The genie in the sandpit: why I want my kids to read

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‘What a gift to give, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued…Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?’

Philip Pullman

I texted Tim around mid-afternoon.

‘Costco was good’, I wrote. ‘Got a new drying rack, pancake mix, baby food.

Also the complete works of Roald Dahl. Sorry.’

He didn’t reply. He expects that sort of thing when I go to Costco.

There are certain things I am determined to pass onto my boys: table manners, compassion, an inability to listen to Dean Friedman without breaking into interpretive dance. But oh, hobby gods, ye hander-outers of personality traits: please give them books. Even if I have to clobber them once a day with the complete works of Roald Dahl (it’s heavy), I want them to love to read.

Most of my early memories come from reading. I remember my mum and aunties laughing at me because I’d started saying ‘oh golly’ and eating condensed milk out of the tin with a spoon – I was reading too much Famous Five. I got myself to sleep for about seven years by making up new Prince Caspian stories on the Dawn Treader every night. Once, the end-of-lunchtime bell rang and shocked me out of Drina Ballerina. I’d been reading about how she’d twisted her ankle and wasn’t sure if she could dance anymore. I got up and limped all the way to the door before I remembered that her ankle hurt, not mine. I still do that now – when I read and read for a while, I have to go around touching things to make sure they’re solid. I’ve been sat in another reality so long that I feel like a ghost in my own house.

There’s a book for every mood and movement you can imagine. My comfort food author is Agatha Christie: when your certainties are uncertain and your decisions are unmade, it’s the best thing in the world to get stuck into a detective novel. No matter the variations or enjoyable tensions along the way, the reader knows one thing, sure as the sunrise: sooner or later, there will come a point at which Poirot will exclaim to himself ‘Ah! What an imbecile I have been!’ And then everyone will be summoned and everything will be explained, and someone in that room is GOING DOWN. A perfect ending. Every time. If only life were the same.

It would be impossible to tell you just how much reading books has done for me. When I was younger I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I’ve got with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books. It decided my university subject and my career path. It has made me.

And so I want my boys to open their eyes to worlds beyond their own. They will find characters in books that make them want to be better people. They will read books that give them glimpses of what it’s like to live in different countries, extreme poverty or a war zone. They will lose themselves, and find themselves, and find themselves changing. They will always, always know the difference between there, they’re and their. A boy could get an awfully long way with a skill set like that.

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I first wrote this post for Ceri’s Ginger Warrior blog, which you should definitely check out. But in tribute to Shakespeare’s birthday (and with her permission), I’m posting it here. Happy reading, all!

12 thoughts on “The genie in the sandpit: why I want my kids to read

  1. So true Rachel! Reading books gave me so much joy growing up, still do and also got me into lots of trouble (caught reading in a corner when my turn to field playing cricket, hiding with a book in hide and seek, dinner not being cooked – Tim saying ‘Are we eating today?’ love, love, love books!

  2. Hi Rachel, I am a mom of 2 boys too. They are 14 and 16 now. I still see baby in their teenage faces. I also have a daughter, she’s 11. In addition to being a mom, I am also an elementary school Teacher in NY. I wrote to you a few months ago about an ideas that I have for a parenting book, it involves blogging. I would love the opportunity to share my idea with you. Please Let me know if you are seemingly interested. Have a beautiful day with your beautiful family! Liz D’Ambrosio

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. I know exactly what you mean about assuming the physical, mental and emotional characteristics of the hero or heroine of the book; I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been snapped out of the middle of a story and found myself welling up with some emotion or other which is not my own.

    I just don’t seem to get nearly enough time to read these days, mostly due to having a boyfriend who is not a great book reader. I really need to start making time for it, especially with my little boys.

    • Yes! Also the number of times I’ve finished a book and just felt desolate at the thought that it’s all over. I miss the world and the characters when I’m done! My husband isn’t a huge reader either – he reads a lot of tech news online, but books almost never. He is very patient with my book-hoarder habits 🙂

  4. Lovely, lovely post. Like you, i was such a reader when I was younger and would spend hours lost in books. I’m sad that i’ve kind of lost that as an adult (no attention span, and an iPhone) but I really, really want E to have that experience for herself. I think of all the amount of amazing reading she’s got ahead of her x.

    • Oh, I know – imagine being able to read Roald Dahl for the first time again! I also find my shortened attention span and my iPhone a lethal reading combination. But I think one of the best encouragements for them is to see me reading and enjoying it, so I still try to find some time in the week. Fingers crossed both our toddlers will end up as bookworms. x

  5. As you may guess from my name, there’s always been a toss up for me between books and real life as to which was more important and immediate to me. My eldest two children now are 6 and 8 and bookworms both – to my huge delight. Lovely post, glad to have found your blog.

    • Ah, a kindred spirit! I have to say that one of the strangest changes for me with little children is not having the time to read as much. But wonderful that both of yours are bookworms. I’m trying to just surround them with books and hope they catch on 🙂 thanks so much for reading!

  6. Out of 4 children only Bethany is the avid reader that i have always been. I remember my dad making up stories when we were children and had read every word of the books that we had in the house. But then we got old enough to go to the library in a little group of 4 or 5 and then it was The Hardy Boys and Dickens and Jane Austen and on and on… Now Bradford has just reopened a new library and have replaced many of their old books with new versions and added many newly published books too, which is really mean of them as now i don’t know what to pick first.

    • Ooh, how exciting! Refurbished libraries are the best. One of the things I look up when we find a potential house, sad to say, is how close the nearest library is. We’ve been so lucky where we are – our little local one is wonderful.

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