In 2011, I published an optimistic essay in Literary Mama. One Book at a Time explored the process of building a library for my son Gabriel, who was then approaching four years old. I hatched my literary scheme on his first birthday with the purchase of Great Expectations, nursing hormones still pulsing through me. Every year I would carefully select a book from the Everyman Library. On the title page of each, I would pen a thoughtful letter to him, or to his future self. I would reflect on his growth, his emergent personality traits, and the values I wished him to gain from the book. I would present him with this box of gems when he turned thirteen, for his bar mitzvah. I grew teary every time I imagined it. My son, dropping to his knees, gazing in wonder at the books in a wooden trunk, the books lying there in a glow of blue light, glittery stuff swirling around. I did not know where I would procure such a trunk, but I had 13 years to figure that out.
That essay, four years ago, outlined my motivations and guidelines for the project. It listed the books I'd selected thus far: Walden for age two, stories by Ray Bradbury for age three. It reflected on the joys of matching his personality traits to great books. Only at the end did my essay veer slightly toward more complicated thoughts. Would he like all of the books I picked out? Would he see the collection as a gift or a burden? Knowing that I could not control his reactions, I vowed to continue making these annual selections, while letting go of any expectations about how they might be received.
I kept the first part of my vow. I purchased a classic book every year, though I changed the publisher from Everyman Library to Barnes and Noble editions in year eight in order to expand my options. (I felt compelled to buy him a collection of Classic American Speeches after he conquered crippling stage fright and delivered a fantastic presentation on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
The second part of my vow, however, was harder to keep. I stubbornly clung to my expectations that the right book would present itself each year, that the perfect words would come to me in my inscription, that the annual rite of library-building would be supremely fulfilling for me and, someday, for him. The magical chest of books in my mind grew larger and more elaborate.
I clung to my ideal in spite of a disappointing reality. What I didn't expect when I dreamed up this project was that my son would become a reluctant reader. By his own admission, he hates reading. He even shortened his name from "Gabriel" to "Gabe" so that he would have fewer letters.
These days, the idea of presenting him with a grand box of books at his bar mitzvah fills with me dread. I can picture the eye-rolling, or his face crumbling with disappointment as I raise the lid of the glorious trunk. (A trunk I still haven't found, I should add. The eight books I have purchased remain in a cardboard box, stuffed in a closet).
In my 2011 essay, I expressed trepidation that he might not like all the books I selected. Now I fear he might not like any of them. I fear that this entire project will seem stupid to him. What I planned as a thoughtfully chosen, ongoing gift that reflects his personality could completely miss the mark.
In the past several years, my initial zeal for the project has faded. Inscriptions are no longer written by candlelight in a haze of maternal reflection the night before his birthday. I dash them off or get around to finishing them only after several sittings, sometimes months after the actual birthday. For year seven, I simply forgot to write an inscription at all—or perhaps I was at a loss for words, seeing the writing on the wall. I have repeatedly delayed writing the inscription for the belatedly-purchased eighth book, aware that my words may mean nothing to him five years hence. Now we are halfway to year nine, and I actually dread the prospect of trolling for a new book and coming up with an optimistic inscription.
Perhaps the inscriptions are harder to write these days because new personality traits no longer appear with such dazzling frequency. Psychologists suggest that personality is essentially in place by age seven. If this is true, my inscriptions will only become repetitive, unless I shift my focus to accomplishments and hopes. But I freeze every time I try to sit down and write hopeful thoughts about his growth as a reader in this world. The words that I really want to write are simple. Please read. If not this book, something else. Anything. Please. For the love of God. Read.
My son once had a passion for books. As a baby, he would chew them. As a toddler, he would beg us to read his favorite stories again and again, and he'd spend hours absorbed in turning pages to see the pictures. I remember him at age two looking at the list of all the Maisy books, pointing to every cover and saying, "Want this one, this one, this one." But his passion for books began to wane as early as kindergarten, and my enthusiasm for the library-building project faltered accordingly. I had wanted to build him a dazzling fortress of books for his future, but his entire reading foundation was crumbling. As soon as I realized this, I took my focus off the annual birthday books and tried to shore up his interest with funny Mo Willems books, Fly Guy early readers, all kinds of graphic novels, engaging chapter books.
