The Rights of the Reader
Translated by Sarah Adams
Illustrations and a Foreword by Quentin Blake
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2006.
Originally published in 1992.
“If you are not going to spend at least one hour a day reading to your child, you have no business having children.”
This is the unequivocal opinion of a woman novelist. How assured! And how refreshing! She equates a minimum of one hour a day of reading with the bare necessities of parenting—not the co-sleeping debate, not the breast vs. bottle debate, not the public vs. private school debate—in fact, there is no debate at all. Plan to read for an hour a day, or don’t have children.
This is one of those declarations that made me squirm because the speaker is so assured. (I like my opinions couched in less declarative and absolute terms. “The ideal time to spend reading to a child might, perhaps, be an hour a day, if you can manage it, dear.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, would it?)
It also made me squirm because, of course, I immediately set to doing the math. Do we measure up? There is no TV-watching in our house during the week, and bedtimes are a priority for the health and happiness of us all, so with three boys between one and eight, after-school activities, playdates, daycare, homework, baths, dinner, structured unstructured play time so that their home life in the evening does not resemble an assembly line, brushing teeth, nursing, bedtime routines times three, how do we get in one hour of reading aloud to each of them in the evening?
The answer is we don’t always, but we do try. Reading is as much a part of our days as meals and bathtimes, and it is a rare night that the boys go to bed without having books read to them. I cover all the bases by doubling up and reading to two at a time. Gavin (nearly 2) is an avid observer when I read books to Rowan (4) at Kindergarten drop-off. (He’s quite bossy, actually, and chooses the book himself half the time.) Rowan usually stops playing to hop on my “other lap” when I read board books to Gavin, and Griffin (8) reads to one brother while the other gets his teeth brushed. After Gavin goes to sleep, I read to Rowan and Griffin. It’s Harry Potter these days, though we have taken a break lately to read Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass before seeing the movie. Series books are a great incentive. Last year, Ted read Griffin all 13 of Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events books. I don’t know who enjoyed them more.
As Daniel Pennac writes in The Rights of the Reader, “Time to read is always stolen … from the tyranny of living. … The question isn’t whether I have time to read or not (time that nobody will ever give me, by the way), but whether I’ll allow myself the pleasure of being a reader.”
I so much want my boys to experience the pleasure of being a reader. When Griffin began to learn to read, I tried to wean him off of the being-read-to routine, but he fought it. The more aggressive I was about encouraging him to read independently, the less he was interested in doing it.
Pennac helped me not only to understand why new readers must also be read to, but to embrace the prolonging of the golden age of being read to.
Pennac works his way through the reading life of a child, beginning with the child being read to, progressing to learning to read, grade school reading and on through to the teen years of reading for the school curriculum.
He casts the years of the pre-reader as edenic for both parent and child. We were, he says,
their personal novelists, their special storytellers helping them slip into their dreamy pajamas every evening before dissolving under the sheets of night. More than that, we were the book.
What a wonderful conflation. Pennac evokes a prelapsarian calm before the great Fall.
Before children can read, parents feel no need to quiz them or make them read on their own. Once they begin to learn to read, though, we begin to Teach, which badly translated, means:
“Do it yourself.”
“What does it mean?”
“Tell me about what you read.”
“What do you think?”
Imperatives and interrogatives that kill narrative.
In the golden age of reading to the child
We taught our young readers everything about books before they knew how to read. We opened their minds to the infinite richness of imaginary things, introduced them to the joys of vertical travel; we gave them the power to go anywhere, delivered them from Chronos, plunged them into the fabulously crowded solitude of the reader. … The stories we read them were full of brothers, sisters, parents, imaginary twins, teams of guardian angels, fleets of special friends to protect them from their sorrows, but who in turn found protection from their own fictional demons in the worried beating of the children’s hearts. The children became their reciprocal angels: readers. Without them, the characters’ world could not exist. Without the characters, the children were weighed down by their own reality. And so they discovered the paradoxical virtue of reading, which is to abstract ourselves from the world in order to make sense of it. …
What great teachers we were, when we didn’t worry about our methods.
Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader is also assured in its proclamations about children and reading. He works up to a list of 10 rights of the reader, the first of which is “the right not to read.” It can’t be forced, so don’t. Of paramount importance is pleasure. The rest will follow.
His is the approach of a reader, not an educator, not a bureaucrat. His goal is not to extract Knowledge, Learned Prose, Intelligence or High Test Scores from children and teens. His goal is to elicit the love of reading for its own sake.
He has given me the gift of prolonging the Edenic stage indefinitely and without any qualms about delaying the boys’ own reading independence. I will gladly read to the boys for as long as we can steal the time from the tyranny of life.
image by Su Blackwell
 This is a paraphrase. The source is a woman and a novelist, but I cannot for the life of me remember where I read or heard it. All efforts to track the source down have come to nought. Please let me know if it is familiar to you.