Help Us Librarians, You’re Our Only Hope

A Generation of Readers

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

I have hope.

An article I read last week gave me hope for our future. And just in time, too, given the fact that we have another full year of election coverage to go before we elect a new president and every single one of us could use some good news right about now.

But first the bad news: According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who claim to have read a book in the past year has declined. (We didn’t even have to prove it—just claim to have done it—and the numbers still declined. Yeesh.)

The good news is that young adults (ages 18 to 29) are more likely to have read a book in the past year than older adults.

I knew reading all those Harry Potter books aloud almost 20 years ago was magical. Those stories may have helped turn an entire generation into readers!

I don’t think it’s an accident that people who came of age during the era of Goosebumps, Harry Potter, and Twilight have become readers. The research tells us that last year, 80 percent of young adults read a book (some or all of it), compared to 72 percent of all adults. In addition to J. K Rowling’s contributions, I remember my sons reading the entire collection of Series of Unfortunate Events books, the Artemis Fowl series, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy, along with books by Roald Dahl, Louis Sacher, K.A. Applegate, and Cornelia Funke. When they were older, they plowed through The Lord of the Rings books in all their descriptive glory. I shouldn’t be surprised that they grew into readers who can fully appreciate the literary tapestries woven within the George R.R. Martin Songs of Fire and Ice series and are rabid Game of Thrones fans.

And if the readership numbers aren’t quite enough happy news for you—or are far too erudite—there’s this: According to Match.com, 86 percent of women and 75 percent of men on the site care more about a prospective date’s grammar than they do about his or her self-confidence or teeth.

His or her grammar!

English teachers across the country are quietly weeping with joy. And thank you, Phantom Toolbooth! Women are apparently deleting potential suitors who make grammatical errors in their text messages, and both men and women say that proper syntax is second only to good personal hygiene when it comes to their list of “must-haves.” Which means many people would break up with someone who had a great smile but sent this text: I had took a shower after I run 5 miles.

Well, I’m cheered up.

At least I was, until I realized that regardless of the good news and what millennials appear to be demonstrating, we are pretty far from a level playing field. Back in the day, we read to our children because we could. We could for several reasons. One: We knew how. If this doesn’t sound that surprising to you, it’s because you have a certain socio-economic status. Many functionally illiterate adults don’t read well enough to read to their children. Strike one. Two: We had the time because we weren’t away from home, working job number 2 or 3 to keep the lights on. Single parents or adults in lower-income families are more likely to hold more than one job. Strike two. My children became readers in no small part because we valued books and education, our household earned above the poverty level, and because we grew up that way. Parents in the cycle of poverty or lower-income living didn’t have that experience as children; and they often don’t pass it along to their own. Strike three.

To sum up, we had the skills, the time, and the money that helped encourage reading. Can it happen without those ingredients? Yes. It’s just harder. According to the U.S. Department of Education, poverty plays a role in how well kindergartners do on their scores. “Reading, mathematics, and science scores were lower for children in households with incomes below the federal poverty level and for those in households at 100–199 percent of the federal poverty level than for those in households with incomes at or above 200 percent of the federal poverty level.”

Where do we try to level that playing field, to offer all children access to the same tools and resources, regardless of income? In our public schools. So how’s this for one more statistic? Again, looking at numbers from the U.S. Department of Education, several years ago the average number of school library staff was 1.8. That’s fewer than two people with the job of overseeing and maintaining a library and offering encouragement, inspiration, and a passion for the written word in schools that could have a student body of hundreds. Compare that to the average number of coaches at a school. I’m not saying they both don’t have value, that we don’t need coaches or team sports. Just saying that school libraries could use some more people. And resources. And help. So that maybe, one day, 100 percent of young adults can call themselves readers.

It’s something to hope for; every single one of us will benefit from that, now and 35 years from now when today’s 4th graders are running for the school board or city council or mayor.

How long until the elections, again?

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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