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.