When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I recall Sendak's haunting depiction of Max. He had a wild streak, like lots of little boys, and he entered the book and my imagination dressed in a wolf suit, tormenting the family dog and hammering things to the wall. At Max's age, I was distinctly afraid of monsters in my closet at night. This book both fed those anxieties and assuaged them, for Max did become the king of the wild things, gaining dominion over his fears and nightmares in what was a groundbreaking book, psychologically speaking.
Knowing I wanted to write a blog post about early reading, I called my mother in Atlanta to ask her what she remembers about my learning to read, what books I liked and didn't like and what she feels has changed in the last 50 years in how parents guide their children in selecting books. Interestingly, she had no memory of Where the Wild Things Are or my approach/avoidance behavior towards that book, but told me that some of my favorite books were ones that are often frowned upon today. Grimm's Fairy Tales were very popular when I was little, but too dark and frightening in the eyes of many of today's parents. That never bothered my mom. There was no collective feeling among parents back then that these stories could be harmful to children because, after all, they taught necessary lessons about good and evil, and apparently, I loved them.
The discussion continued. I heard a story about my 9-year-old nephew absolutely loving any books containing bathroom humor... and how funny my mom thought this was, especially when she first heard him use the term "bottom burp." Suddenly, I had my angle for this post. Bear with me.
How do parents help their children become better readers? Well, I must first state that I have a problem with the term "better." Better in what way? Better grades in reading at school? More voracious? More fluent? More likely to develop a lifelong love of reading? Able to write a better book report? I think you have to look at how one becomes a good reader in developmental stages. In elementary school, kids need to love to read and to do it very, very often. Kids become "better" readers in the ways mentioned by practicing. If they are reluctant readers, how can parents help them become engaged in reading so that they will invest lots of time doing it?
A friend from Connecticut was staying with me as I began to write this article. He mentioned his 8-year-old son, who struggles with reading, acquired his first dog-eared favorite in The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Ahhhh... that most hated of potty-mouth humor books, at best tolerated and at worst banned by a fair percentage of parents and teachers everywhere. I asked my friend if it bothered him that his son could not get enough of this series, and he smiled and said, "Of course not. It's funny! You couldn't even say the word 'underpants' in our house for, like, a year. But, it's just a phase. He's reading a children's biography now." Aren't most things a phase during childhood, more or less? I'm pretty sure my friend isn't worried that his son will still be reading Captain Underpants in high school.
I used to hear a lot about Captain Underpants during lunch in the schools where I worked. You learn a lot about the lives of your students at lunch table duty! But I had not read Captain Underpants myself in years, so I recently picked up a copy of the first book in the series and sat down and read it. Can I just say that I was laughing out loud? None of this ubiquitously hollow LOL stuff that peppers the Internet. I mean, I was truly guffawing. If I were in 3rd or 4th grade, especially if I were a boy, I would not be able to stop turning the pages. As a middle-aged woman, I could not stop turning the pages!
For children who avoid picking up books or drop them easily to run outside or go boot up the computer, Captain Underpants and similar books could be the ticket that turns your "I'd rather play my Game Boy" kid into one who soon reads Harry Potter. For parents concerned about the distasteful language of the "It's snot funny" variety, I'd guess that what your children see on television and in the theaters is of somewhat greater concern. I'd rather have my child laughing at doo-doo jokes in a comic book and developing a thirst for reading than watching some of today's kid movies that are full of violence, sexual innuendo and adult banter, all aimed at entertaining the parents in the audience. At least Super Diaper Baby reaches kids on their own level.
I'm all for helping kids find their passions in books, whether that be Captain Underpants, illustration-rich nonfiction books about rocket ships or butterflies or books that are technically below a child's uppermost tested reading level. It's about what gets your child to not hear you when you announce that dinner is ready. It's not about title dropping. When adults become vocally competitive with each other about what their children are reading, children get pressured to read books that are too difficult or "boring" and can be turned off by reading altogether. There will be plenty of time for emerging readers to get to the classics. Job One is getting them to voluntarily bring books into the car, even if they are not great literature, which the likes of Captain Underpants most certainly is not.
Reading Captain Underpants is not for the adult faint of heart, but can be a great vehicle for the reluctant reader and his or her parents to share a love of reading and more than a few belly laughs.
Wicked Wedgie Woman signing off now... and remember, never underestimate the power of underwear!