I grew up on stories.
My favorite thing to do when I was but a wee tot was yank my beloved, giant picture book from the shelf, drop it my mother’s lap, and say, “Ma, story!” And when I memorized every word from that book, and then all the other books that followed, my mom and I would create stories of our own, sometimes using my dolls and stuffed animals, and sometimes just our fingers, employing different voices and imagining our own scenarios. When I started school and all the other kids would wander towards the legos or coloring books during designated free time, I would ask if I could go to the library, where the red-cheeked, cherubin librarian would hand-pick a stack for me to go home with. While my classmates would get rewarded with ice-cream or cookies when they made the honor roll, I would request that my mom take me to a nearby bookstore after school to pick out any book I wanted, complete with an accompanying bookmark. I never fantasized about owning my own castle – I fantasized about the massive library that would be in that castle. I hated all the Disney princesses and thought they were frivolous, except for Belle – because she liked to read.
It’s no surprise then that my favorite show growing up (aside from Wishbone), was Reading Rainbow.
Barney I just didn’t understand because he was a purple dinosaur and I knew that was a lie (I did not take kindly to being lied to); I couldn’t watch Sesame Street because I was irrationally terrified of Big Bird; and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood just made me a little sad because he seemed like such a nice, sweet man but for some reason I thought he must be lonely and it made me feel bad that I couldn’t spend time with him (my dad, though, somehow made me feel better about this and I got over it in a year or two). But Reading Rainbow – with its joyful, enthusiastic, passionate, and devoted celebration of books and reading – absolutely captivated me.
It was, in a lot of ways (mostly in the way that I didn’t have a lot of friends, and of those few friends I had, none shared my bibliomania), my most treasured childhood companion – this wonderful entity that shared my love of books and reading, piqued my imagination, and encouraged me to keep turning those pages and hunting for more. I would sit down with a pen and paper ready during every episode so I could write down the titles of the books LeVar Burton mentioned. It was a highlight of my day, and every time after, I was left with this unquenchable need to read.
To this day I consider it an integral part of my development as a reader, and especially as a writer.
Reading Rainbow was canceled a few years ago, based on some quack’s (what, I’m not bitter…) marketing studies which have apparently shown that it is more important to teach children how to read, rather than show them why they should read. (They are still filming new segments of the show, though, available for viewing on their Youtube channel. But I’m still pissed.) What they’ve failed to take into account is the fact that these two things are inherently linked in achieving the goal of a beautifully literate world (one in which I will no longer be asked if Crime and Punishment by “Theodore Something” is a new release and if it’s “any good” [for real, guys, you’re all killing me so very, very slowly with this painfully moronic song]): the former gives children the tools, and the latter encourages them to use these tools.
The fact of the matter is, a child (and largely, people in general) is not going to pick up a book and read it simply because he or she knows how.
Throughout my schooling career, even right on up to the brilliant and knowledgeable halls of higher education, I’ve had an assortment of talented, sharp, impressively advanced-minded peers who – in addition to being able to spout the quadratic formula (negative B, plus or minus the square root of some shit….right? Am I right?!) and recite the entire periodic table – were all perfectly literate and perfectly capable of reading, understanding, and even explicating every line of Milton’s Paradise Lost, or identifying the larger themes and social criticisms in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or simply just sitting back and enjoying the experience of being picked up and dropped in another person’s shoes in a place they’ve never been – that experience of a door suddenly opening to reveal a whole new level of understanding. But for most of them, their reading life was confined to school textbooks and assigned class readings. (This, I believe, is in part due to the skewed level of importance placed on what a vast majority would call “more practical pursuits and professions,” leading to the complete lack of acknowledgement given to what the studies and fields in the arts and humanities can offer to the totality of human experience [English Language and Literature being the most often neglected and dismissed]. But this is a rage and rant I’ll swallow and reserve for another time.) Which just goes to show that just because they can doesn’t necessarily mean that they do.
But they should. Reading is more than just an exploration of words and language. At the risk of sounding completely sentimental and like John Keating in Dead Poets Society, reading is, in equal parts, an exercise of the mind, heart, and soul. Reading is adventure and discovery; it is learning and questioning; it is awareness of the self and awareness of others; it is broader horizons, richer dreams, and wilder imaginations; it is compassion; it is EMPATHY. Because I read, I’ve met shipwrecked pirates, delusional Victorians, wrongfully ostracized monsters, red-headed orphans, wayward rascals, and cynical youths in red hunting caps; I’ve been to rural Ireland, been on Viking ships, and been to the trailer parks of Reno, Nevada. Because I read, I know that suffering, kindness, love, and triumph are things that do not discriminate – they are things that touch us all, regardless of race, regardless of class, regardless of gender, regardless of identity. Because I read, I never forget that we are all, first and foremost, members of the human race – and to that identity category, all others should come second.
I am a better person because I read.
Of course we should teach children their alphabet, their spelling, their grammar, their punctuation. Of course we should instill in them these basic tools that will help them get by in life. But we should also encourage them to go further. We should nurture their dreams and feed their imaginations (which is something that – in this “one click away” world – I fear is fast becoming an endangered species). It’s what Reading Rainbow did, and still does, by lighting up the desire to read.
And having that want, that sudden, insatiable urge – well, that’s more than half the literacy battle won.
Now, for your viewing pleasure, here’s Jimmy Fallon as Jim Morrison singing the Reading Rainbow theme. And if you don’t start singing along (we both know you know the words, so don’t even try to lie to me), you’re dead inside.
And, simply because he was mentioned and because he is a freakin’ genius: John Keating schooling them kids about poetry.