When I was a child, I hated reading books. Yet today as an adult, I not only read a ton of books—I write them. How did this happen? Did my temperament change drastically? I don’t think so. I think I could have learned to love reading as a child if only I was exposed to the right books.
The reason I hated reading was I never read books for fun. I never chose books I wanted to read, only those assigned to me in school—and they were rarely fun. Many were literary classics hailed as masterpieces, but I was too young to comprehend or appreciate them. The language was either too difficult or the themes went over my head. Every book seemed boring compared to the action-packed shows I watched on television, which caused me to think all books were boring and hate reading overall.
I’ve since re-read many of those books assigned to me in middle and high school, such as those by Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Melville, and Fitzgerald, and I can now recognize their genius. But I wasn’t ready to read those books at that time. Just as important as what book you read is when you read it. There are likewise books I enjoyed earlier in life but might cringe at if I re-read now.
Schools may be doing a disservice to children by forcing them to read high-brow literary classics too early. Children at the elementary and middle school levels should be encouraged to read the kinds of books that interest them personally, so they first learn to love reading in general. Then they would be more prepared with a reading comprehension level astute enough to handle the more sophisticated classic books of literature commonly assigned in high school. The especially complex books with archaic language might best be reserved for students who choose to study literature in college.
I love science fiction, but the closest thing to science fiction I ever read in middle and high school was 1984 by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Those books were not exactly “fun” to read as a young teen. (Though I have since re-read both as an adult and appreciated them as the classic works of artistic genius they are.) If, however, I had read a YA science fiction book set in space with action and adventure (such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or any of Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles), I may have fallen in love with reading sooner. Are those books better than Fahrenheit 451 or 1984? No, but they would have been better for me at that time. Yet I never encountered any books like those because I only read what was assigned through school, which were never action-packed science fiction adventure stories with young adult protagonists I could relate to. Therefore, I had no idea such exciting books even existed.
Harry Potter is a good example. The first book in J.K. Rowling’s series about a young boy wizard came out when I was eleven years old—the same age as Harry in the books—and the perfect age to read such a book and become an enthusiastic fan. Yet I never read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or any other book in the series because I wasn’t assigned to read it in school. I had to read so many books in class that I simply didn’t have the time to add another book on top of those, “just for fun.” I preferred to spend my free time doing other things like watching TV, movies, playing with Legos, video games, and sports. Which makes sense for a young boy. (I did see all the Harry Potter movies.) But if my school did assign me to read Harry Potter—if not in class, at least for summer reading—then who knows what would have happened. I might have loved it, become hooked, and wanted to read the rest of the series, regardless of whether it was assigned at school or not. Then I might have sought out similar books and never stopped. Though I had other interests, I could have squeezed in more reading if I really wanted to.
The truth is, an 11-year-old is not going to get as much from reading William Shakespeare as they will from reading J.K. Rowling. Of course, Shakespeare is great and should still be read, but maybe not by 11-year-olds—or even 16-year-olds—unless they’re a sufficiently advanced reader. If children start reading more for fun earlier in life, they will be better prepared to handle Shakespeare in high school. Which is why the most important thing at the elementary and middle school ages is to get children to read, period. You have to meet them where they are and assign the kinds of books that appeal to them personally. Ender’s Game and Heinlein would have been perfect for me, but perhaps not for other students in my class who would have been turned off by science fiction. Ideally, the teacher should know their students and assign personalized reading lists that appeal to each individual.
Perhaps this has and does happen to other children—they have a teacher, parent, librarian, or mentor who introduces them to books they will love—but that wasn’t my experience. It wasn’t until after I graduated college, and I had no more “assigned” books to read, that I started reading for fun—picking and choosing the books I wanted to read. Unsurprisingly, that was when I finally fell in love with reading. Now I sometimes go back and re-read books from high school and college that I only skimmed or read the Sparknotes from and I find them fascinating. I wish I had my current mind and intellect to appreciate those books back then, but I simply wasn’t ready yet.
As a child, I hated writing just as much as I hated reading because most of the writing I did in school were essays about the books I hated reading. The only time I enjoyed writing was on the ultra-rare occasion we had a creative writing assignment. I can count on one hand the number of times that happened in sixteen years of schooling. In the fifth grade we were assigned to write a short fiction story (which is included as bonus content in the Story Addict ebook), and I still remember it fondly to this day because I had so much fun doing it. But I never pursued creative writing outside of school. Perhaps a club, mentor, or after-school program could have nudged me in that direction, but I never encountered those either. It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class in college that I got to practice creative writing again, and I loved it so much that I haven’t stopped since.
A child who reads something easy and fun while young will learn to love reading books early in life and later graduate to the dense and complex classics—when they are ready. I got there eventually, though I often wonder what could have been had I fell in love with reading (and writing) sooner.