Literacy rates are declining in developed English-speaking countries. Some blame MTV. Others blame the Internet. The fact is, children and young adults (our future, in other words) simply aren’t interested. It’s not that they can’t read, but they don’t want to. They simply aren’t interested.
Declining literacy knows no race, no income level, no bounds. A recent report, “Reading at Risk,” by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) shows a decline across all demographics in the United States. Dana Gioia, the chairman for the NEA, shares the bleakness of a report the NEA is not happy to issue: “For the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature....”
Authors David Brin, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear are concerned by declining literacy. In an open letter to the science fiction community, they pose this thought: “Consider the ages from twelve to fifteen, when a person’s sense of wonder either blooms or withers.”
How many young readers’ sense of wonder withers away, leaving them as dull, apathetic, non-reading adults? Where is the joy in their lives? Where’s the hope for the future, the desire to look ahead, or even just the ability to escape from the daily grind for an hour?
It’s gone. What greater shame can there be?
How can this be prevented? How can you stir the imagination of a young reader and raise literacy at the same time?
Easy. Give a kid a science fiction book.
Science fiction and fantasy have long maintained the reputation of being highly imaginative. What better genre is there for sparking the imagination?
The film industry knows this. Look at the top 100 grossing films of all time. More than 80 percent of them are science fiction and fantasy.
Librarians know this. Look at their book lists of recommended reading—a goodly number of them are speculative fiction in one form or another.
Reading for the Future knows this. Their website explains, “Reading for the Future is a volunteer organization whose aim is to help young people develop a love of reading and intellectual adventure through the vehicle of science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fiction.”
Through programs like “Pass It On” (which gives away SF books free to teens on the condition that after they have enjoyed the book, they pass it on to another person) and educational support programs, this grassroots organization does its best to ensure that science fiction books end up in young hands.
Readers can’t read if they don’t have books.
Deb Parkes is a school teacher at a primary school in Western Australia. Every day she sees students who are at high risk for declining literacy. When asked what one thing could be done by anyone to help fight declining literacy, she replied, “Read to children. Read to them every day. Make sure they own books.” She also shares a story of a young student who, at the end of the year, received a book as an award. His sheer joy at receiving a book was greater than she expected. Turns out, it was the very first book he owned. At home, his parents didn’t have any books. When children live in homes without any books, is it any wonder that they don’t read?
So what can you do?
If you spend time with young children, read to them every chance you get. Build their love of wondrous stories and ignite that spark.
Before they’ve mastered spoken language, never mind reading skills, young infants hear stories from adults. What are some of the first ones they hear? Fairy tales and Dr. Seuss. Can anything else be more fantastic? Very few people can name a Dick and Jane story that they remember and love. Everyone can name a favorite fairy tale. Love for literature is established at a young age through fantasy.
For older children who can read, share some of your favorite books with them. Remember the awe of a Heinlein novel? Or perhaps of a Raymond Feist book? When you share a book, you also give the joy that goes with cracking a cover and that lovely sense of anticipation of knowing you are entering into a wondrous world beyond the one we now live in.
A survey by UK magazine Parenting lists the following books as ones parents most want to share with their children: C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (number one), A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Surprise, surprise, they are all speculative novels.
Often, children don’t read because they haven’t yet found books that really interest them. So what happens when a child finally finds that book? Magic. Look at what has happened with the Harry Potter phenomenon.
The sheer success of Harry Potter has kick-started a trend towards increasing literacy. In 2004 librarians saw students, who in the past had never voluntarily picked up a book in their lives, cue up to reserve Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a mammoth brick of a book rivaling War and Peace in length. And if they couldn’t get it right away, many of them were content to read an alternate recommendation while they waited.
Have trouble convincing teens that books are fascinating? Take them to the movies, then hand them the book. The success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has resurrected an interest in reading Tolkien (again, not traditionally considered an “easy read”).
The last thing you should do is think you cannot make a difference.
Declining literacy rates are a concern for all, especially the withering away of the imagination and the sense of wonder. That cannot and should not be lost. What a sad world it would be if the majority of the people within it do not know the joy of opening a book and being able to utter the word, “Wow.”