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Summer books: Skip the blockbusters, let kids’ imaginations grow

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Once my own children started doing summer reading, "Blueberries for Sal" and "Charlotte's Web" topped our summer book classics list. We even picked blueberries in McCloskey country, storing up food for the winter like Little Sal and Little Bear; collecting new thoughts, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk,” like the rhythm of Sal’s blueberries hitting the bottom of her tin pail.

During my years as an English teacher, I championed the notion that summer reading is akin to storing up intellectual food for the winter, not merely knocking off a book for teacher, scribbling the obligatory book reports the night before school started up again.

A summer book is an exercise in stocking mental pantries with new, big ideas and fresh imagery that we have acquired by practicing word-based imagining. When we read, our imaginative lives intersect with great minds of any culture and myriad ages, if we have the authentic language of the great writer. Today, we tend to be more image-based in our imaginings, like Pixar and Disney’s truncated, drive-thru, theme-toy versions of legends and stories. They can't come close to the open-ended possibilities that language delivers. Words are the original dream works. Am I dating myself?

Since the ubiquitous digital media require more of our visual than our verbal literacy, we might consider a response. These omnipresent messages of our age ask us to conform to someone else’s vision of time and place. Reading asks us to participate in the creation of character, place, and, to some extent, plot. We risk lapsing into passive acceptance of any point of view presented in a slick, tricky, colorful, fast-paced (read: violent) visual medium. Are we risking the loss of our own access to independent thought?

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