It’s easy for me to say that being a reader has formed the foundation for my life.
My mother, in lieu of having a multitude of books on hand when we were small, would recite the same nursery rhymes to us over and over again only to find that we actually preferred her versions to those written down. That connection we forged through stories, grounded in the oldest traditions of storytelling, has stayed with me and it’s safe to say it put me on the path I’m on today – constantly advocating for families to introduce the same connection in their relationships through the gift of stories.
In many ways my childhood sounds like something out of the start of an old children’s book. My siblings and I spent our days making up imaginary scenarios set around our family farm in Kildare where there were few other children around so we made our own fun and our own worlds. My days were split between finding stories in pages and making new ones together.
Things changed as I progressed through school and found myself surrounded by other children. I was confronted with the vast unknowing which comes with friendships and relationships which weren’t a birthright and so I clung to the certainty of books all the more. I found myself rereading old favourites until I knew passages by heart and holding that knowledge to my chest like a private badge of honour.
But I, like many other children and adults, had quite a bit of trouble reading social situations. My intense need to fit in was in an eternal struggle with my inability to relax enough to be silent. My father and I share a lot of things, our red hair and ability to injure ourselves being two obvious ones. But we also, without fail, feel as though we need to fill silences in conversations. We need to be the clowns and the larger-than-life figures at a gathering and I know for myself, the validation which comes from being seen and heard for the “right” reasons helped eclipse the feeling that I was too much or overbearing.
The act of reading and engaging with stories was my way of centring myself. When I was overwhelmed or lost, be it when I didn’t know how to fit in with my peers or when the pressure of school was too much, coming back to books and allowing the author to take my hand through a journey for a while was my way of checking in with myself again. I wasn’t delusional, I knew I was never going to be swept away to a magical school if a certain letter came on a particular day or become the queen of a kingdom if I stumbled through the right wardrobe. The purpose of reading was to be completely immersed, to be so committed to the story of a character that my world no longer existed. I could just turn pages until the character’s problems resolved themselves and I could share in the satisfying conclusion.
And so, becoming a children’s bookseller was a natural step for me. I certainly enjoyed firmly suggesting to other people what they should read, but in a lot of ways it was more than that. I knew what reading had done for me growing up and sharing that gradually became a vocation of sorts.
We must let our children be themselves and become themselves through the books they choose to read and give them the respect to know their own minds
The main thing I learnt during those years is how there is no one type of “reader” and no definition of a “bookish-child”. They weren’t all little Matildas from a Roald Dahl book, quietly reading their way through the shelves. I would have kids in who didn’t stop talking from the moment they entered the place and kids who never said a word. There were children who seemed extremely shy but as soon as they realised there was someone else invested in a book series they loved, it was as if they were a completely different person. But of course they were always the same child, just containing multitudes.
And that is the magic of reading for children. It does not belong to one group, it cannot be restrained to one definition or experience. I needed books to find a quiet place, while others found an explosion of sensations and noise. We use books to find validation and learn more about ourselves and others. I used it to find my path in life while others use it to take a break from theirs.
Reading is a pleasure but it is also a unique form of mental exercise. Allowing children to create their own interpretations of constructed worlds in their minds is a gift which cannot be replicated by any other form of media. Of course visual media has its place but it doesn’t allow us to fill in the gaps. Ask a child to draw a picture of Peppa Pig and they will give their closest rendition of the well-known cartoon character. Ask them for a picture of CS Lewis’ Mr. Tumnus and you will get all sorts of variations.
And that is why we must always fight for our children’s right to read. And not only read in school, but under the covers when they know they’re supposed to be in bed. Or when they’re trying not to feel sick from reading in the car, or on the bus, or basically anywhere because they need to finish the page, the chapter or the book. We must let our children be themselves and become themselves through the books they choose to read and give them the respect to know their own minds.
I can only speak of my own experiences of growing up a reader but I know that it was vital. Not only because I found the industry I wanted to work in as an adult, but in the end it taught me to respect the way I move through the world. And that in itself is magical.
Once Upon a Reader: Raising Your Children With a Love of Books is published by Currach Press. Lorraine Levis will be giving children’s book advice to parents at Wonderfest, a new digital festival celebrating Irish children’s books on Saturday, November 21st. Tickets and information: wonderfest.ie She will also feature on the Tall Tales Podcast with Shane Hegarty, part of ILFDublin in partnership with MoLI. www.ilfdublin.com