THE MYTH OF THE RELUCTANT READER by Aaron Becker
I have a confession. I did not read books when I was a kid. Of course, there was the time in 5th grade that I conspicuously placed A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson on my desk, but that brief brush with literature was meant only to impress the two bookish girls in my class that I liked (one of whom is now a children’s writer but I’m not telling who!). Other kids were skateboarding to look the part. I was pretending to read books.
It’s not that I wasn’t surrounded by these bound bits of paper. My professorial parents lined our living room with volumes of fiction and non-fiction to quickly pull off the shelf if my sister and I needed help with our homework. I was a good student. Valedictorian even. But reading was something I only did when someone made me. Not because I didn’t like stories or because I was lazy. I just found reading excruciatingly tough. I would get to the end of a paragraph only to realize that I had no idea what I had just read. I would start again with determined focus to grasp the words. Still, nothing.
As an author of children’s literature, I am often in a position to speak about reading and the great influence it has had on my life. And I’m always a bit embarrassed when I cannot name a favorite author. A favorite character. A favorite book.
As it turns out, I did have a favorite book. It was The Art of Star Wars by Carol Titelman. A book about the making of a movie. It had words and I read all of them. I devoured its contents so many times its seams came undone; its pages falling out each time I picked the pictured pages up for another look. I would trace the images of spaceships and costumes and pour over its descriptions of film design again and again. I was searching for a clue. An answer. But to what? And if reading was so difficult for me, why was I able to focus on the words in this book?
It’s worth noting that I wasn’t reading the Star Wars storybook. Nor was I collecting Star Wars comics. I was reading a book about how a group of people, on this very planet, made something. And not just any-old-something. But a story – an epic one that had touched something deep inside of me. It was the myth I had been waiting for: the adventure; the hero’s journey to marvelous places beyond the looking glass. And this book seemed to hold an answer as to how this feeling was created. Created out of thin air. I wanted to know how.
We all need a way “in” to the stories that find us. For me it wasn’t words. Words were a source of stress, not escape. My mind couldn’t settle on a good book long enough to get there, but images… images were instantaneous. And my brain was wired for them.
There’s a reason I make wordless picture books. I remember when I sat down to write Journey, I sketched out a series of small thumbnail “storyboards” just as I had when I worked as an artist in the film industry. When I went to add the text, I was amazed to find that I’d already done the work. There weren’t any words left to put down – the pictures had written them all.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like words. I really do. I wish I could like them even more, but perhaps my brain was built for something else. My hope in sharing all of this is that if you have a child in your life that has been labeled “a reluctant reader” that you understand this: we are all a bit different when it comes to how we find the stories that will come to define our understanding of the world. I would stress that what’s most important is not that a child learns to love to read, but that a child learns to love story itself. After all, what are we talking about when we talk about the importance of nurturing a love for reading? Is it an academic need? An intellectual one? I don’t think so. It’s about developing empathy by means of immersion in story. By placing ourselves in a character’s clothing we find common threads between ourselves and the world. These tales mirror and give us access to our deepest, inner aspirations.
We all need a way in. For children like the one I was a long time ago, it’s not words but pictures that can take them to that place – a place full of wonder and enchantment in a galaxy not so very far away.
Born in Baltimore, Aaron Becker moved to California to attend Pomona College where he scored his first illustration job designing t-shirts for his water polo team. Since then, he’s traveled to Kenya, Japan, Sweden, and Tahiti backpacking around while looking for good things to eat and feeding his imagination. He now lives with his family in Amherst, MA where he’s busy at work on his next book project. You can find out more about what he’s been up to lately at storybreathing.com.
Thank you for writing this thought provoking piece. This is my son in article form, and you have now both reassured me, as well as suggested a method of engaging my own child in story. Why didn’t I think of this? Love it and thank you so very much for sharing.
