I was in fifth grade when J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S. I didn’t read it until the seventh grade, but I tore through the first few books and became one of those kids who couldn’t wait until the next edition came out. Through seven novels, Harry Potter taught my generation a lot—and does so for millions of kid readers all over the world to this day. Researchers recently revealed that Harry Potter taught us much more than the rules of Quidditch.
As reported in The New York Times, the Journal of Applied Psychology recently published a study revealing that story-reading can affect how kids feel about currently stigmatized groups in our society, from immigrants to homosexuals. Specifically, kids who “read stories about characters from a culture similar to their own cooperating with characters from an unfamiliar culture, they later display fewer stereotypes, and more positive attitudes, about the people belonging to the dissimilar group.”
I remember when Draco Malfoy called Hermione Granger a Mudblood for the first time. It made my blood boil. I felt triumphant when Harry stood up for his friend. And that’s exactly the point. I had sympathy for Hermione. I felt nasty treatment towards her as an outsider was outrageous. This study shows much the same. Kids who read and discussed passages like these (about the in-group , like Harry, interacting positively with the out-group, like Hermione) held more positive views about the out-group of their own culture, like immigrants. On the other hand, kids who read and discussed Harry Potter passages that didn’t address prejudice, showed no change in their attitudes towards ostracized groups. As Harry entertained me, he also taught me.
He teaches the power of our own choices when he chooses Gryffindor under the Sorting Hat. He teaches what it is to fight for a greater cause. He teaches us to treat each other kindly, Muggle or Mudblood or Pure Blood.
This is exciting news not only for readers of Harry Potter, but any book that captures similar situations. Kids can learn to be more compassionate, accepting, and tolerant through reading. If that’s not a reason raise a reader, I don’t know what is.
“School’s out for summer.” I used to play that Alice Cooper song for my son on the last day of classes (the Muppets version) as a celebration of his 10-week break from homework (and pencils, books, and teacher’s dirty looks). But as it turns out, I probably shouldn’t have been hailing his educational break. The National Summer Learning Association says that students lose about two months worth of skills in mathematics during the lazy days of summer. And as we reported, kids of all ages score lower on the same standardized reading, spelling, and math tests in September than they do at the end of the previous year in school.
The reason for this “summer slide,” a.k.a. “brain drain” or “summer slump,” is obvious: Kids—and, to an extent, parents—tend to view July and August as a break from learning, a time to enjoy the beach and the pool and recharge. R&R is all fine and good. The real problem is that many children wile away the days watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Web. Kids spend three hours in front of a screen for every hour they crack a book during the summer—and more time than they spend outdoors. According to a new survey from the nonprofit kid’s literacy group Reading is Fundamental, only 17 percent of parents say reading is a top summer priority for their kids, and 60 percent don’t worry about their child losing reading skills during this time.
Actually, you really shouldn’t worry, because it’s easy to do something about it. A nonprofit organization called TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment) offers lots of screen-free ideas to inspire your family to play and learn together. Try incorporating some of these fun, mind-building activities into your kids’ break. Also consider downloading these educational apps, which at least turn screen time into learning time. And check out ideas here and here, along with a video chat with Soleil Moon Frye (the former star of “Blossom”) about how to stop summer slide.
I don’t pretend to have any magical suggestions for preventing this phenomenon. I worry about my kids and their tendency to gravitate toward watching sports events and Disney shows. To minimize this, we encourage reading and writing for pleasure, try to get them out of the house as much as possible, and look for teachable moments in leisure-time settings, such as digging for hermit crabs at the beach and calculating batting averages and ERAs at baseball games. Granted, these are no substitute for cracking the books, but at least they should leave our children be better prepared when their teachers see them in September.
Back to School: Handling Worries
Two little girls with magnifying glass outdoors in the daytime via ShutterStock
In addition to the announcement, the AAP has also partnered with four organizations, the Clinton Foundation, Too Small to Fail, Scholastic, and Reach Out and Read, to implement the new policy. The AAP and Too Small to Fail are creating a toolkit to include guidelines for parents on the importance of reading from infancy, which will be distributed to 62,000 pediatricians in the AAP network. Scholastic is also donating 50,000 children’s books that Reach Out and Read will distribute to 20,000 medical providers.
The AAP recommends restricting TV time for kids under 2 in favor of interactive play, and reading books can certainly be a part of that. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Pamela High, M.D., the lead author on the AAP early literacy policy, recommends that parents focus on the 5 Rs of early education: read together, rhyme and play with words, set consistent routines, reward with praise, and develop a strong relationship.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by LeVar Burton, co-founder of the award-winning Reading Rainbow digital library, host of the original PBS series, and lifelong children’s literacy advocate. Burton is also known for his distinguished TV roles as the young Kunta Kinte on Roots and Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Follow LeVar (@levarburton) and Reading Rainbow (@ReadingRainbow) on Twitter.
