It’s Tough To Get My Son To Love Reading When Kids Books Are So Terrible

The truth hurts.

by Anthony Mariani
Originally Published: 
boy holding book in library
flickr / Amanda Tipton

The following was written for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.

Indeed, I am a frustrated writer. I put a lot of time and effort into my long-form storytelling, and all I get in return is a steaming pile of nothing. Before penning a memoir about adopting a sick baby from Africa with my wife, I wrote a comedic (to me) sci-fi adventure novel, so for you folks keeping score at home, that’s 2 books that I’ve written that will never go beyond the creaking, whirring embrace of my 2007 laptop, despite my desperation to find a publisher for them. I can’t help but feel a little sting every time I read or hear about a writer of what I perceive to be dubious talent landing a big, fat multi-book contract with HarperCollins and/or who is drawing frothy criticism from on high for his Brooklyn diaries or Jack Reachers. What I’m trying to say is that I have a hard time finding decent reading material for my child.

Maybe our noses have been in the wrong books. I am not too dim to realize that in the world of children’s literature, I may be the diary/Reacher lover. I may be the philistine. I may be pretty much everyone I know wrapped up into one (smart, kind, ruggedly handsome) package. (“Why anyone would read anything other than Pynchon, Morrison, or Updike is beyond me,” I am known to mutter in alleged book-loving company.)

All I can say is that in my family several “classic” children’s books and bestsellers sit on our bookshelf, and most of them are bad. Not all of them. But most.

Their chief failing is a lack of narrative logic. Fantasy is fine. No one here is anti-fantasy. The problem is that for fantasy to work correctly, for it to make the biggest, deepest impact, the reality of the book must be largely consistent with that of either our 3-dimensional world or with the world that the author has carefully – carefully – laid out for us. Hollywood understands this. Even in the implausible superhero films and Star Wars movies, certain causes elicit certain, logical effects, a simple concept that still appears to be beyond most children’s authors. In no universe known or unknown would a child be able to talk back to his mother, be sent to his room by her without any supper, and then be served supper – by the very person who had banished him – in the comfy confines of his room for doing what, exactly? For fantasizing about wild things? First of all, food is not a weapon. It should never be used as one. Secondly, assuming (rightfully) that our little ones need constant help discerning right from wrong, what is the lesson of Where the Wild Things Are? That if you talk back to your mom and dream about monsters, you’ll get dinner in your room? My son talks back just fine on his own. He doesn’t need any encouragement.

The only redeeming quality of Where the Wild Things Are is the artwork. I remember looking at it for hours as a kid, studying the gritty, fuzzy lines and luxuriating in the transportative magic of the moon and the island landscape, with its spindly palm trees and cushiony hills. I did not care about the story. Maurice Sendak apparently didn’t either.

Some of Apollo’s books are beyond saving.

“You cannot write for children,” the author/illustrator once famously said. “They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”

Wild Things was definitely “of interest” to my younger self. Or maybe I was entranced by it because it was one of the only books in the house on my tiny level. That and an illustrated Bible from which a rendering of a piercingly red, frightfully mustachioed Satan would jump out at you if you clumsily chanced across it. The youngest of 4, I was born at a time when, as I like to joke, my parents had totally “checked out” on parenting. Perhaps like that back-talking, wild thing dreamer-upper Max, I was, essentially, raised by wolves. My mom, to this day, still tries to sell me on my purported exceptionalness.

“You were always independent, Anthony,” she whines. “I didn’t have the heart to crush your free spirit!”

You know what I don’t have the heart for now, Ma? Telling you that Sissy Spacek’s character in Bloodline gave nearly the exact same speech to her screw-up of a youngest son last week.

I can still remember the one and only time my mom read to me. As I lay in bed with my chocolate milk-brown covers pulled up to my neck, she sat beside me with a small, thick book propped up in one hand. The artwork was delightfully clunky and colorful.

“Brown bear, brown bear,” she read sweetly out loud, “what do you see?”

I thought she had lost her mind.

“I see a red bird looking at me.”

