The Death of the Bookworm?

A couple of weeks ago I flew from Salt Lake City to Washington, DC and I found myself sitting next to two kids from a small town in Utah. Ten year-old James occupied the seat by the window while his sister Andrea, age 8, sat next to me in the middle. The duo was flying to visit their father and Andrea proudly stated that they had flown to see their dad---all by themselves already---last Christmas.

I made small-talk with Andrea and James for awhile, asking them about airplanes (they wanted to see the cockpit) and about their family (their stepdad went on a business trip to Japan not too long ago). Inevitably the conversation drifted to school and I asked Andrea about the books she had to read for class.

"Oh, I don't like to read," Andrea said matter-of-factly. "I like cartoons."

"Don't like to read?" I was a little surprised. "Not even Harry Potter?"


"The Harry Potter series is really good. I think you'd like them."

"Those books don't have any pictures in them."

I nodded. She was right after all, but I wanted to spark some sort of literary interest in this little girl. How can a childhood be complete without a few good books?

"You know," I said, "when I was in the fifth grade I read a fantastic book called Maniac Magee. Have you heard of it?"

Andrea shook her head.

"Well, it's about a boy named Maniac Magee who runs away from home. He lives in a zoo and then he unties this enormous knot that nobody in town could untie."

Andrea stared at me blankly.

I scrambled for more enticements. "And he can run on the railroad tracks! Not besides them or close to them but on the top edge of the tracks."

Andrea's face was still. "I like SpongeBob."

The rest of the flight was uneventful. Andrea and James played solitaire on my laptop and I taught them how to play minesweeper. When the plane landed and the passengers deboarded, I waved goodbye to the two and wished them well. By now they're probably on their way back home to Utah and have long forgotten about me, but for some reason I can't seem to forget the conversation I had with Andrea. Part of me wonders if I'm crazy: why should I care if a little girl from Utah doesn't like to read? But the truth is that I care very much. I wanted to give Andrea copies of Matilda and Shiloh and Maniac Magee and usher her into the magical realm of books.

When I was in elementary school my nose was often stuck in a book---not because I was at the top of the class or because I was particularly smart---I just liked the feeling of losing myself in a story. I loved falling into a book and running around its pages, chasing the plot and main characters to the finish line. My love of reading probably stems from my father who often took me and my little brother to the bookstore. On our excursions, my dad would nestle himself in a chair and read a magazine while my brother and I wandered through the long aisles. On one trip to the store I picked up E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and immediately sprang for my father.

"Oh, can I get it?" I asked him breathlessly. "It's about a brother and a sister who live in a museum. Oh please can I have it?"

My dad smiled, pulled out his wallet, and I went home that day as the proud owner of a new book. I still own this copy of From the Mixed-Up Files and I even read it last year for nostalgia's sake. Even as a 24 year-old married woman, I felt a surge of excitement when Claudia and Jamie see the Angel statue for the first time.

I don't think I'll ever get tired of kid's books. Whenever I go into a bookstore I often drift into the children's section. I love how the walls are painted a happy yellow and how the carpet bursts with energetic patterns. And there's nothing cuter than a little rugrat scurrying on the floor, pulling a dog-eared picture book behind him. I find so much comfort in surrounding myself with the beloved books of my past: Ramona Quimby and Harriet the Spy, the Sweet Valley High and Babysitter's Club series, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh and The Giver.

These books deal with the same issues as adult ones---love and hate, happiness and sadness, figuring out life and messing things up. The only difference is that the kid's books are infused with a wonder and a hope that I rarely find in adult fiction. These books seem to say: "Sure, life is hard, but we just have to look on the bright side of things. Look at that flower over there! Look up at the sky. Aren't we so lucky?"

I don't know what will happen to Andrea or her brother James. I don't know if they'll ever fall in love with reading as I hope they will. But I do hope that one day they will have one of those life-changing teachers. And this teacher will gather her students around her desk and pull out a well-used copy of Maniac Magee (or any other childhood favorte).

"We're going to read a story now," the teacher will say. "It's a fantastic story and I know all of you will love it."

"But I don't like to read," someone will cry.

"You will," the teacher says. "Just wait and see."