Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

Stefan Dziemianowicz

It’s probably a sign of just how nerdy I was as a kid–or how indulgent my parents were–that I couldn’t think of anything else to spend my allowance on but books (except, maybe, magazines).

Karen Lord

But that’s exactly why she started giving me the book allowance. I was spending all my money on books rather than chocolate or movies. Afterwards, I was able to spend money on books AND chocolate and movies, which was brilliant.

I have such fond memories of how many books that $20 (US$10) could buy back in the late 70s and early 80s. And it may be nostalgia, but I swear the bookstores had a better range. Or perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the glories of Nostalgia has hit hard in other ways. Rather than buying new books, I’ve been replacing battered copies of old favourites (this has not worked well in some cases. I’ve dumped two replacements for poor editing, and sometimes I dislike the new covers), and my next project is to get the French originals of the English translations I’ve read.

Cecelia Holland

My parents read and read to me when I was little, although my mother actually often would try to pry me out of a book to go out and play with other kids, which she (social madwoman she was) considered more healthy. I read to all my kids and they read to their kids, with varying results. my oldest grandchild, 10, started reading last year and now plows through book after book.

We moved into a house when I was 10 where the previous owner had left a huge number of old books, maybe hundreds. Before then I had mostly read comics. That was when I really started in.

Karen Lord

Almost forgot! My mother also made sure to take me to the public library, and the children’s section was well stocked with science fiction and fantasy. I was truly sorry when I turned twelve and had to leave it behind. The adult library wasn’t half as interesting.

Gardner Dozois

My mother read what were then known as “bodice rippers”–“historical novels” with mildly salacious scenes, stuff like Edison Marshal’s The Vikings and Yankee Pasha.  My father read nothing.  There were few books around the house, other than the bodice rippers, which I usually never read.  Somehow I became an avid reader anyway, finding my way eventually from stuff like The Jungle Book (still one of my favorites) to horse and dog books, like those of Albert Payston Terhune and Walter Farley, into boy’s adventure books (Rick Brant, Tom Swift, Tom Corbett), and from there eventually into science fiction and fantasy.

I think I learned to like reading in spite of there not being a lot of books around the house because my mother read to me a lot.  A very early memory is her reading collections of old Pogo comic strips to me aloud–I realized long afterward that almost all the political satire had gone over her head, but she read them to me anyway, and since she tried to replicate the comic Deep South dialect while herself having a very heavy working class New England accent (something I didn’t realize at the time, of course, having one myself), the results must have been enough to make a cat laugh; I’d dearly love to have a tape.

One thing I can say with fair certainty:  If you want your kid to enjoy reading, teach them to read long before they start school.  I took an informal survey at a Milford Workshop once, and every single writer there had learned to read before starting school; later surveys of Clarion classes would seem to support this.  I myself learned to read several years before starting Kindergarten, which meant that I was sometimes bored later on–but I doubt that I’d be a writer or an editor today if I hadn’t, since a love of reading has to be planted early.  Schools will actively try to discourage you from teaching your children to read before they start into the formal school system, but they’re tragically wrong.  There’s a “language acquisition” window that opens early in the plastic young brain, and which makes learning to read much easier; wait until the window has closed, as the schools insist that you do, and it becomes much harder.

Needless to say, there were lots of books around the house when my son was growing up, and he eventually learned to like reading, more in spite of what the school system could do (see previous Roundtable) than because of it.  There’s not that many books around his own house, and perhaps as a result, my grandchildren “hate reading” because “it’s so boring.”  I might also recommend limiting their online/Facebook/Twitter/computer game/television time until they’re old enough to deal with it better.

Stacie Hanes

I don’t really know, except they must have been enablers. I still own a book about dinosaurs that my mother tells me I picked out at the bookstore when I was three; she tells me she read it to me and I corrected her pronunciation. Ergo, she took me to bookstores at an early age, let me have what I wanted, and read to me. And I evidently taught myself to read.

There were sf books around. I have my father’s copies of Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, Battlefield Earth, and Earth Abides. Mom read romances and (I assume) other stuff. There were loads of Readers Digest Condensed Books, and I remember being highly irked when I found out there were bits missing, but I read a LOT of mysteries in those, like Dorothy Gilman and Dick Francis, and humor like Irma Bombeck and Jean Kerr, and a few romances by people like Victoria Holt. Mom was more than willing to take me to the library.