I probably never would have become a lifelong reader if not for my older brothers’ comic books, there in 2 neat stacks on the floral green-orange-and-white lid of the radiator in the living room. Brown bears and wild things weren’t nearly as appealing as violent musclemen and curvy babes. See? You can get away with being 5 years old and “reading” superhero comic books when you’re navigating toddlerhood on your own. Thankfully, my situation then is not my son’s now. He is not being raised by wolves. Or by Wolverine, either. Since adopting Apollo 3 years ago, my wife and I have been reading to him at least 2 books every night and always one book before naptime. We are inspired, mostly, by love. We want him to enjoy reading as much as I do. (My wife is take-it-or-leave-it about it.) Reading deeply may make him “smarter and nicer.” Like his old man.

My wife and I are also inspired by fear. One in 6 third graders who are unable to read at grade level do not graduate high school on time. High school dropouts constitute more than 80 percent of the United States’ incarcerated population. The school-to-prison pipeline is very real and very scary, especially for Apollo. As a black child, he is 3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than a white student, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. (Our son has already been kicked out of preschool. He was 4 years old at the time. The only other black child in his classroom, as my wife and I later learned, also got the boot.)

Even from the perspective of a literary genius, good children’s books do exist.

I’m not here to give a lecture on the importance of reading. I just worry that all of these plot holes and poorly structured sentences and comma splices that my family and I encounter before bed and nap every day are going to have a negative effect on the little dude. Not reading to him is not an option. Great writer that my wife and mom say I am, I have started doing what I can to lessen any potentially harmful impacts. Some of Apollo’s books are beyond saving. I have been hiding them in his other bookshelf, the one in his room stocked with either younger or older material. Some of his other books currently in circulation are salvageable but only with the intervention of a great writer. Near the ending of Giraffes Can’t Dance, I skip the part when our hero Gerald starts moving and grooving wonderfully to violin music played by a cricket. Only a few pages earlier, the author had told us that “when it came to dancing,” Gerald was “really very bad.” So can this freaking giraffe dance or can’t he? We will never know.

The crime in Giraffes Can’t Dance is merely cosmetic and ultimately forgivable (and easy to read around). Not so in the 2010 New York Times No. 1 bestseller Wemberly Worried. What is supposed to be a story about, I suppose, self-regulation is nothing but a meltdown waiting to happen. Wemberly is worried about everything, especially her first day of school – until she walks into class and meets a girl who also wears stripes, also carries a doll, and also shies away from crowds. Wemberly was worried, but now that she’s met her bestie – on the very first minute of her very first day of school – everything’s just hunky-dory. How convenient. What about the billions of kids who walk into kindergarten and don’t see anyone who looks like them? Where’s their book, HarperCollins?

One of a few books for Apollo or someone like him which we own is a “classic.” Highly recommended by the internet, Corduroy was groundbreaking in 1968: An African-American girl buys a teddy bear at a department store. Fantastic, but author/illustrator Don Freeman spends entirely too much time stressing the titular toy’s financial worth. Lisa, the little girl, can’t “buy” him the first time she sees him because Mom says they’ve “spent too much already.” It’s only after Lisa has counted what she has saved in her “piggy bank” that girl and bear can be united. Reading Corduroy, I edit out the references to money while trying also to block out the memory of a regular at a local tavern.

“That’s what we wanna do,” this young lady would screech at me from behind her Currs Laght, referencing the permastoned dude who had the great misfortune of being her husband or boyfriend or whatever. “We wanna buy us a little black baby. Ain’t that what y’all did?! Buy yerselves a baby?!”

Yes, Skylar, that is what we did, but if for some reason you believe that pregnancies are inexpensive, then maybe you 2 should continue hanging out at the bar all day. For adoption, you also have to submit to random drug and alcohol tests, so …

That’s a lie but one I didn’t mind telling her, because it immediately sent her and Stoner Joe on their horrible way.

