“Mom, I’m bored!” I whined. This was something that often came out of my mouth. Being the youngest of five children, born five years apart from the fourth child, I often had to stay on the sidelines because I was too young to join my older siblings.
My mother’s response every time I said I was bored, was, “If you’re bored, read a book.” To some this might seem like a punishment. It might come across as bad parenting—but just know my mother did read to me at bedtime and with me quite often in my teen years. She also modeled reading as a part of her everyday life.
I often saw her at the desk in her bedroom, highlighter in hand, reading her Bible or a book. If you looked at her Bible, you might wonder if she enrolled in seminary. In the margins she’d scribble notes and whole passages would be neon yellow. In brand new novels, she’d underline sentences, and fold the corners of pages that she wanted to revisit.
My mother interacted with the text. She asked it questions, talked back to it. She put exclamation marks and stars next to statements and scriptures she agreed with, question marks beside concepts she struggled with.
And so when she told me, “If you’re bored, read a book,” what she was telling me was go and question the world, expand your way of thinking, interact with something other than the people and things you know well and are comfortable with.
She knew that reading unlocks imagination, allows the reader to practice empathy. She knew reading would inspire me to write my own stories, because like my mother (and dare I presume most readers) as I read, I was thinking in the back of my mind, what would I do in this situation? How would I feel? And like my mother, who would sit on the porch with my aunt, fanning herself with a folded newspaper, retelling the story she’d just read but then adding her own critique or reflection or brand new ending, I too would relive the stories, re-enact them.
I was no longer bored.
I learned the principles of sharing and cooperation in the story The Little Red Hen. I became the feisty little Madeline, having adventures in Paris. I knew the same streets Ramona Quimby walked in Beverly Cleary’s books because I, too, lived in Portland, Oregon. I found myself praying the same prayer Margaret prayed in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And soon, I had a pencil in my hand and I was writing my own stories (my mother read each and every one).
When I teach creative writing as a writer-in-residence in public schools and community organizations, I tell my students, “I want you to learn how to read,” and I give them pens and highlighters and encourage them to underline phrases that stand out to them, highlight words that evoke strong feelings, ask the text a question, disagree, challenge it if they wish.
When my students are finished with the assignment and there’s time left in class, I ask them to take out a book and read. Most of the time, it’s a book they have to check out so they can’t mark it up, but I give them reading journals so they can take notes as they read. I want them to find quotes they can copy and memorize. I want them to see themselves in the verses of poems, to step out of their world and into someone else’s when they read a novel.
This is how I read. With different color highlighters and pens next to me, with an open notebook nearby so I can harvest words for inspiration. I read so that I am never bored, so that I am always full of wonder, always having someone to play with.
Renée Watson is the author of the children’s picture book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and the middle grade novel What Momma Left Me. Her most recent book is HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACKBIRD: The Story of Florence Mills.