We are voracious readers and my 4 year olds book collection now rivals my own. We have many books we love like The Paperbag Princess and The Fantastoc Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore but nothing is chosen to read quite as often as Journey, Quest and Return. Hands down one of our favorite stories. My daughter gets to read them to guests. He favorite part is to make them speculate what the characters are drawing before turning the page. We’ve take to buying them as gifts for her friends! Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping inspire her to read, to imagine, and to draw. You’ve given us a both wonderful memories of time spent snuggled up with a book and filled our heads with the best, most exciting adventures. Like Sat Wars, I hope you create another 3 to accompany your original trilogy.
Thanks for this wonderful post…not only does it make a good point, but I love seeing images from people’s childhoods–family photos as well as creations (doesn’t everybody always flip to the glossy photo inserts in biographies and memoirs first?). And it comes right on the heels of my reading the new Garth Williams biography…in which I recall (oh darn, wish I’d actually written down) a child was quoted as saying the words in a picture book are there for people who can’t understand the pictures.
YES! THIS! I *was* that kid who devoured novels growing up (and as an adult, I’m still that kid) — but THIS is why I will ALWAYS be a huge advocate and lover of picture books and graphic novels and wordless picture books!
As an aside, one of my favorite books that came out a couple years ago was IN THE SHADOWS by Kiersten White & Jim Di Bartolo. The book was told in alternating chapters — one chapter of traditional prose written by Kiersten, and then one chapter of illustrations (no text whatsoever) “written” and illustrated by Jim. It’s gorgeous & so unique & so cool. I have a hard time explaining it to people, but Jim’s chapters tell such vivid stories without once using a single word!
Reblogged this on Michelle Eastman Books and commented:
There is hope for our reluctant readers…
Thank you for this. I have a child who loves stories but hates to read.
Wonderful posts. I am struggling with a student that is so visual but doesn’t get the words. I loved Journey. There were so many layers and each time I read it to my class I found layers that I missed on the last reading. To
Neat point of view! 🙂
Love this. I have two kids who love stories, but not reading. Thank you for the reminder that they have the important thing down.
That was so well said. Stories are stories whether written in lines across the page or told around a hearth. We all deserve a chance to be absorbed in/by a story. Thanks!!
This: “After all, what are we talking about when we talk about the importance of nurturing a love for reading? Is it an academic need? An intellectual one? I don’t think so. It’s about developing empathy by means of immersion in story.” So much yes! Thank you for the great post!
Yes, Absolutely. I found my way in with natural history books, pouring over the images of bird’s eggs, frog spawn and the marvels of microscopic pond life – couldn’t wait to get my own microscope. All those latin names that meant nothing but sounded like poetry – I was bottom of the class in Latin as well as English. But I loved story would listen and draw along forever – loved listen with mother on the radio and grew up with BBC radio plays and book readings. I still go for a good story well told – Literary fiction just doesn’t do it for me. I need to hear a voice and poetry in the voice, I’f I’m going to face all those words. When the words jump about on the page and insist on changing their meaning now and then, reading a big book can be daunting.
Great story behind your glorious wordless picture books!
Thanks Nerdy Book Club for the opportunity to share this and to all of the readers and bloggers I’ve heard from since. ❤️
This is wonderful! You continue to inspire and open the doors to imagination, curiosity, and meaning.
That’s awesome advice. I have one child who can’t stop reading and two who needs encouraging.
I completely agree with the sentiment about the love of story rather than just the love of books. I was a huge reader as a kid, but I was equally influenced by TV shows I was so incredibly passionate about. Now that I’m a writer, I’d say I’ve learned some of the most valuable story-telling techniques from TV writing. I’m very intrigued by a picture book with no words! I’m excited to check it out!
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Wonderful re-blog today — a solution, a Real one, a Simple one, for those kids who have trouble reading words but love stories…
Fascinating blog. I am used to telling people their child could be a visual learner or an auditory learner or a doing it learner or a mix but I hadn’t thought about how stories could be enjoyed purely in pictures, except, of course, comics which I used to devour as a kid and which I used to encourage dyslexics to try.
As for one book that was read over and over again until I almost knew every word -for me that was Treasure Island.