Summer Is for Reading

June 15th, 2010

This post appeared first on bookstorepeople.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a family that owned a summer house on a lake about two hours from our home.  Once school was out in June, we would all load up into the station wagon and head north.   There was something so blissful about turning off the highway and suddenly seeing familiar houses, roads, and even cemeteries.  The first one who spotted the lake through the trees would cry out in delight.  And a little while later we’d be heading down, down, down our very steep driveway to the oddly modern and uncottagelike building my parents had commissioned when I was an infant.

My mom and the kids stayed all summer; my father would leave early Monday morning, work all week back in Boston, then drive back Friday night for the weekends.  During the summer he really only slept well in the mountains, by the lake, where the air mostly stayed cool, so he took off whatever time he could and invited everyone he knew to come spend the day or the weekend with us there.  The house was always full, my mother planning, shopping for, and preparing meal after meal after meal for what could be dozens of guests on any given weekend.  I can’t imagine how much work it was for her: there wasn’t any take-out in that small town back in those days, and for decades there also wasn’t a dishwasher in the house, unless you counted the five kids.

There also wasn’t a TV in the house.  Years later, my father would give in and get a tiny TV set–mostly so he could watch tennis matches on it–but for the first decade or so, all we had was a radio that played kids’ programs on Sunday mornings.

Five kids, two and a half months, many rainy days . . . what was a mother to do?

Go to a library, of course.  Once a week we’d all pile into the car, drive to the town library and emerge with our arms filled with piles of books.  And for the next seven days, when we weren’t outside swimming or catching frogs or playing in our sandy driveway (just right for digging tunnels), we were draped over various pieces of furniture, reading.

My friend Claudia has a theory that libraries have become too welcoming to kids, that the reluctant attitude of librarians from our childhood–that frown when they spotted you that said, “We know you’re going to make too much noise and we’re going to have to shush you and we’re not happy about it”–made us all want to read more, and especially to read adult books which were in large, quiet rooms filled with old ladies who were just as certain as the librarians that we were going to ruin everything for everyone.  You always felt you weren’t quite supposed to be there when you were a kid–and that made creeping around trolling for books absolutely delicious.  Now, Claudia says, librarians practically stand on their heads and juggle fire to get kids to want to visit the library, so being there no longer feels like a forbidden pleasure.  Takes all the fun out of it.

Maybe she’s right and that’s why we loved our library so much back then.  It was truly one of life’s great pleasures to walk back into the house with a stack of brand-new-never-before-been-read-by-you books and get to choose which one to read first, knowing that when you finished that one, you had a bunch more waiting.

I’ve taken my kids to the library twice already since school let out (well, three times actually, but it was closed one of those times thanks to budget cutbacks which have shortened branch hours considerably) and we’ve taken out tons of books and several DVDs.  I let the kids take out any books they want.  I’m not picky: if they’re reading, I’m happy.  The DVDs are only for night time.  (We had an amazing Toy Story marathon though, in anticipation of the release of the third one.  We all sat there, rapt, delighted.  God, I love those movies!)

But my kids have something we didn’t have in those idyllic days back in New Hampshire: computers.  There’s so much that’s exciting waiting for them online.  It’s hard for a book to compete with that.  They’re reading, but not nearly as much as we did during the summer.  A lot of what they do online is kind of cool, like brainpop (educational animation) or sporkle (online timed quizzes) or freerice.  But even so . . . it’s not reading and I want them to read.

It’s summertime, damn it!  They should be reading.

Somehow my parents had the tenacity, the guts, and the energy to keep television out of our summer home.  I’d like to emulate them and I’ve toyed with the idea of turning off our wifi, but then no one could reach us by email–and I’ve already discovered that people assume that if they can’t reach me by email I’m either out of town or dead.  And I couldn’t post on my blogs without the ‘net or communicate with my editors or set up playdates (I don’t ever pick up the phone).  So every time I think of it, I talk myself out of it.

I’ll just keep taking the kids to the library and, when they complain about being bored, point them to the books they’ve taken out.  I know that once they’ve started a good one, they won’t be able to put it down until they’re done.  And if that just happens a few times this summer to each of them, I’ll be happy.