People always ask me, “What is your favorite book?” I always give the same answer: “The book that I am reading right now!” From the moment I first cracked the code, it has always been the power of the word made whole in my imagination that has kept me coming back for more.
My first real love in reading was comics. I come from a military family, and for a young American growing up on an Army base in Germany, comics were treasured items from back home. Comics were not only a connective thread to American culture; they were the currency that dominated our social interactions. Every Saturday morning, I would take the box of comics I had finished and was willing to part with, and join the sea of kids on base, trading comics with one another. It was always a thrill getting something brand-new to read, even if the book was already thoroughly used! Science fiction became my genre of choice as a teenager and it still is to this day. Sci-fi invites us to contemplate what I believe are two of the most powerful words in language: what if. It also encouraged me, as a young man faced with the realities of racism, prejudice, and tremendous social upheaval, to imagine a future as I hoped it would become. My reading diet now runs the gamut from biographies to history to mysteries to the occasional Marvel or DC comic title of my youth. It all depends on my mood. It really is the experience of reading that brings me pleasure.
But our kids are not us—and as parents we all know this all too well. The subjects that interest us may not interest them. When our kids are young, the best way I know to encourage them to read is to allow them to pick the subject, the format, and the way in which they experience the written word. Most kids love it when their parents read to them, so I encourage you to read to your children as much as possible. Snuggling up and reading together not only provides comfort and security, but it also emphasizes the value we place on reading. The more your kids see you with a book, the more a message is delivered that reading is an essential part of the human experience. As they become old enough to read themselves, help them find material that is appropriate for their age and reading level, but don’t worry about the subject. Of course we would like them to pick the best literature out there, but that will come with time. For now, trust me, a former comic book addict: If they enjoy reading, they will expand their literary horizons in their own time. If they’re forced to read what doesn’t interest them, you run the risk of extinguishing the spark of excitement for reading that’s so important to their becoming life-long learners and fulfilling their potential.
When you and your child are looking for books to read, sometimes the classics are the best choice of all. There is a reason they are classics—they’ve already stood the test of time. They tend to have familiar themes and they deliver quality life lessons. One of my favorite examples is the story “The Tortoise and the Hare.” It’s believed that Aesop wrote this fable more than 2,500 years ago, and yet it’s hard to find any child today who doesn’t know the story of the hare’s unlikely victory or the timeless lessons of hard work, steadfastness, and the moral that “Slow and steady wins the race.”
So tonight, perhaps you and your child can walk over to the bookshelf, close your eyes, and choose at random what I hope will be, at least in the moment, your favorite book.
My first favorite book was The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food. My mom read it to me so many times that I could eventually recite it from memory. I have no doubt that all of those hours spent reading with my parents when I was little became the foundation for my career as a magazine editor.
Now, part of my job at Parents is handling our coverage of children’s books. Every day, I get boxes and boxes of books in the mail (I often have to make two trips to the mailroom because there are too many to carry!) I love poring over all the stories and pictures that will shape the minds of young kids—and maybe even change some lives.
So naturally, I was intrigued by this Let Toys Be Toys campaign in the U.K. to stop labeling gender-specific books and toys. The petition—which has been gaining momentum as booksellers and writers lend support—calls for publishers to stop labeling books for a particular gender, either in the title or on the packaging. “Telling children which stories and activities are ‘for them’ based on their gender closes down whole worlds of interest,” the petition states. I couldn’t agree more. Children should be able to decide for themselves which stories and activities they find interesting.
Here in the United States, I occasionally see a book labeled for one gender, but it’s not as common as it appears to be in the UK. Still, it’s evident that even if publishers aren’t declaring books specifically for boys or for girls, they’re still marketing some of them that way. Books for girls are covered in pink flowers and cupcakes, while boys get trucks and cars. But what about the boys who like baking and the girls who like construction vehicles? We should let children decide what interests them as an individual, rather than pushing them towards one topic or another. Besides, we should want girls to learn some science and spatial skills, and we should want boys to develop some nurturing behavior. Let’s encourage our kids to be well-rounded.
While the Let Toys Be Toys campaign is not focused in the US, we could still borrow some of its tactics. We can reach out to publishers to let them know that we want books marketed for both genders. It’s so easy to reach out through an online petition or Twitter, after all. We can also spread awareness of the issue to others. But above all, it’s up to parents to encourage their children to select stories that interest them, regardless of any social stigmas or what companies are pushing towards them.
On a brighter note, I also see plenty of wonderful books here in the office. Each month, I’m bummed that I don’t have room in the magazine to cover all the creative and imaginative stories for kids of both genders and all ages. These are the tales we want to share with our kids. Looking for a place to start? Check out our Best Children’s Books of 2013 list.