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For The Love Of Books

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"Not mine,'' comes a voice from the back row.

"What's your favorite?'' the teacher valiantly asks.

"Slimer and the Ghostbusters!'' the 6-year-old calls out.

Story time is over.

"A book,'' Ezra Pound once said, "should be like a ball of light in the hands.'' But that 6-year-old, like too many other children, will probably never experience that light. The television flicker has him charmed.

Teachers and parents know that television is weakening our children's literacy and thereby jeopardizing our nation's future. But because the appeal of television is so powerful, we do more hand wringing than analysis. Consequently, we have no real strategy for changing things. There is a way, however, to win our children back to books. To do so, we must first clearly understand the source of television's power over children.

Children's TV programming is produced by extremely sophisticated people who are in touch with the inner lives of their viewers and know how to manipulate them. What do these "kidvid'' creators offer that we in schools do not? The answer is one word: fantasy.

The writers of children's television have taken to heart what child psychologists have known for a long time: Fantasy is a child's tool for working out fears and distresses. Take, for example, a miserable feeling all children experience--powerlessness. Even the most secure child is still woefully small in a world of adults. Fantasy lets a child confront feelings of powerlessness through play and imagination instead of simply being overwhelmed by those feelings.

Schools neglect the importance of fantasy in young children's lives. They prefer to treat pupils as young intellects, leaving the fantasy world to the writers of kidvid. Some members of the religious right even advocate the systematic abolition of all imaginative stories from our curriculum.

The second reason for television's tremendous power over our children is that it has an unparalleled, and seemingly unbeatable, ability to create and deliver a total sensory experience. Children's TV programs involve a type of fantasizing that is different from the kind children have always done in the past. Watching commercial television, children need to make absolutely no personal imaginative contribution. It's all done for them.

Books, too, hold out the promise of rich fantasy to children. But to experience this fantasy, they must first struggle through learning to read. Children now can get the satisfactions of fantasy without any work at all--supplied by people who want to sell them things and know exactly how to do it. Young children simply don't have any firsthand experiences that would cause them to believe that books could ever be as fulfilling as television.

To be sure, some children do learn of the joys books offer because they have been read to all their lives by their parents. But some studies estimate that 85 percent of children come to school "book-naive''; they are seldom or never read to. Whatever the exact figure, the overall trends are clear: There is less reading at home, more television watching, and declining literacy.

We desperately need to find a way of teaching our children to enjoy--to love-- books. We must start, as do the kidvid writers, with our knowledge of children's needs. Much depends on the books we select and the way we present them.

First, we must find special books to read to our children. These books should hold stories that respond to children's drive for sensation and power, mastery over threat, and winning out over fear. The classic and most eternal stories are often the best. How old are the hero tales? How old are the stories the Grimm brothers wrote down? With these stories, we are dipping into the well of the past, which, as Thomas Mann said, is bottomless.

But old stories aren't the only ones that will do; some contemporary books have just the right edge of recklessness or absurdity or down-home truth to captivate all our listeners. It's not accidental that most of these books share with kidvid a certain sensationalism. Threat, fear, courage, retaliation, hate, love, reconciliation, winning--these are great themes; these are where we go to establish "book love.'' The books should be richly illustrated in a large format that reaches out to the child. And, of course, we must carefully match books to the cognitive level of the children we are teaching.

Unfortunately, a great many of the books that form the traditional curriculum for the primary grades are inadequate for the task of teaching children to love books. Books that are "sensitive'' and understated, books that emphasize the personal or the quaint, and books with lackluster pictures all leave our hard-core TV watchers restless and bored.

After choosing stories with the deepest, most basic themes, we must do more than just read the words on the pages. We should gather the children closely around us and hold up the book so the children can see the pictures while they listen and imagine. We should focus on the eyes of the audience and look at the book as little as possible; keeping the narrative flowing with gusto is more important than reading the exact words. And if the listeners are restless, we should adjust by getting a more exciting book or putting the one we're reading across more vividly. In short, "booktelling'' requires teachers to use all the powers of human interaction to awaken the sleeping powers of visualization in children. By telling books in this way, we are using our strongest asset: the human dimension. And we are letting children know that we respect them as an audience.

Once children trust us not to bore them, waste their time, or disappoint them, ah

. . . the places we can take them. Once children have learned to relax in the presence of a book, we can pull them away from cartoon Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters and spirit them off to realms of delight, sensitivity, nurturance, poetry, and subtlety that kidvid never enters. Once children learn to listen, once they learn that the eyes of a human storyteller are far more compelling than a TV screen, once they experience true narrative power fanned by their own imaginations, then we begin to break the spell of television. Ironically, these little TV addicts are actually starving. When their ability to listen to stories is awakened, they are ravenous for more. Teaching children to love books should be a conscious and explicit part of American education. It can help teachers and parents win out over a force that nowadays often seems to render them helpless.

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