Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thank you Jeff Kinney

I'm just about to hop on my bike, pedal down to the bookstore, and make O very happy today. The latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series was released on Tuesday, and before you roll your eyes and scoff at my son's reading choices, hear me out.

One of my biggest hopes -- nay expectations! -- was that any child I birthed would be a reader. Of course he would! Both my husband and I are bookworms. My husband read more books than any other kid one summer and won a trampoline through the public library. I learned to read when I was three, and my childhood is one long, hazy, pleasant memory of gorging on everything from Nancy Drew mysteries and Little House on the Prairie, to biographies of doomed European queens (Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn were particular favorites) and books about faraway places I longed to visit (Japan, India, England of course). I was the kid who read under the blankets with a flashlight, whose parents claimed I'd go blind for reading in the dark. When I had my own child, I dreamed not only of the books we'd read together before bedtime, starting with Goodnight Moon and Richard Scarry, but I even held off reading all of the Harry Potter books so we could read them in tandem when he was old enough.

You probably see where this is going.

O has never been a reader. He resisted learning how to read, and I swear, he only liked me reading to him at night because it gave him an extra 10 or 15 minutes before we turned out the light. I offered to buy him any books he wanted; there was no limit to what I'd spend. Instead, he'd ask if he could turn that largesse into Legos or stuffed animals or anything besides a boring old book. When his teacher in second grade noted that he read far below his grade level, I cringed. No, I'll admit it. I was embarrassed. I wondered if she thought we were one of those families who didn't read. You know, you walk into their house and the only book you can find is the phone book, covered in dust, because who really needs a phone book anymore now that there's Google? I felt the need to tell her that when we moved to Massachusetts, I got an upcharge from my mover because of all the books I owned. That I've written three books; I practically read for a living! That our town librarians know me by name, as do the cashiers at Barnes & Noble ... in multiple locations. even used to send me plastic travel mugs at Christmastime for being such a valuable customer.

I may have even come home and ordered O, "You're going to start reading, dammit, and you'll like it too!"

During one trip to Texas a few years ago, I told O that we needed to stop by Barnes & Noble. He must have been in a good mood or wanted something at Target because he agreed to go. Wandering around the children's section, I noticed The Diary of a Wimpy Kid display and picked up a book. It was written in big type. It had pictures ... well, line drawings, but enough to break up the type. I brought the book over to O and gingerly asked if he wanted me to read it to him. Much to my surprise, he said I could. We read a chapter and he asked (cue angels singing), "Can you buy it for me?"

(And the devil in me replied), "Only if you promise to read some of it yourself."

He said he'd try.

I read the book to him the rest of the week we were in Texas. He read it again -- by himself -- on the plane ride home. When we arrived in Boston he asked if I could buy him the next book, which I did. That night. When he found out the third book wouldn't be released for several months, he cried.

Mental stadium cheer.

I've talked to a lot of parents who scoff at these books. They're not Literature, they contain poop jokes, they don't offer valuable life lessons for children ... oh please, I want to interrupt. Just stop it. O now reads far beyond his grade level; in fourth grade he was spelling and reading at the sixth grade level, and this year I've caught him reading The Hunger Games and The Hobbit, not to mention encyclopedic tomes on wildlife. Books like Kinney's get kids who don't like reading to read. And then they talk to their friends about what they've read and those friends recommend books they like. And they start wondering what else is out there to read. And even -- I kid you not -- they talk about writing a book of their own and would I mind if it contained a poop joke or two?

Do I mind? You're talking to someone who enjoyed reading about queens who got their heads chopped off. What's a little poop?

ETA 6:15 p.m.: O has been reading The Third Wheel steadily since 4 p.m., taking a break only to eat a jelly sandwich. :)


  1. I couldn't agree more. My oldest son learned to read sounding out the text on Pokemon cards; the youngest was wild for Captain Underpants. If they're not entertained, they're not going to buy it. Now my oldest reads the Game of Thrones books, and the youngest reads the Dexter series. Great lit? Who cares? They're reading.

  2. Oh. My. God. Diana. Are you writing about my son? Who is not a reader (which gives me pangs), but who carts around all of the Jeff Kinney books and has read them all multiple times each? Check it:

    I have no patience with anyone who calls these books not "real" books. They have covers and pages and words inside, yes? Then they're books.

    My son also reads hotel-room information brochures, business cards, and the supermarket sales flyer (no joke; I have to save it for him). I'll take it!

    And I have to go get the new book, too!

  3. My husband and I are both voracious readers. Well, I am not as voracious as I used to be since knitting now occupies some of my spare time, but still, our house is filled with books. Out of my five kids only two are voracious readers. It used to bother me a lot that the other three didn't enjoy picking up a book and getting lost in a story, but then I would remind myself that my brother didn't become a reader until he was in his late thirties. I still hold out hope it will happen. I am glad your son has found a series that has him hooked on reading.

  4. Exactly, Amy. Luckily O has a teacher this year who's doing a great job of making reading fun for the kids. And I hate making gender distinctions, but I do think boys need special attention in this department. Some teachers/parents are delusional in choosing reading material for boys. You really need to play to their interests to attract them and sorry -- books that explore Big Ideas and cooperative behavior are tough sells to them.

  5. Love your essay, Denise! (Readers, please read it.) I identify totally with that instinct to think my son is just like me. I battle with it every day.

  6. Sigh. Knitting cuts into my reading time, too, but now I've discovered I can knit and listen to books on tape ... heaven!

  7. I wish I could listen to books. I have zero attention span to the spoken word.
    Signed, Ms. ADD


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