I had moments of optimism. He chortled over Elephant and Piggie. He devoured some of the graphic novels. In second grade, he loved all the Wimpy Kid books. During free reading time at school, he returned to the Wimpy Kid time and again—but he later admitted, all too cheerfully, "The teachers think I'm reading, but I'm really just looking at pictures."
Honesty. Yes, that was one of the personality traits I admired in him. (See inscription to the year five birthday book).
Gabe identifies as an anti-reader and acts accordingly. He will read only the bare minimum at school, and this past summer, my efforts to get him to read a single book for the local library's summer reading program failed. He did not have the slightest interest in the program or the incentives that they offered, nor in the alternative incentives that I offered. If I returned our unread library books, he asked to wait in the car. If I managed to drag him into the library, he went straight to the iPads. If we went to a bookstore, he browsed the toys.
As a passionate reader and a professional writer of children's books, I am utterly baffled by my son's lack of enthusiasm for reading. Baffled and dismayed. My biggest expectation behind my library-building project was that I was raising a reader. I had hoped to be snuggling up with books still, delving into Harry Potter this year or sharing my beloved, dog-eared Moomintroll books, which I read endlessly at his age.
We have looked for the obvious culprits for his reading resistance. He has had a full neuropsychological evaluation, which included screening for dyslexia, language processing disorders, and learning issues. None have been found. In fact, he actually reads a year above his grade level.
ADHD? His recent diagnosis might explain some of his disinterest in books, even though I know plenty of ADHD kids who are obsessed with reading. Gabe's threshold for boredom is low. If he perceives a book as boring, or the act of reading as boring, he will not be motivated to do it.
Screen time? I lend my voice to the warning cry of parents everywhere. Yes. Screen time, even with the limits we attempt to impose, is absolutely a factor. Books, in his mind, cannot compete with exciting TV shows, movies, and video games. In our house, screen time is often earned by reading for the equivalent time. I watch Gabe reading restlessly, impatiently flipping pages between his audible sighs, one eye always on the clock. Banning all screen time seems drastic. I have tried e-books to kindle his interest—literally, on a Kindle—but to no avail. It’s not the physical book he is resisting; it's the act of reading itself. The notion of entering a world that is built of letters instead of Minecraft blocks or LEGO bricks has zero appeal right now. In fact, I often think that the only enchanted chest my son would want from me would look a lot like a Minecraft chest and be filled with pixelated tools and armor.
I was prescient, in my 2011 essay, to worry that the gift of a library could feel too heavy—too heavy for both of us, weighed down with my own expectations. I now see that my fantasy chest filled with meaningful classics was part of a story I'd told myself: the story that my child would be a certain kind of reader, and he would appreciate books in his life simply because I did. The magic has gone out of that story now. And I can let that go.
I'll keep building his annual library, if only to see it through. I'll forgive myself if I write shorter inscriptions. I may wait until he has graduated from high school or college before I present them, when perhaps he will be more open to books as an important and meaningful gift. Or I may just spring the books on him at random moments, when the time feels right. I may just give him the cardboard box in the closet with some books inscribed and some not.
I can relinquish the fantasy chest full of books, but I refuse to give up on reading. Building Gabe the library of tomorrow has been superseded by the urgent need to build him the library of today. I scour reading lists, store shelves, and sites like GuysRead.com. I consult booksellers and librarians regularly. I am on a quest for books that will speak to Gabe right now—not at thirteen or eighteen or thirty.
More recently, I have learned to be extra patient with Gabe in libraries and bookstores, letting him gravitate to his own books in his own time rather than steering him toward what I think he should read. He has discovered a few gems on his own, like the Nick and Tesla mysteries about young twin inventors or the Who Was? series about famous figures. It is a slow process, letting him self-select, but a joyful one when I catch him, on rare occasions, curled up in a chair and reading on his own.
Once upon a time, I envisioned a library that reflected my son's evolving personality. Today, I envision a son who sees his own library of books as a source of strength. I picture him awed not by some enchanted chest of gift books, but by the books themselves, books of his own choosing. I see him reading to forge his identity as he makes his way into the world. And that might happen yet. My most important role, I have learned, is not to build a fortress of books for a future reader, but to help him shore up the foundation, while I still can.