  • Claudia says:

    How I loved reading of the drive in the station wagon, the children shouting when they saw the lake, the wonderful feeling of summers long ago. My father’s parents owned a house in Eagle River Wisconsin, no TV, a record player that only played 78 rpm opera records, no radio either. I spent weeks each summer reading Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. The one I remember best is IN COLD BLOOD. And I found a children’s book series called “The Mother West Wind Books.” These books were old and peculiar: How the Skunk Got His Stripe. Little morality tales with wise (yet cruel) Mother West Wind punishing animals FOREVER.

    One of the many things I liked in your piece (well, mentioning me was TRES fun) was how much women had to cook and clean to make these idyllic summer homes for men and children. The cooking and cleaning never stopped for my grandmother. Her idea of a break was walking out to pick raspberries with me, or walking down the hand-built stone stairs to the lake to help me get the canoe. I remember once asking her why she never came out swimming. She said, “I was supposed to be a twin and I have four kidneys and that’s caused me endless female trouble. Now off with you Miss CoyCoy.” I’d watch her walking up the stone stairs in her apron. She worked full time as a CPA and had her pilot’s license. But I only knew her as someone who cooked and cleaned and cooked some more.

    Sometimes when I read as a child, I wondered about the children in the books I was reading. I feared I read too much and had too few adventures (and my grandmother agreed and would urge me to swim more and weed more and pick more raspberries). I’d think, “Do the children in the books I read ever read? Or are their lives so much better than mine?” Only Jane Eyre seemed to read (and get punished for it!) Now I wonder about the way some children love to read in the summer and some don’t. And I don’t have answers other than whatever children do, it’s good to have a time of year that is about magic and adventure — in books or in life — and not school. Here’s to all the women before us who let us have magic while they cooked and cleaned. May we find ways to give our children memorable, lazy, fun summers and still have time for some adventures in books and in life ourselves!

    Thanks Claire.

  • Claire says:

    Thanks for a wonderful long comment, Claudia. I never realized how hard my mother worked until she died and we went to the lake house . . . and food didn’t magically appear cooked on the table. Or in the cupboard. Or in the fridge. And there was so much cleaning. She used to entertain hordes without complaining. I do remember husking corn by the dozen and wrapping potatoes in tin foil so they could be cooked in the coals. And my dad grilled. Otherwise, it was all her.

  • annie says:

    I loved reading this…it brought back so many wonderful memories of that house on the lake and of the little library in town. My kids shared that same excitement and happiness as we rounded the corner and caught site of the lake when we were blessed to visit that house.
    The one summer we were there for an entire month, (when your parents rented a house elsewhere), we begged the librarian to give us a temporary card…and she did. We filled up the large LLBean “boat and tote” with books and Drew, especially, sat on the floor and read book after book, totally content.
    Our library here has a summer reading program for kids and, each year, a tee shirt gets commissioned (once Tomie de Paola did one) and a contest is in place to see how many books you can read. It was pure genius on the library’s part and my kids loved it.
    I’ll always remember those incredible meals your mom put out with a smile and a laugh…never ever complaining.

  • Dawn says:

    All of this makes me so happy, sad and nostalgic. I know I’ve mentioned that I grew up on a lake, and we were quite poor but didn’t know it till later. Books weren’t such a big part of our lives. We were outdoors kids. Usually didn’t come in till it was dark. TV was only three channels so we didn’t watch that much either. We played cards though. And hung around the campfire down by the water most nights in the summer. We always played hide in seek at night with the neighbor kids and it was nearly impossible to ever find anybody because there were so many places to hide. Most games ended with “Olly olly oxen-free” or some such spelling. I tried to do better with my kids, book-wise anyway. They were city kids and watched lots of TV and had computers. We also spent long lazy days at the beach, boogie boarding and napping and reading. Weekly we went to the little Ocean Park Library and got as many books as allowed. Reading was the main way my husband bonded with the kids because of a chronic bad back and I read to them always at bedtime. They both became very bookish and I feel proud of that.

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