by Paul Maguire
In my home, bedtime is a big production.
The process begins around 7:15, when my wife
and I initiate the nightly routine that involves preparing our two young sons for bed. After bathing, putting on pj’s, brushing teeth, perhaps a little random monkeying around, and prayers, their heads finally hit the pillows a little after 8PM. Then comes the icing on the cake… for the kids and for Mom and Dad… story time.
My wife Coleen is usually partial to reading a story to the boys. She approaches the activity with an animated style and an infectious enthusiasm that has branded our children with a fascination with reading, and an unbridled curiosity about the multitude of wonderful stories that books open up.
I prefer telling stories of my own invention over reading aloud. At story time, my sons make plot requests. They started out easy: “a farmer discovers that his animals have learned to talk,” and “a boy learns how to fly”… things like that. Then, at around the age of six, my older son started to challenge me with more complicated suggestions. One evening he threw me this pitch: “Daddy, tell me an Indiana Jones story with knights and castles in it.”I was surprised by how quickly the basic premise came to me. Indiana Jones takes two seventh graders, Bob and Joe, to an archaeological dig in a remote part of England. They discover an enchanted crown that transports them back nearly seven centuries to a medieval village which is, unbeknownst to its citizens, headed for a devastating war with a neighboring community. Indy and the boys soon realize that they had been taken back in time by the wizard Merlin, and only they have the means to rescue the village from its dreadful fate.
There was a lot of story there, and there was no way I could cram it all in to one thirty-minute storytelling session. I told parts of the story one evening at a time, and when it was time to say good night, my utterance of the dreaded phrase, “to be continued” was met with howls of protest from my sons. But the plot evolved nicely, sometimes taking twists and turns that not even I had anticipated. When it was finally time to bring Indy, Bob, and Joe back to the present, I plopped them into another conflict, this time in present-day Asia. Soon, I had them exploring the globe and getting into all sorts of dicey situations along the way. My sons were hooked on the story. I knew it was time to start writing it down.
The first thing I had to do was change some names. Indiana Jones became Professor Fielding Atlas, Bob and Joe became Tyler and Brandon, and Merlin became Mercastus. The crown became a dagger. Some details were added, and others were simply fleshed out. Then, new plot developments just started falling neatly into place. I was soon writing for four or five hours at a time, and growing increasingly excited about what I was creating. I emailed drafts to my friends and siblings who had young readers at home, requesting only that they didn’t reveal that I was the author (I actually supplied them with a pen name, Jonathan Hawke, on the title page just to throw them off!). The “test audience” responded with extremely positive commentary, most expressing impatience over when the next installment would arrive. Finally the finished product, a novel called Professor Atlas and the Summoning Dagger, was published in July 2011.
The process was at once challenging, educational, and exhilarating. One aspect that really boosted my excitement for the project was the fact that my “testers” --- my own sons and the children of my friends and family --- were reading with such unbridled enthusiasm. They were simply given access to the pages and they started reading, without their parents having to get on their cases to do so. They were reading for the sheer enjoyment of the activity and let me tell you, that lit one heck of a fire in my belly.
When considering the effect of contemporary popular literature on young people’s reading habits, one’s mind is inevitably drawn to the remarkably inventive Harry Potter series. On a personal level, I witnessed my own son devour six of these seven wonderful books (so far) within a space of seven months, and he hasn’t even reached his eighth birthday. He is not alone: millions of children across the globe have been tearing through books well beyond their expected reading levels, thanks to the gift of J.K. Rowling’s captivating tales. Harry Potter made reading “cool” --- even indispensable --- among very young people from all different cultures. According to a study by Scholastic, Harry Potter’s American publisher, 51% of Potter fans never read “for fun” before encountering the series, and 65% of the young readers reported that their general performance in the classroom had improved as a result of their exposure to this “leisure” reading.
The U.S. Department of Education has backed this up with its finding that students’ reading scores rose in direct correlation to the level of their interest in reading for fun. The Department also asserted that in a study of fourth-graders, reading scores are a jaw-dropping 74 points higher among children whose parents are involved with their reading habits at home as opposed to those whose parents have less such involvement. 65% of children whose parents encourage them to read will go through more than ten books a year. And according to the National Institute for Literacy, children are almost twice as likely to score in the top 25% in reading if they are read to at least three times a week at an early age.
Among the many statistics like these that highlight the value of reading for fun in the early developmental years, there are even more figures about the dramatic impact one’s literacy skills have on one’s quality of life. Study after study has shown conclusively that a leading factor in one’s personal and professional success is reading proficiency. Those who are functionally illiterate are overwhelmingly more likely to live below the poverty line, and will find it immensely more challenging to secure meaningful employment. Aside from all this, important tasks like reading medication labels or roadway warning signs are out of the illiterate person’s reach.
In short, the activity of reading to a young child or otherwise promoting an interest in books profoundly influences the course of that child’s life going forward. If you are reading this article, it’s likely that you are a parent who already understands the value of reading with your children. Your children are among those who will have access to the vast benefits of literacy. I would encourage you to not only keep the flow of new books in your home as steady as possible, but also to support the cause of literacy at large. The work done by agencies which open up the world of reading for children in impoverished and disadvantaged homes provides a vast improvement to countless, precious lives.
Paul Maguire is an author, father, and former Wall Street trader. His book, Professor Atlas and the Summoning Dagger is available in paperback and ebook forms at PaulMaguireAuthor.com , at Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, and at fine bookstores everywhere.
Posted October 2011