How (Not) to Win at Reading by Lisa Graff
When I was very young, I eyed thick books the way I imagine climbers eye Mount Everest—as something to be conquered. Smart people, I had deduced, read long, important books, and more than anything I wanted to win at reading. In third grade, while my classmates (the suckers) were reading Frog and Toad Are Friends and Amelia Bedelia, I was tackling the largest book on my mother’s bookshelf: Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
Oh, what glee I felt at writing down that title on my third-grade reading log each evening!
I spent several weeks with Ishmael and his buddies, diligently reading my fifteen minutes a day, before my mother posed a cautious question.
“Do you like this book?” she asked me.
I found the question absurd. Of course I didn’t like Moby Dick. I had no idea what it was about. But as far as I was concerned, “liking” and “understanding” were irrelevant. What mattered was that the book was enormous and difficult.
Melville and I soon parted ways, much to my shame. If reading big, important books was for smart people, I figured, then I wasn’t smart. I had lost the battle, and so I washed my hands of reading for good.
This might have been the end of story, if not for a guest at my birthday party a year later, who gave me the book that would change my life: The Baby-sitters Club #25: Mary Anne and the Search for Tigger.
Never had I felt so connected to a character, so enthralled by a story. Ishmael had nothing on these baby-sitters.
Over the next few years, I devoured every Baby-sitters Club book I could find, sometimes reading two a day. I could tell you anything about the girls from Stoneybrook, from who had the dreamiest boyfriend (Mary Anne), to which baby-sitter dotted her i’s with hearts (Stacy). Were the books great literature? No, sir. Did I adore them? Indeed I did.
I once overheard a friend of my mother’s fretting that I was far too smart for such books, and that I shouldn’t be reading them. To which my mother, the librarian, replied simply, “Reading is reading. When Lisa is ready, she’ll move on.”
I did move on. After I’d exhausted the baby-sitters, I found other stories. Books by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, Agatha Christie, Louisa May Alcott. In high school I would turn to “important” literature again—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Candide,Sophie’s World—but this time I was reading because I wanted to, not because it made me feel smarter. At last, I’d discovered the truth about reading.
It should be fun.
It doesn’t take fine literature to hook a kid for life. Sometimes the books that make grown-ups scoff are the very books that children are desperate to gobble up. But after they gobble up those books, if we’re really lucky, they’ll ask, “More?”
And that’s when you know you’ve won.
LISA GRAFF is the author of A Tangle of Knots, Double Dog Dare, Umbrella Summer, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, The Thing about Georgie, and Sophie Simon Solves Them All. A former children’s book editor, she’s now a full-time writer and adjunct professor. Originally from California, she lived for many years in New York City and now makes her home just outside Philadelphia. You can visit her online at www.LisaGraff.com and on Twitter as @.