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I had the good fortune to grow up in a family that owned a summer house on a lake about two hours from our home. Once school was out in June, we would all load up into the station wagon and head north. There was something so blissful about turning off the highway and suddenly seeing familiar houses, roads, and even cemeteries. The first one who spotted the lake through the trees would cry out in delight. And a little while later we’d be heading down, down, down our very steep driveway to the oddly modern and uncottagelike building my parents had commissioned when I was an infant.
My mom and the kids stayed all summer; my father would leave early Monday morning, work all week back in Boston, then drive back Friday night for the weekends. During the summer he really only slept well in the mountains, by the lake, where the air mostly stayed cool, so he took off whatever time he could and invited everyone he knew to come spend the day or the weekend with us there. The house was always full, my mother planning, shopping for, and preparing meal after meal after meal for what could be dozens of guests on any given weekend. I can’t imagine how much work it was for her: there wasn’t any take-out in that small town back in those days, and for decades there also wasn’t a dishwasher in the house, unless you counted the five kids.
There also wasn’t a TV in the house. Years later, my father would give in and get a tiny TV set–mostly so he could watch tennis matches on it–but for the first decade or so, all we had was a radio that played kids’ programs on Sunday mornings.
Five kids, two and a half months, many rainy days . . . what was a mother to do?
Go to a library, of course. Once a week we’d all pile into the car, drive to the town library and emerge with our arms filled with piles of books. And for the next seven days, when we weren’t outside swimming or catching frogs or playing in our sandy driveway (just right for digging tunnels), we were draped over various pieces of furniture, reading.
My friend Claudia has a theory that libraries have become too welcoming to kids, that the reluctant attitude of librarians from our childhood–that frown when they spotted you that said, “We know you’re going to make too much noise and we’re going to have to shush you and we’re not happy about it”–made us all want to read more, and especially to read adult books which were in large, quiet rooms filled with old ladies who were just as certain as the librarians that we were going to ruin everything for everyone. You always felt you weren’t quite supposed to be there when you were a kid–and that made creeping around trolling for books absolutely delicious. Now, Claudia says, librarians practically stand on their heads and juggle fire to get kids to want to visit the library, so being there no longer feels like a forbidden pleasure. Takes all the fun out of it.
Maybe she’s right and that’s why we loved our library so much back then. It was truly one of life’s great pleasures to walk back into the house with a stack of brand-new-never-before-been-read-by-you books and get to choose which one to read first, knowing that when you finished that one, you had a bunch more waiting.
I’ve taken my kids to the library twice already since school let out (well, three times actually, but it was closed one of those times thanks to budget cutbacks which have shortened branch hours considerably) and we’ve taken out tons of books and several DVDs. I let the kids take out any books they want. I’m not picky: if they’re reading, I’m happy. The DVDs are only for night time. (We had an amazing Toy Story marathon though, in anticipation of the release of the third one. We all sat there, rapt, delighted. God, I love those movies!)
But my kids have something we didn’t have in those idyllic days back in New Hampshire: computers. There’s so much that’s exciting waiting for them online. It’s hard for a book to compete with that. They’re reading, but not nearly as much as we did during the summer. A lot of what they do online is kind of cool, like brainpop (educational animation) or sporkle (online timed quizzes) or freerice. But even so . . . it’s not reading and I want them to read.
It’s summertime, damn it! They should be reading.
Somehow my parents had the tenacity, the guts, and the energy to keep television out of our summer home. I’d like to emulate them and I’ve toyed with the idea of turning off our wifi, but then no one could reach us by email–and I’ve already discovered that people assume that if they can’t reach me by email I’m either out of town or dead. And I couldn’t post on my blogs without the ‘net or communicate with my editors or set up playdates (I don’t ever pick up the phone). So every time I think of it, I talk myself out of it.
I’ll just keep taking the kids to the library and, when they complain about being bored, point them to the books they’ve taken out. I know that once they’ve started a good one, they won’t be able to put it down until they’re done. And if that just happens a few times this summer to each of them, I’ll be happy.