Last weekend, The New York Times ran a beautiful, non-political profile of President Obama having only to do with his reading habits, those that shaped him as a candidate and those that shaped his view from the Presidency. Say what you will about him, the man is a thinker. And that, more than any other of his gifts—save for his affection for Al Green and puns that embarrass his daughters—is the thing I am grateful my kids have been old enough to absorb.
There is a lot to say right now about journalism and what sources we trust, and which stories tell which side of what, and all of it has gotten me thinking hard about what sources my own children ought to trust and what to tell them about where to go from here. And I’ve come to a conclusion.
I want them to read books. When you pick the right ones, books shine a bright light on the world and reveal its flaws, its triumphs, and its possibilities. This year, my 9-year-old son, who like many 9-year-old boys, is obsessed with Pokémon and fantasy sports and everything in between, read at warp speed both “The Crossover” and “Booked” by Kwame Alexander, novels written in verse and infused with a beat and a rhythm reminiscent of the music he also listens to with rapt attention. He read “Crenshaw” by K. A. Applegate and learned what it looks like when a family has to live out of their car while Dad looks for work. He read “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds, which tells the story of a troubled young man who finds that all the running he’s been doing his whole life long is a gift, and with the help of an empathetic track coach, has a chance at finding a new path if he’s willing to work at it. He read “Full of Beans” by Jenni Holm, a beautiful piece of historical fiction set during the Depression. He read “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker, a haunting meditation on war and loss, and he read every last one of Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” books and his “Heroes” series, too.
And OK, he watched a whole lot of TV, including the presidential debates and the news sometimes and yes, loads of cartoons and sitcoms. I mean, I’m not a monster. But lately, he’s been participating more in political conversations, and I can see him developing his own perspective, his own questions, and his own answers. Last night, my husband and I were watching “Jeopardy!” when a clue was read along with a visual of the statue of a woman.
“Who is Rosa Parks?” my son piped up from the corner of the sofa. It was the right answer and I felt pleased with him for beating us to it. “How’d you know that?” I asked. “I read about her,” he said. It was the first time in a while that I felt some optimism. It was the first time I realized also that he has good sources.
He is about to embark on reading “The Inquisitor’s Tale,” a bestseller and must-read by Adam Gidwitz, an epic medieval adventure that manages to ponder morality and good vs. evil, tackling ideas you might think are impossible to take on and still be wildly entertaining. But it is not impossible at all. This is the story of three children and a dog, on the run during the Inquisition, to save a book, the Talmud, to be precise. It has as much to do with right now as it does with right then, and it is pitch perfect storytelling that will stay with kids long after they put it down.
And that’s the ticket, right there, helping kids pick up books that will stay with them precisely because they are captivating in both storytelling and in broadening their worldview. When we hand kids good, thick books, we cannot go wrong. I think they will look up from those pages changed and lit up inside. What a way to get informed. What a way to change the world, too.