So, they didn’t push it on me, but it was obvious almost from toddlerhood that they weren’t going to need to. I lived in Tennessee, so I got outside plenty (bikes, trees, fishing, camping, you name it) but I read everything.

I have to encourage my son to read as much as I would like, and he still doesn’t, and I have to try not to cross the line into discouraging him by overload. But he’s liked some of what I’ve give him, and he’s excited about coming to ICFA with me, so he’s keen on the ideas.

Gary K. Wolfe

My father, like Gardner’s, never read anything that I’m aware of, and on occasion would grumble that I ought to be outside playing ball instead of burying my nose in a book. My mother, on the other hand, had a number of books around the house, mostly given to her by her sister, who was an avid reader (and who had the money to buy them). I think she was attracted to fairly salacious-looking paperbacks, but since just about all paperbacks back then tried to look as salacious as they could manage, this eventually led her from Erskine Caldwell (who I was told I could not read) to some of Faulkner’s more popular titles like Sartoris or Intruder in the Dust.  I may have picked up those books at some point, but didn’t finish them until years later.

Our public library was one of those small, stately Carnegie libraries of the sort Bradbury always writes about. There was a small selection of SF there, but I soon exhausted it and staged various tantrums until my dad agreed to let me pick out books from the adult section, though the only one I remember is a volume of Poe stories.  I discovered SF through used paperback exchanges and spin racks in drugstores, starting with Bradbury and Lovecraft and moving on to Clarke, Asimov, and eventually Heinlein.  My reading program was pretty much determined by what showed up on those spin racks.

I’ve occasionally tried reading to the grandkids, but the only real success I had was with Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls, which three or four of them practically memorized, and with some of Jane Yolen’s dinosaur books, which they were initially interested in simply because she was a friend.  Later on a few of them moved on to Lemony Snicket or Jeff Kinney, but most seem to have drifted away, not seeing their parents or their friends spending much time with books.

4 thoughts on “Roundtable: Formative Reading Experiences (Part I)

  • November 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

    My parents, wisely, wanted to know what I was reading fell in certain parameters. I don’t have issues with them not wanting me exposed to a lot of sex or foul language at a certain age, because I know I wasn’t ready to handle that stuff like most kids and I think parents have a responsibility as do teachers and others. I would certainly handle it the same way with my kids. What we write and what people read has influence and impact on behavior. It’s undeniable not just based on studies, but based on my own experience. Books influenced me extensively in how I viewed the world, things I said, how I acted, my desires, etc., so now, as an author myself, I take seriously my responsibility to write with care. I don’t believe in gratuitous uses of things but that they really must serve the story. Shock value isn’t enough to me. Nor is rage at the gatekeepers. That’s my own approach, I realize not everyone agrees. I self-censor even now what I expose myself too. Things that are too salacious turn me off. So I think it’s only responsible parenting to do that for kids. What I find a bit disappointing is that every August-September and January you go to bookstores and see the same 15 books labelled classics prominently displayed because kids are being asked to read those same books that I read. Ok, there are some great, not to be missed books on that list but who’s to say a lot of great, more contemporary authors whom kids might more readily relate to can’t serve the same purpose? With reading going down in popularity, particularly amongst boys, I think it’s ridiculous to not make an effort to get kids excited about reading by encouraging it however we can. More effort needs to be made to find books people are excited about and get them to read them. Even if they aren’t for credit. For example, I’ve heard of schools giving 5 minutes a day to read whatever you want. That’s a great start. I personally think 15-30 min would be better, but hey, school days are limited with curriculum demands, I get that. But certainly a mix of assigned and freely chosen for fun books would help encourage reading for many students as well. Lots of possibilities. Teachers should be created and be able to do so.

  • November 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    I grew up with my mother reading to me until I was old enough to read for myself. I was precocious so I was reading adult adventure books from the age of seven onwards, e.g. Sax Rohmer, Dornford Yates, Sapper, and so on. Early in the 1950s I discovered SF, fantasy and horror, and never looked back. It’s been a life happily misspent and, of course, I blame my mother.

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