What will my kids read this summer? I'm pretending not to care

An unspoken rule of our annual start-of-summer literary field trip is that there will be no fatherly homilies on the 'Importance of Reading.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
In this Nov. 30, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha, center, and Malia, pays for his purchase the the local bookstore Politics and Prose in northwest Washington. Like Obama, the author of this blog likes to take occasional 'literary fieldtrips' with his children.

For years now, our family has started summer the same way – by going to the neighborhood bookstore, where my wife and I let our son and daughter buy what they’d like. For the nine months of the year when school is in session, our children spend much  of their time on assigned reading, tackling texts because they  have to, not because they want to.

Our first trip of the season to the bookstore, which has sometimes happened within hours of the final school bell, is a way to say that a chapter of the year has turned – that our reading lives have been liberated once more, reclaimed as our own. I guess our tradition is also the way I tell my son and daughter that even though school is over, their connection to books should continue.

But I’d never say that out loud. An unspoken rule of our literary field trip is that there will be no fatherly homilies on the Importance of Reading. I want this outing to be an excursion, not an eat-your-vegetables exercise in self-improvement.

There are a few other rules, too. Unless asked, I will make no book recommendations. That’s a hard thing for a man who makes part of his living as a book reviewer. But if there’s any suggestion that I’m leading my offspring by the nose to some Dad-approved title, they’ll feel as if they’re back in the classroom.

Another rule: Each shopper gets an allowance, negotiated ahead of time, to budget as he or she would like. I was tempted to bend on that principle when my kids were smaller, each one arriving at the cash register with a budget-busting armful of books. What could be more endearing than a kid that interested in reading? But I held firm, forcing the young ones to make hard choices about what they’d like to purchase, what they’d decide – reluctantly – to return to the shelf. Perhaps it’s better to learn sooner rather than later that reading is always about choices – namely, the question of how we’re going to spend limited time, money, or attention on the limitless options publishers keep throwing at us. Those hard decisions dramatize reading as a form of romance, forcing us to risk something in the hope that we’ve chosen well – that the book in our hand will make us fall in love all over again. In nudging my son and daughter to choose one book and not another, I guess I’ve been trying to plant the seed of what every reader should have: a critical eye, the ability to sort the literary wheat from the prosaic chaff.

If all of this sounds a little high-minded, suffice it to say that many of the things my son and daughter have hauled home from our summer bookstore trips were decidedly down-to-earth. The biggest rule of our family shopping trip is that I won’t criticize the purchases; the kids won’t learn what they really like, I figured, unless they’re given the freedom to choose for themselves.

I bit my lip one summer when my son, a precocious reader who was tackling senior-level high school texts although he was still in middle school, nevertheless came to the register with the latest “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book. It was literary snack food – the kind of thing my son could polish off as quickly as a bag of potato chips – but he was in the mood to be frivolous, so I kept quiet.

One summer, my daughter decided to blow her book budget on celebrity gossip magazines, and I remained silent then, too, resigned to the reality that sometimes, even one’s reading life cannot escape the Kardashians.

There came another summer, not long afterward, when my daughter browsed and bought nothing at all. Now in college across town from us, she doesn’t read as much for pleasure as she used to – a big trend for members of her generation, as numerous studies have pointed out.

But at the suggestion of a career counselor who recently mentioned that reading for fun can reap big dividends later on, our daughter has decided to indulge in a beach novel or two this summer.

Soon, she’ll be joining our son, now 15, as we head to the bookstore and officially open the family summer reading season.

As in previous years, I will try to keep my comments to myself.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is also an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum magazine.                         

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