Babies, books and the bunny

Because a child’s first book will determine whether they become lifelong devoted readers or more like your dad, choose one that is as memorably written and illustrated as it is easy to decontaminate.

I considered this while shopping for a gift for a baby shower I was to attend.

“How about this one, Hon. It’s about a dog.”

“Cujo, Dave? For a newborn? I don’t think so.”

“You’re right. No pictures.”

“How about Pat the Bunny, Dave? It’s a classic that she’ll treasure her whole life.”

“Isn’t it a germ carrier? I heard that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classed it as a Level I Biohazard. Let’s just get her Catcher in the Rye. Maybe coat it with Teflon to be safe.”

We settled on a collection of vibrant picture books about animals printed on pages made of some titanium alloy. They were well received at the baby shower and were proudly displayed beside the 117 copies of Pat the Bunny.

As more gifts were opened, the pile of baby books swelled, which left me deeply puzzled over two questions of national importance: Why do so many children lack interest in reading and what the hell was I doing at a baby shower? Let us explore the easier question.

According to recent scores by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, U.S. students’ reading skills barely have improved since 1992. Nearly half of fourth-graders questioned told researchers that they read for fun nearly every day. But only about one in five eighth-graders said they read for fun daily. The other four just shrugged and responded, “Dunno” before turning back to their Game Boys.

This is hardly a new problem. As a child growing up in the ’60s I recall a National Outcry over poor reading skills. American educators were quick to place the blame squarely where it belonged-on our parents. Oh, and the Russians.

’60s TEACHER: “Thank you for coming in, Mr. and Mrs. Jaffe.”

’60s DAD: “What’s he done now? What have you done now?”

YOUNG DAVE: (shrug) “Dunno.”

’60s DAD: “You askin’ for a smack? I’ll give you a smack!”

’60s MOM: “Let’s listen to the man, dear.”

’60s TEACHER: “We’re just concerned about David because he attempted to do a book report on a MAD Magazine.”

’60s MOM: “Oh, my God! Is everyone all right?”

’60s TEACHER: “Fortunately, Vice Principal Stronch was able to wrestle him to the ground and confiscate the … material before David could read it aloud. We just wanted to alert you that David probably isn’t college material-“

’60s DAD: “A hard smack is what he’ll get.”

’60s TEACHER: “-and may be a Soviet operative.”

Today’s more enlightened educational experts confidently assure us that children’s low interest in reading is only partially due to a communist conspiracy. Instead they point to such distracting influences as video games, the Internet and, of course, television, where much of the programming is developed by former Soviet Bloc countries.

Several national projects are attempting to help solve the problem, such as President Bush’s $5 billion Reading First program aimed at creating “a nation of readers” who vote Republican.

Yet, probably the most effective way for children

to increase their reading fluency is through parental involvement. And I’m thinking here several notches above shrieking, “Turn that thing off before I put my foot through the screen and go read a book!”

Young children display a natural aptitude for reading. Ask any parent when their child started to read and they’ll answer, “About six months before yours.” Reading aloud to children helps them develop critical thinking skills while simultaneously deadening yours.

WIFE: “Good night, honey.”

HUSBAND: “Good night, dear.”

WIFE: (pause) “Good night, Moon.”

HUSBAND: (instantly) “Good night, cow jumping over the moon.”

Young readers also benefit from those electronic talking books that read the text aloud in a crisp, robotic voice until the batteries run low. Then they start to slur their words like Uncle Jerry at the Thanksgiving dinner, only they don’t tell off mom.

Parents of an older and younger child face the more difficult challenge of how to engage both in improving their reading. I wrestled with this when my boys, Russ and Brian, were little kids and enjoyed great success by playing any of a number of popular word-intensive family games, such as Boggle, Mad Libs and, of course, Scrabble, where they also learned the value of cheating.

LITTLE BRIAN: “Horse.’ That’s seven points, plus a double word!”

MOM: “Good one, sweetie!”

YOUNG RUSSELL: “Yeah? Well … well I got ‘zorkhox’! And that’s a triple word and, like, a thousand points!”

MOM: “Um, pumpkin? I don’t think ‘zorkhox’ is a word.”

YOUNG RUSSELL: “Yeah it is. Brian’s talking book said it! Dad, you heard it.”

DAVE: “He’s right, dear. And as I recall, your brother, Jerry, called your mother that at Thanksgiving.”

MOM: “Oh? Then what does it mean?”

DAD: (shrug) “Dunno.”

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