Dispatches | October 10, 2011

On a recent trip home to Kansas City, I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble to pick up a birthday present for my boyfriend. While standing in line to pay for the book, I heard the unmistakeable wailing of a child throwing a tantrum. I was notorious for my tantrums during my terrible twos, and because of that, I not only appreciate tantrums, but like to think of them as an Olympic sport for kids. And the little girl who got in line behind me deserved multiple gold medals.

“Mommy, I want a book!” She screamed, her red face splotchy with tears as she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “I want a book! I want a book! I want a book!

Some people close by shot disapproving glances, some passersby winced, and the employees behind the counter stood with fake smiles plastered on their faces. But I couldn’t stop laughing. I’ve seen kids throw tantrums over toys, clothes, candy, you name it – but I have never seen a kid throw a tantrum over a book.

I let the family go in front of me so I could watch them. While the mother paid for something at the register, the dad stood with his arms crossed, glaring at his shrieking daughter. A little boy, probably around seven, stood quietly beside him. All the while, the little girl kept crying and screaming, “I want a book! I want a book!”

It would be unfair of me to make assumptions about this family. For starters, it is very possible that this little girl throws a tantrum every time she walks into a store. Maybe she had just thrown a tantrum ten minutes before, over an Elmo doll or an ice cream cone. Maybe she already has a hundred books at home she has yet to read, and her parents are sick of buying them. Maybe her parents simply don’t have the finances to buy her a book every time she wants one. (Although the mother’s Coach handbag, and the family’s matching tall Starbucks hot chocolates suggested otherwise.)

But even with all of this in mind, as I watched the family leave the store, all I could think was: “For Pete’s sake, just get that kid a book.”

I won’t be a mother for quite some time, and I am in no position to give anyone parenting advice. But I was a little girl myself not too long ago, and I understand what made me the young woman I am today. Around my own tantrum-throwing age, I would drop an armful of books in my mom’s lap and stand there until she pulled up on the couch next to her and read to me. As I grew older, I developed a stutter, and my speech therapist required that I practice reading out loud. Most nights, my mom would sit on the edge of my bed and listen while I read Dear America and Pony Pal books out loud to her. Throughout elementary and middle school, I took a book with me everywhere I went, and read in class when I finished my homework, or under my desk when my teacher wasn’t looking. And my parents bought me books. For birthdays, for major holidays, for no reason at all – my parents gave me books.

I would not have developed a love for reading if my parents, and especially my mother, had not taken the time to show me the magic of books, and to encourage me to read. Because of them, I spent my childhood exploring old Boxcars, Magic Treehouses, Hogwarts, and the uncharted territories of my own imagination.

But when I think about the generation behind mine, and even the generation my own phantom children will someday belong to, I get scared. We’ve all heard the statistics about “kids these days.” They watch more TV, spend more time on the computer, and play more video games than even my technology-obsessed generation does. They prefer anything with a screen and moving pictures to black and white words on a page. And it’s only going to get worse from here.

Here’s a thought: as that family left the store, they passed by one of the unmissable Nook displays that dominate the entrance of every Barnes & Noble. I always run past them because Nooks (and Kindles) tend to raise my blood pressure. Recently, I discovered a Nook commercial (which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KkZN6qUS-s ) that shows a little girl falling asleep in bed, reading The Cat in the Hat on her Nook. Because clearly, Nooks are better suited to teach children how to read than parents are. Why spend quality time with your daughter or son when they can cuddle up with a digital Dr. Seuss?

I would like to believe that if those parents stopped by the Nook display and offered their tantrum-throwing daughter a Nook, she would have turned up her nose at it – because even kids know the difference between an actual book and an overpriced reading device. But who knows. She might have started screaming, “I want a Nook!” and thrown her Starbucks hot chocolate on the floor.

Despite my disdain for the Nook ad, they did get one thing right: we need to read forever. Chances are, if you read this blog, you are a writer, or a lover of literature. I know I don’t need to lecture you to read more. But because we are writers and readers, it is our duty to be advocates for reading, and for books. We need to throw tantrums over books, over the stories that thrilled us when we were first learning how to read, and the stories that thrill us today. Somebody has to get kids, and all our technology-loving peers, excited about reading. It might as well be us.

Personally, I promise that if I ever see another little kid throwing a tantrum over a book, I will not only buy them a book, I will buy them two. Then I’ll probably throw a tantrum myself, just for fun.