By the age of 12 Laura Miller had read “Pygmalion” and nearly all of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. The inspiration for the perennially popular musical “My Fair Lady” “Pygmalion” is considered a challenging read even for adults. Miller, who is now a senior editor for the online literary magazine Salon, recalls Shaw’s sophisticated writing was well beyond her understanding.
Nevertheless, she read his plays because the little set of green paperbacks happened to be around the house, left over from her father’s college days. Although she learned little about the underpinnings of the British class system, Miller credits reading the plays with
getting her into the habit of searching for understanding in the pages of challenging books.
A recently published study supports the connection between having books in the home and a child’s increased academic achievement. The scholarly journal, “Research in Social Stratification and Mobility,” found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete.”
Miller shares thoughts on the advantages of books in the home in her Salon post titled “Book owners have smarter kids.” In the article she declares that the books in your house matter more to your child’s academic success than your education or income. Miller writes:
The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.”
Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.
According to USA Today, another study, to be published later this year in the journal Reading Psychology, found that simply giving low-income children 12 books (of their own choosing) on the first day of summer vacation “may be as effective as summer school” in preventing “summer slide” — the degree to which lower-income students slip behind their more affluent peers academically every year.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the USA Today article comes at the very end, where one Chicago schoolteacher tells the reporter that the importance of getting books into the house “seems so simple, but parents see it differently.” They’re as “excited” as their kids are when the books come in the door. It’s not that the parents are hostile or even indifferent to books. Most likely, books and reading feel like the privilege and practice of an unfamiliar world: a resource that’s out there somewhere, but not entirely accessible.
If you happen to be comfortable in bookstores or libraries— if you’ve been to them many times before and know what to expect, what you want and where to find it, or if you know whom and how to ask and feel entitled to bother the staff with your questions— it can be difficult to appreciate how intimidating these institutions of print culture can seem to someone who has little or no acquaintance with them.
Furthermore, a single parent working two minimum-wage jobs to keep food on the table may not have the time or energy to make a special trip between shifts. One of the biggest success stories in children’s book publishing, after all, is the Little Golden Books: racks of inexpensive kids’ books cleverly placed near the registers in five-and-dime stores, where the harried working-class parents of the 1940s could pick them up on impulse while running other errands.
Lastly, poor parents may feel that they just can’t afford books. Of course, you don’t have to buy a book to read it, but the act of giving someone a book of his or her own has an undeniable, totemic power.
As much as we love libraries, there is something in possessing a book that’s significantly different from borrowing it, especially for a child. You can write your name in it and keep it always.
It transforms you into the kind of person who owns books, a member of the club, as well as part of a family that has them around the house. You’re no longer just a visitor to the realm of the written word: You’ve got a passport.
Of local note, each year the main branch of Enoch Pratt Library holds a three-day book sale in November. The highlight of this annual event is on Sunday, when you can bring your own box and put as many books as you want and can carry out for 3 dollars. It’s a great way to help fill your home with books- for less than the cost of a Happy Meal.
Jayne Matthews-Hopson is a Mom, an education writer and grade school development manager who believes education matters because “only the educated are free.”