of having parents who tried to dampen his reading habits because they felt he read too much. At night, after lights out, he would huddle under his covers with a flashlight, reading and rereading volumes until 2 or 3 in the morning. On one occasion, he read until daybreak and still was not sated.

In truth, this is a challenging age for kids and reading. There are so many competing influences, all of them visual: computers, video games, movies, arcades.... For this reason, we celebrate the child who makes books his companions the way we cheer on the swimmer who prevails against the tide.

UNTIL recently, I had to accept the reality of my being the only reader in the house. Alyosha had cast his lot solidly with athletics (at which he excels) and the teenage social scene. Then, this past autumn, we adopted a little boy, a 5-year-old from Ukraine.

With no knowledge or feel for his likes and dislikes, talents or desires, I brought Anton home almost exclusively on the basis of his soulful eyes. But somewhere in the back of my mind I was certain that he'd had little or no contact with books. I knew there had been precious few in his orphanage. Lo and behold, his craving for books is "there." Almost from the time of his arrival, Anton began to paw at the volumes on my shelves, remarking in Russian at the pictures, running his little index finger over indecipherable words.

When he began kindergarten, he immediately started carting books home from school (and received his first "overdue" notice two weeks later – I was so proud!). He will not go to sleep unless I read to him, and even after that task is done, he sits up, sometimes for one or two hours, paging, paging, paging like a budding proofreader.

But, like the parents of the boy under the bed covers, do I have too much of a good thing on my hands?

Anton recently asked me to buy him a "talking" book, "Aladdin." Throughout the text are icons (a magic lamp, Aladdin, the sultan, a flying carpet) that relate to sound buttons on a side panel. When one encounters an icon in the text, one pushes the appropriate button for the tinny sound effect. This book has proved so alluring to Anton that he has asked for it every night – for two weeks now.

After 13 readings of "Aladdin," I decided to abridge it a little. When we got to the lamp icon for the fifth time, I skipped it. Big mistake. Anton's keen eye had caught me. He insisted I go back and do it right, yelling "Nyet! Lamp! Lamp!"

I realized that I was now as much a prisoner of this book as the genie is of his lamp. Only there seemed to be no magic that could set me free. Alyosha must have sensed my loss of enthusiasm. Last night, as he watched me reluctantly pull the volume from its shelf, he interceded. "I'll read to him, Dad," he said as he took the book from my hands.

As I relaxed downstairs with one of my own titles, I paused for a moment and listened as Alyosha's reading was punctuated by Anton's pecking away at the sound-effect icons. Every so often both boys would laugh. This was Anton's 15th time through "Aladdin," but it was the first book Alyosha had read in ages. It struck me that this could be the start of something wonderful. Maybe there is magic after all.

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