(Note: this article was first published in July of 2021 in Jasmine J’s great book review website: http://www.jazzybookreviews.com. Many thanks to Jasmine for posting it there.)
My wife and I were living and teaching in a college in Taiwan at the time when I presented my first gift of a book to my two boys. It was a beautiful old, hard-bound edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island: Scribner’s 1911, mint condition, wonderfully illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. My own first copy of this edition had come from my father’s bookshelf, and I wasn’t about to give my kids anything less.
I showed them the marvelous cover of the thing: a couple of angry pirates with swords in hand and pistols drawn and mutiny in their eyes. I hefted the volume in both hands for a moment and then handed it over to them with the deepest sense of satisfaction and a promise to read it to them every night.
I must confess, I was a little disappointed when, on the second night, I looked up from my reading to confront two totally blank expressions. They just weren’t ‘getting’ it; didn’t have a clue!
My wife Sharilyn was quick to offer a bit of solace: “Don’t forget, dear, they’re only one and three.”
But what, I’d like to know now, looking back on it all. What, on earth, was I trying to do? What did I expect? Immediately, of course, I ordered some age-appropriate books from the States and began reading those to the boys. It wasn’t too long before they were sounding out words on their own, and shortly after that I was asking my stateside family to send us some easy readers.
And all the while those two angry pirates were sitting there on that shelf; just waiting…waiting to take over.
We lived in the northernmost outskirts of Taipei. There was not a word of English on our radio or TV. Cell phones and the internet had not yet arrived. Whatever entertainment this life might have for our boys would have to be dug, like a treasure, from the pages of a book. And it occurred to me that, in moving there and living that way, we had transported ourselves back to the past…
Have you ever thought of what it must have been like for teens and pre-teens in ages gone by? Back in the days of no electronics: no screens, no video games, no TV to watch. Think of it: a ‘book’ was their only ‘device’! Treasure Island, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Swiss Family Robinson—even Moby Dick—these were a teenager’s only escape! These were the “video games” of ages past.
I notice that the authors of these wonderful works really had no penchant for dumbing things down. Teenagers looking for entertainment would have to plough into these volumes and dig it up for themselves! And so, of course, that’s what they did; after all, the only other alternative was terminal boredom!
The end result of all this was a wonderful world of articulate, knowledgeable people—with or without formal education!—with excellent vocabularies that far surpass our own today!
One day, several years later, I came back from my classes to discover that the “pirates” had finally stormed the house! “I’m reading Treasure Island, Dad! It’s awesome,” my oldest son announced. He was twelve years old, and he was reading it to his younger brother.
Both of them have been avid readers ever since, and now there are pirates on their children’s shelves…just sitting there…waiting.
Note: For further reading on this topic, I strongly recommend Meghan Cox Gurdon’s delightful The Enchanted Hour : “celebrating the beauty of books and the power of reading aloud.” You will also enjoy her weekly column on children’s books in the Wall Street Journal Review Section every Saturday.