The summer before my junior year, my mother ordered me to clean out my bookcase which was packed with books shelved spine-out, but also had books resting horizontally on top of the books stacked vertically. Also, there were piles on the floor sloping against either side of the bookcase.
I found an old favorite, a picture book titled This is Baseball, written by Margaret Blackstone and illustrated by John O'Brien. There was a period when I was a kid when I had this book read to me every single night. I didn't even have to open the book to remember most of the text.
This is Baseball was definitely one of the books that taught me there was good stuff inside books. (The home team won every time! Night after night!) I couldn't give that one away. Nor could I part with The Dumb Bunnies by Dav Pilkey. Or Dan Gutman's Baseball Card series. These weren't just books, these were memories.
A friend called; What was I up to? I told him and he was dismissive. "Trash 'em. You're never going to read any of that stuff again."
He was wrong. (I had already spent most of the morning rereading them.) But I realized his reaction (books=boring) was more typical than mine had been. It puzzled me to think how many of my friends thought of reading as something to get out of by finding the SparkNotes online. How did that happen? How in less than ten years had reading gone from something fantastic to something onerous?
Some of it was definitely due to the assigned reading we get in school. Teachers can beat all the fun out of even a good book by making you dissect it.
But some of it might also be that these other guys hadn't fallen in love with books like I had. I know a lot of the books my mother gave me—like Captain Underpants—were definitely not the kind of books she would necessarily want me to be reading but she was willing to get me any book I was interested in. (Thanks to the video game "Age of Empires," I went through a period where all I wanted to read about was medieval weaponry.) I started Brother Reader in October of that year, a volunteer program in which I recruit (and sort of train) teenage boys to read to kindergarten and first grade boys once a week. I pick the books myself—they have to be funny or a little gruesome or incredibly exciting. Explosions are good. I want the books we read to the little guys to be books they demand to hear again.
Two years later, we're still at it. Brother Reader has been featured on the local news and I wrote about it for readkiddoread.com. It's about as much fun as you can have fulfilling your community service commitment so the number of volunteers has grown. I'd like to "export" the program to other high schools and to do that, I'd like to be able to provide new Brother Readers with a starter set of books that have been field-tested—those books that have succeeded in getting a cluster of five- and six-year-olds to lose themselves in a story so completely they forget to squirm, poke at each other, or ask to go to the bathroom.
I also have decided to major in education in college. I'd like to be a teacher who does what he can to make sure kids understand books are friends, not enemies.
p.s. The bookcase is still overloaded. Oh well.