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What Reading “Treasure Island” to My Grandson Taught Me About Modern Kids

Was it somehow my fault that he didn’t find the story as compelling as I once did, and still do?

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For a preadolescent boy, what’s not to like about buried treasure, scuffles with daggers, swords, and muskets, a vicious one-legged pirate, a treacherous blind beggar, a marooned sailor desperate for cheese, death warnings that come as black smudges on pages ripped from the bible? Especially when the lead character, Jim Hawkins, is a 12-or 13-year-old boy who actively participates in the mayhem. 

A few days after the COVID-19 shut-down I decided to read Treasure Island to my 10-year old grandson. It would be over Zoom since face-to-face visits weren’t possible and he lives nearly 900 miles away. When I was a child, my mother read Stevenson’s coming-of-age adventure story to me. The book was one of my favorites and I was certain that my grandson would also love it. 

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Before we started, I scanned a few chapters of the unabridged version, as well as graphic illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Eye-popping stuff, but it occurred to me that the story might be too raw for a preteen brought up in a gentile suburb. Would stabbings and shootings, drinking and drunkenness, treason and double-crosses be too much for him? 

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While anchored off Treasure Island and before the gold is found, a wounded pirate chases Jim, who is armed with a pair of pistols, up the ship’s mast. The pirate throws two knives, the first misses and the second pins Jim to the mast by his shoulder. In shock and pain, he fires both pistols but misses. The pirate loses his grip, falls into the ocean and drowns. 

The reading via Zoom wasn’t a total flop; we did make it through all 26 chapters of the ‘Classic Starts’ edition. But it was apparent to me, my wife who was listening, and my grandson, that I enjoyed the story more than he. This gave me pause. Was it somehow my fault that he didn’t find the story as compelling as I once did, and still do?

My daughter tried to console me. He’s seen a lot of this stuff before, she explained, having been introduced to this story, and pirates in general, through cartoons, comics, and picture books. She was right. This led me to ponder the stark differences between the way I was brought up in the 1950s, versus that of my children and grandchildren. 

As a child, being read to was major entertainment for me since we didn’t have a television until I was 13. My mother didn’t work outside the home and read to me often. I can still hear her voice whenever someone mentions Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Treasure Island, or A Christmas Carol

Aside from listening to radio, my upbringing in the 50s wasn’t much different from hers in the first decade of the 20th century. For both of us, amusements in the home consisted of reading, conversation, games, and visits with friends. We both had older brothers and sisters and grew up in a family where books were important.

When my children were young, I flirted with the idea of having them grow up television-free, but quickly abandoned the idea. My then-wife would not have tolerated it, and besides, they would get their TV fix in the homes of friends, relatives, and at day-care. Although they were read to, the experience for them wasn’t unique like it was for me. Both my wife and I worked, plus our children had lots of other entertainment opportunities we never had. In addition to television, they had access to many nascent digital devices, a wide range of school and outside activities, plus many travel and communication possibilities. The bare bones of those were available in the fifties, but not nearly to the extent they were several decades later. 

For my grandchildren, radio and television are relics of the past. Their link to the world’s resources — books, movies, games, friends, relatives, grandparents, even school and social events — is a slim black rectangle not much larger than a coloring book. Their world is richer than mine not only because of these technological advancements but also because they are growing up on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Many of their classmates represent different cultures, speak other languages, live in multigenerational families where English is the second language.

My grandchildren know their way around sushi, pad thai, dim sum, kimchi, focaccia, pasta carbonara, risotto, mangoes, jack fruit, and balut — in my home, garlic was an unusual spice and Italian food was spaghetti. They take advantage of museums, plays, concerts, zoos, sporting events, ethnic food, and street fairs. For better or worse they are in full view of demonstrations and parades, foreign visitors and political chicanery, never-ending fascination over our president’s struts and stumbles.

Is my grandson deprived just because he’s not enchanted by pirates, mutiny, and buried treasure? It would be foolish to suggest so; he’s having many more interesting experiences than I ever had. My only concern is not what he has, but what he has not: times when there’s nothing to do and he must amuse himself. Opportunities to be entertained only with images triggered by a book, story, or song, has been gradually winnowed away. My grandson doesn’t have to conjure fantasies, they are created by others and streamed in. 

A vivid imagination is at the root of all significant scientific, technological, and artistic achievements. Critical thinkers are those who envision other possibilities and dare to let them take flight. All minds, especially young ones, must be constantly invigorated. That requires more than just shutting off the televisions and video games. Keys to imaginative thinking surround us, and my grandson is getting a stiff dose: exotic foods, interesting travel, arts and crafts, music, literature, theater, sports. 

So long as he doesn’t forget his cardboard tricorne hat and tinfoil sword while searching for buried gold in the back yard. 

Before the sea adventure begins, Jim and his mother rifle through Billy Bones’ sea chest, looking for money to pay his lodging debt at the Admiral Benbow Inn. In addition to the map of Treasure Island, they find a cloth bag filled with coins of all denominations— doubloons, louis d’ors, guineas, and pieces of eight—but Jim’s mother only knows how to make the count in guineas and will only take what’s owed. While she struggles for the correct coins, they hear the rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of the blind man’s stick upon the frozen ground outside….

Andrew Miller retired from a career that included research in aquatic systems at a government laboratory and university teaching. If it weren’t for the pandemic, he and his wife Kathryn, plus their Maine Coon cat Smokey, would all be on Deer Isle, in Down East Maine.