Here’s a big question for you, one I’ve considered often in the past as I prepared for my future career: beyond the individual desire for a parent to have his/her child grow up to be a skilled reader, what is the good of reading with children?
I was reflecting earlier today on a book I read for an assignment in library school. The assignment was to select and present a book to the class as you’d present it to a storytime group of young children, and the book I chose was Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy. It’s the story of a tree frog who wants to be loved and admired by children, until they capture him and put him in a terrarium. There, he lives in fear of loud voices, fingers tapping on the glass, and the messy conditions in the prison that keeps him away from his beloved natural habitat.
I chose that story because it’s full of great lessons about gratitude, and when it’s better to blend in than stand out, and how being resourceful can get you out of a tough scrape. I also chose it because it’s illustrated beautifully and vividly, and because animals seem pretty fascinating to kids. Who doesn’t remember chasing frogs?
But I think the most valuable thing about the story is how easy it is to relate to Gummytoes the frog – to his desires to be noticed, his discomfort once he’s kidnapped, and his relief at returning to the wild. Even though the reader probably isn’t a frog, it isn’t hard to imagine what that would be like . . . and maybe on the next visit to the pet store or the zoo, she’ll think twice before tapping on the aquarium glass.
Imagination is the key to compassion. You can’t feel for someone else’s pain unless you can imagine what it’s like to have that pain yourself. If reading promotes imagination, it necessarily promotes compassion. Imagining yourself in some other situation – whether as an astronaut, a ballerina, a big sister, or a tree frog – leads to considering whether you’d like or dislike what’s happening to you. And that consideration leads to compassion, which at bottom is an understanding that somebody else is in a situation that would make you yourself unhappy.
Do books always need to have a lesson? I think not, and sometimes trying to force a lesson into a story where it doesn’t belong can make it a less attractive piece of literature. It’s a loss that isn’t worth the trouble. Children are always learning; as long as a story isn’t lauding bad values, a little kid doesn’t need to have good ones rammed down his throat. He’ll learn.
But the one value that a story must always have is compassion, because it’s necessary to making a story worth reading. If we don’t have compassion for the characters, if we can’t imagine and feel for their suffering, why should we care about what’s happening to them? The entire experience of reading is based on the idea of taking an interest in others’ circumstances and finding out more about them. Without compassion, the response to any possible piece of reading material is inevitably, “So what?”
The more you read, it seems to me, the more you care about other people’s situations. For one, you learn more about how other people live their lives, and you’re exposed to situations you might never have considered. But also, you learn to put yourself in another’s shoes and hope for a good outcome, and identify with their pain if they get a bad one instead. That calls for imagination. And in a world where imagination is in short supply, compassion can’t survive. Reading with children is good for the world, society, and the future. And not just because good readers get into good schools and get good jobs.
They also get to be good people.