Even from the perspective of a literary genius, good children’s books do exist. I’m proud to say that of the 100 or so titles in Apollo’s library, his very favorites closely align with mine and my wife’s. Along with a few series (Thomas and Friends, Zen Ties, Curious George) and a few standalones (Goodnight Moon, Dragons Love Tacos, The Little Engine That Could), there is a Frog and Toad compendium, also known collectively in our house as “the best damn children’s books ever.”

My son talks back just fine on his own. He doesn’t need any encouragement.

Created by Arnold Lobel in the early 1970s, the titular amphibians are dapper best friends who run into sticky situations together or go on quaint adventures: trying to be brave, cleaning house, even just being alone. There never really is a lesson per se, just an overall mood: love sandwiched between peace and harmony.

My favorite F&T story, though they’re all great, is “A Lost Button.” When Frog and Toad return to Toad’s house after a long walk, Toad, the short, grumpy one, realizes that he’s lost a button from his jacket. The sweet, always sunny Frog offers to help him retrace their steps. Along the way, the friends come across a bunch of other lost buttons. Toad pockets them all. Back at Toad’s house, after Frog has gone home, Toad looks down, and there on the floor is his lost button.

“What a lot of trouble I have made for Frog,” Toad grouses.

Toad takes off his jacket and sews all of his new buttons onto it. The next day, he gifts the sparkling new garment to Frog.

“Frog thought that it was beautiful,” Lobel writes. “He put it on, and he jumped for joy.”

When I was in 6th grade, after my mom discovered that I didn’t mind reading and writing too horribly, she gave me a journal. Bound in a caramel-colored hide of some sort and ornamented with a silken faux gold-leaf bookmark, the 150 or so pages were themed around American history. Every month, an image or 2 with an informative caption appeared atop a spread: George Washington crossing the Delaware, the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the signing of the Constitution. October featured a reproduction of what I believed was a “really old” painting. Yawning across the top of the canvas is a sky that would be completely empty if not for one ragged cloud and a couple of trailing wisps. Stretching horizontally across the middle, a dark tree line hovers above a placid river. On top of a flatboat shown from behind sit several young men, each wearing work boots, dark pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and, except for one rider, a hat. Between 3 men in the foreground with their backs to the viewer and 2 guys standing at the prow are 2 more young men. One of them plays fiddle while the other bangs on a frying pan. They flank a man dancing, his longish brown hair flowing freely, his hands rising above his head to form a “V,” and with one foot in the air. His expression isn’t joyous as much as serious, determined, focused, as if he can’t bear the thought of losing the moment.

George Caleb Bingham’s luminist 1846 painting “The Jolly Flatboatmen” churned up a lot of thoughts, feelings, and fictional memories in me. I happily allowed myself to be swallowed by it. I imagined what life must have been like back then, in the South (probably), poor (undoubtedly), working for the Man, slushing through swamps, wearing only dirty clothes, always warring with grimy hands, gritty teeth, and bad odors, chasing away stress with moonshine and, of course, dancing. The gulfs of time achieving singularity, returning feeling to my fingers, my eyes, my body, a majestic psychic increasement writ in mud, I thought of the currents crossed by these men, the freight they carried, flour, salt, gunpowder, the tiniest wheels of the gargantuan economic engine that would form the foundation of our 21st-century bounty.

In the final panel of “A Lost Button,” Frog, his face a spectacle of unadulterated joy, is the jolliest flatboatman. He is soaring in his new jacket, his flappy frog feet high off the ground.

“Anth?” my wife says to me from next to Apollo and me on the couch.

“I’m fine, babe,” I parry, and while trying not to enjoy the salty taste of the rivulets of clear snot methodically advancing from my nostrils to my upper lip, I grab the little boy sitting on my lap and squeeze him tight. Breathing in the soft, angelically soft, wonderfully curly texture of his beautiful head, I promise him: For as long as Mommy and Daddy are alive, we will keep you safe, and we will always love you.

And we will always read to you and – soon, hopefully – with you.

Anthony Mariani, a former freelancer for The Village Voice, the Oxford American, and Paste magazine, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and the editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, recently finished writing a parenthood/adulthood/boozehood memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at anthonyjosephmariani@gmail.com.

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