Are our children impacted by childhood books more than we, and they, realise?
Like many other parents, we were keen to awaken an interest in books and reading in our children from a very early age. So much so, in fact, one of the first pieces of furniture we ordered for the nursery was a beautiful white bookcase with original Winnie-The-Pooh characters painted across the top moulding and bottom drawer. Then we set about filling it. Inch by inch. With wonderful storybooks full of fairies, animals, magic and excitement. A dreamy once-upon-a-time potpourri of classics and contemporary gems with attractive, child-friendly covers.
Then we bought another bookcase, then another. The little library grew with the children as we progressed from cosy bedtime stories to encouraging their evolving interest in reading by themselves. They collected this series then that, eagerly awaiting English arrivals from The Red House children’s book club or visiting Swedish libraries and bookshops. Some books were out of print and required a little Internet trawling to complete a set.
Once they could read, we introduced a book allowance that was independent of their pocket money, all in a bid to keep the momentum going.
My only rule, mainly as a means of keeping both languages equal in a bilingual household, was that they should read books in the original language. I read to them in English, and their father in Swedish. (Now in their late teens, they tend to read mainly in English because the books they want to read are available in English first, and not all books are translated, but their language skills are on a par. Mission accomplished.)
So imagine my surprise when my daughter, an avid reader since fourth grade, said she only had vague memories of being read to as a very small child. She had clearer memories from age six or seven, when we read books about unicorns and pet shops, but no memory whatsoever of her father reading to them in Swedish.
But surely she could remember the book about Fia who was given an ordinary pair of shoes by a fairy and, believing them to be enchanted, could suddenly run faster? Their father had read that over and over and over.
I tried again.
But surely she remembered that Fia was then given a ballpoint pen that she also believed to be enchanted and so started to do well at school?
I don’t remember the book, she said slowly, but that would explain why I was so into ballpoint pens. I had no idea how that started.
And I wondered.
How many other books have we read for our children that have sparked an interest or fascination that has never been attributed to the original source? And does this also mean, in addition to introducing them to the world of books and reading, we are actually impacting their personalities and preferences in more subtle shades than we knew?
I’m inclined to believe that we are.
Now, I’m not suggesting for a second that the notion of children’s books influencing our children is a novel idea. That’s a given. And obvious. We’ve all wanted a clever collie dog, a term at boarding school or our own treasure island with a bottle of ginger beer. Personally, I would have been thrilled to find a bear at a station. But no, I’m talking about the ballpoint pens in our lives. And equally, any seemingly irrational aversions to random insignificants.
The fact that we can like or dislike a name based on people we have known would also support the idea that our tiny personal quirks and preferences could be unwittingly influenced by the pages we’ve read.
Even when we have no memory of reading them.
I find the thought fascinating.
At the end of the day, however, the choice of bedtime stories should never rest on planting preferences in our children’s heads. They should be read for cosy enjoyment and as a stepping stone to what is hopefully an own wonderful, enriching love and appreciation of books.
I can’t help but wonder now whether my earlier craving for a yellow car was all down to Noddy.
But a least I never wanted a bell on my hat.