11/18/2011 08:11 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Reading Brings Healing

Over at the Parentlode Book Club we've been discussing how to teach children not only to read, but to love to read. (You can read the prior installments here and here.) Most recently we looked specifically at boys, and Vincent O'Keefe, a book club regular, realized we were talking about him -- well, the him he was several decades ago.

He was that boy, he says, who "hated to read." And now, as he will tell you, he is a writer and a ravenous devourer of books. He has some thoughts on how he got from there to here. And what he gained along the way. Lisa Belkin, Parentlode


When I was a boy, I hated to read. Today, I am a writer with a Ph.D. in American literature. Go figure. Upon reflection, I realize that several key moments in my upbringing nudged me toward a love of reading, which led to an ambition to write and, more generally, a drive to achieve. These motivating moments can be translated into four ways to encourage resistant children to read and write.

Before presenting these strategies, however, I want to highlight one of the long-term but seldom discussed benefits of reading and writing: healing. In the short term, this benefit might not seem as relevant to the topic of teaching children to love reading. But all parents know that trauma and grief are unavoidable parts of aging, and a love of reading cultivated as a child just might save an adult's life decades later.

In her recent memoir, "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading", Nina Sankovitch details the instrumental role that reading and writing can play in the healing process. A mother of four sons and a stepdaughter, Sankovitch's family life is radically disrupted by the death of her forty-six-year-old sister, Anne-Marie, from bile duct cancer. For three years Sankovitch tries to keep her life incredibly busy to avoid dealing with her grief and survivor guilt, but the sadness persists and she knows she needs some way of coping. Because she and her two sisters always enjoyed reading books, she decides to curtail her daily jobs and spend one full year reading a book a day and writing a review of each on a website called

Gradually, the books function as "an escape back into life," as her year of reading and writing teaches several healing concepts: savor beautiful moments; nurture memories that keep loved ones alive; accept that every life entails some suffering and never take life for granted. She remembers fondly how her immigrant parents created a rich literary environment at home: "Books were a part of my family's life, present in every room and read every night by both parents, to themselves and to us." She has managed to pass on that love to her children, and in a tip I had not seen before, she explains that "for at least one meal a week, I allow my kids to bring a book to the table and read while we eat. A shared meal, a shared pleasure."

Most poignantly, the reading-writing-healing connection is invaluable to Sankovitch's father as he copes with a traumatic past. Years ago, her father had begun writing a journal about the atrocities he experienced in Poland during World War II. Significantly, at the time "he could not talk about his memories but instead committed them to words on paper." At Anne-Marie's deathbed, her father repeatedly cries out "three in one night," which she does not understand. Soon after, he writes about the harrowing night when three of his siblings were killed by the Russians while his helpless mother listened from another room. Regarding both of these traumatic cases, Sankovitch states: "Stories helped him, and stories were helping me." Specifically, books help her "absorb" sorrow through memory and move forward, since "words are witness to life."

The subtitle of Sankovitch's book alludes to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking", an award-winning memoir about her first year after the loss of her husband. Early in the book, Didion remarks: "In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control." Ironically, Didion tries this strategy with grief, but partly because she finds the literature on this important topic "spare," she creates her book.

Like Didion and Sankovitch, I was raised in a similar "reading is power" environment, and I thank my parents for trying to foster that mindset. They provided a house with many books and frequently suggested titles that fit my interests. But I was a tough case and still lacked internal motivation to read for most of my childhood. For those parents facing similarly stubborn non-readers, here are four suggestions:

 1)   Reward them.
I disliked reading in elementary school because it cut into my sports time.  In desperation, my father started to pay me a small amount of money for reading any books of my choice. Such an external motivator runs the risk of sending the wrong message, and some may consider it manipulative or likely to backfire. But in my case, it served as a jump-start. I liked money, so I began reading books about -- what else? -- sports. In the process, I started to care less about the money and more about the reading, which became its own reward. Substitute rewards might include quality time, video games, sports tickets -- whatever appeals to the child at that age. Wisely, my father added the stipulation that I had to write a brief but specific book report for him before earning my reward. In hindsight, this linking of reading and writing was an excellent foundation for learning how to read critically.

 2)  Challenge them. Sometimes out of desperation (again) my father would challenge me to read a far-flung genre, like Asimov's science fiction or Poe's horror stories. Because I was competitive and liked a challenge, I found those suggestions more intriguing.

 3)  Join them.
It is great to find high-quality reading material for kids based on their interests. But if possible, go one step further and read the book simultaneously so you can discuss it with them. One recent trend has parents and their children starting reading groups where all the adults and kids are reading the same book. The meetings are a mixture of discussion and some of the more conventional things kids enjoy -- e.g. refreshments, games, or perhaps a related video.

 4)  Remind them.
In our highly visual culture, it is often difficult to remember (even for adults) that so much of what we see on television, at the movies, or on the internet began as something written and then read before being staged or filmed. As a teenager, I remember distinctly the satisfaction I experienced when Sylvester Stallone's  "First Blood" appeared in theaters and I had already read the novel it was based on. (Obviously, I was not yet into "healing" narratives at that age.) Kids can often be led back to reading via the texts behind their favorite movies or television shows. As famous actors frequently say when they accept an Academy Award, "It all begins with the writers." And those writers began as readers.

Finally, if all else fails, keep modeling the importance of reading and remain patient. My love affair with reading did not begin in earnest until tenth grade, when I read Richard Wright's Native Son. I had no idea a book could contain such narrative pacing and moral complexity. Within a few months my career path crystallized, and the rest has been a cherished history of reading, writing, and, unexpectedly, healing.