This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling
This post originally appeared over Thanksgiving weekend on LinkedIn.
As Thanksgiving weekend began, one of the things I’ve been most thankful for is my sons’ love of reading. But that love wasn’t fostered either quickly or easily. In fact, our oldest struggled quite a bit. Then, one day when we were on vacation, stuck in traffic, I heard him in the backseat start to read aloud the Big Hero 6 Level 2 reader he’d just gotten at the Museum of Science gift shop. The Yiddish word to describe how I felt is verklempt. Before long, he was reading above grade level, and somewhere along the way, I picked up a boxed set of the Harry Potter series.
A few years later, we started down a similar road with our youngest. While he loved being read to, he hadn’t quite had that moment where it clicked for him. One day, we headed down to Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore in San Diego, and he picked out the first in the Wings of Fire series. I knew it was far beyond his abilities yet, but bought it figuring we could read it as a family. In the car, he took it out and started to try and read it. He got through about three lines, and suddenly he made a sound like an old Jewish man, “Ach! I can’t read this.” I laughed all the way home.
A few months later, he got sick; but don’t worry; this isn’t about to take some tragic turn.
He got just sick enough where going to school that day wasn’t an option. He decided he wanted to get into his sleeping bag in the loft and asked me to read Harry Potter to him. I think we were on the second book and I read a chapter and then told him I needed to go back to work. He didn’t want to stop reading, so I handed him the book and told him to knock himself out. Have I mentioned yet he was in kindergarten? My expectations of him continuing to read it were low. He was pretty much reading picture books to us.
A long while later, I came back upstairs and found him still reading it, sounding out the words and reading to himself aloud.
I confirmed something that day that I had long suspected, which was that kids will read given nothing else to do and a book that engages them. I remember the first novel I read was The Finches’ Fabulous Furnace, and I was downstairs in my father’s office and it was pouring rain outside. My oldest was literally stuck in a car in traffic with nothing but a book to distract him. My youngest was stuck home sick, and really wanted to know how the novel would turn out.
My boys are now nine and eleven and the night before Thanksgiving, we finished the last Harry Potter novel. The boys have read the entire series at least once and maybe even twice, but it was reading it as a family that has been a real gift to me. I had only ever read the first one, so reading the rest of the series was a treat.
The whole family would get in bed to read some each night (well, as time permitted). And I made a rule that we couldn’t watch any of the movies until we finished the book of the movie. My wife and I had started reading to our oldest at bedtime when he was two weeks old. Here we are, eleven years later, and still reading to our boys. We used to alternate reading, but I started reading them like I was performing an audio book, voices and all. I was quite happy with my Dumbledore and Hagrid and Hermione, but I never really did nail down Harry, ironically. I won’t say my wife couldn’t compete, but you have to give the audience what it wants, and they wanted the voices. (I owe a bit of thanks to Oliver Wyman, the reader of When the Heavens Fall, by Marc Turner. He did a great job and I was inspired by it to start doing the voices while reading.)
We’re not done reading as a family, I know. We have plenty from the Wings of Fire series to read (for a while, we alternated WoF with HP, but then we just focused on HP and they continued to read WoF on their own), and I have the His Dark Materials trilogy in a drawer to give them and think that may be our next big push, before I let them watch the mini-series.
I genuinely feel I owe J. K. Rowling a debt of gratitude, for creating these characters and this story that my sons loved so much that they snuggled in and let me read every page of it to them over so many years. Someday, we’ll stop reading at bedtime, I know, but until then, I’ll enjoy—and be thankful for—every minute of it.