Posted by: Kate | October 1, 2010

Read Between the Lines

In June, the kids brought home all manner of paperwork from school, as they cleaned our their desks and the teachers sent home a summer’s worth of memos and information and so on.  Sports camps, free breakfasts, balance due at the school lunch program, shopping lists from the next teacher, all manner of stuff killing trees of various colors.  (I’ve asked Jacob where they have to go to get the pink and green paper that the school often  uses… our best guess is that, somewhere, there’s a Dr. Seussian forest growing, and we can only hope that they’re planting a new purple tree for every one they cut down to make flyers.)

One of the papers, slipped quietly in among the rest, asked us to keep track of our child’s reading over the summer.  It provided us with a blank list on which to enter the information, and talked about how important it was to keep up those reading skills, read with your child, blah blah… all stuff that parents hear from a child’s birth, so we know it’s important.  Whether we act like it is, well, that’s a whole different ball of wax.  We also got suggested reading lists, but the main point of this letter was to keep the child reading, anything.  Comic books, magazines, whatever… just read.

So I pulled out those blank lists, and taped them to the kids’ door.  And, from June to August, any time they finished a book, no matter how long or what age level, I let them write it up.  Emily had stuff up there ranging from the Magic Tree House series (too young for her, but she read several aloud to Jacob – which, as a parent, let me tell you, there is very little more precious in the world than listening to one of your children read to another), to fantasy series and some classics.  Her favorite book of the summer, I think, was My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George… did you read that, when you were a kid?  I did… and even though I am by no stretch of the imagination a survivalist, I spent some time imagining myself as a runaway on some remote mountain, alone but for the company of my trusty falcon.  Good stuff.

Jacob’s list was also varied, with the books I read aloud to both children – OK, all three, though Isaac hasn’t been keeping a reading list quite yet – interspersed with picture books.  I let him write down any book that he read on his own, no matter how simple, and so there are a few two-words-per-page books that he read to Isaac… seriously, if you haven’t had one of your kids read to another, go do it this weekend.  It’ll break your heart.  He tended to get a little overwhelmed and lost with some of the longer chapter books – Watership Down is a long, long story, and a complicated one – but he hung in there, and we would routinely spend some time just talking about the book, what had happened so far, what did that word mean, and so on.  Reading is an interactive sort of sport around here, especially when it is about as physical an activity as I could handle, early on.  I couldn’t always get up and walk down to the back yard with the kids this summer, but I could almost always read to them at bedtime.

So we kept track, but we didn’t push it.  I didn’t ever view it as a competition, and I didn’t worry about whether they were reading “enough.”  Some days we would spend more than an hour snuggled up in my bed, or the kids snuggled up and me standing and rocking the baby, them listening and me reading aloud.  Both kids like to read in the car, and thankfully they’re very rarely carsick anymore.  At the end of the summer, each of them had somewhere around 20 books, and we were all perfectly happy with that.

Then the fall rolled around, and I had reams and reams of paperwork to fill out: repeated registration forms, because God forbid we just check a box that says “nothing has changed since last year, go ahead and reuse their information.”  And so we tallied up their books and I signed the form, and they went to school with the rest of the papers.  We didn’t much think about it again, as the routine chaos of the school year settled in.

Then, this past week, each of the kids came home with little certificates: “Special Reading Award.”  Jacob’s came home first, and he was proud of himself because he read the second-most books in his class.  He wasn’t sure how many other kids got certificates, but it sounded like at least half the class did.  Apparently the girl who read the most had something like 40 books on her list, and we agreed that she probably had all short little books… if  he had counted each chapter that we read, he would have had the most.  And, just Jacob being Jacob, he was perfectly happy and proud of himself just for getting the certificate.  We tell kids that winning isn’t everything, that it’s the thought that counts, and so on, but it’s kind of amazing to have a child who really believes that.

Then, on Thursday, Emily brought hers home, and mentioned that she, de facto, “won,” because she was the only kid in the fifth grade who brought in a list.  Here is a kid who had been worried that her teacher would be upset that she “only” read 20 books… and she ends up being the only kid with a reading list??

That’s just insane.

I know, for sure, that other kids in the fourth-to-fifth-grade summer read over the summer.  I bet that they even read with their parents, and maybe read more than we did… that they just didn’t bother keeping track, or maybe they were too cool to turn in the form, who knows? I haven’t heard Emily talk about kids picking on each other for being too smart, quite yet,  but I can remember hearing murmurs about “teacher’s pet” and “nerd” as early as third grade, and by fourth or fifth grade I was indelibly stamped as uncool because I liked school.  Emily is blissfully, beautifully unconcerned with things like that yet, and I can only hope that her blithe ignorance of such things continues as long as possible.

Because there’s something just sad about her being the only kid in a 60-student fifth grade (there are seven elementary schools in Salem, so each school is pretty small) who brought in her summer reading list.

And on the flip side… that creates such a sense of pride and contentment in me.  No matter how many things I, as a mother, screw up, I can look back at these simple little certificates and remember that I also did some stuff right.



  1. Well done mom! You are instilling good habits in your children that will last them a lifetime.

  2. My school, in addition to having those summer reading “competitions,” forced everybody to read at least one book by having a book report due in the first week of school. You got a list of books to choose from (usually similar in theme – “coming of age” books were incredibly popular starting in 4th/5th grade), and a list of topics that could apply to any of them. By the time you got to high school, the reading project was a large enough portion of your first quarter grade that not doing it put you really behind.

    I always hated doing the summer project because the books were way beneath my level. I’d always read a few from two or three years in front of me. It was wonderful when my brother was in high school and I was in middle school – the books they let 9th graders read were SO MUCH MORE mature than the books they let 8th graders read. It sounds like your kids would have the same frustration that I did with these reading projects!

  3. With all that you’ve had on your plate these last few months, you deserve a big pat on the back! I think you need a certificate, too – for being encouraging and proactive in your childrens’ educations! WTG MOM!

  4. Actually, I preferred Julie of the Wolves by Ms. George. Required reading in Alaska ;-).

    Chunky had to keep a list…I think. I could see myself being a parent that didn’t have him turn in the list (he did turn it in this year). Why? Because quite honestly, when I was a kid, we didn’t do that stuff. Things were different. Maybe not better, but I don’t see how Chunky’s school life is going to be enhanced by keeping a list.

    Plus I find my feathers getting ruffled at forced reading. In 2nd grade they MADE him read X number of minutes a day (the number of mins. slowly increased through the year). This might be good for a kid that’s not in the habit of reading. But forcing a kid to read every day–are you really teaching them to read for “pleasure?” I found that near the end of the forced reading he was really starting to resent it. But that’s public education. You have to accept that you have to conform and go with the flow if you want to get by.

  5. Congratulations on so many levels. Having kids who enjoy reading is a huge accomplishment these days and to have them win certificates because they excelled over the summer doing this same activity is a little reminder of how important it s.

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