Monday, December 28, 2009

Teaching My Son to Love Books

I wrote the article below just prior to the time when my oldest son left for college, but I have not put it out to the public until now. I was afraid of coming across as proud. Kids do that to you. Please forgive me for that curse which is the bane of most parents. Beyond this obvious weakness which I hope you will overlook, there is something to be learned about the import of books in this article. And, there is some advice offered about recording what is read that could be invaluable to you. I hope you find it helpful. JE

Teaching My Son to Love Books

Jim Elliff

My son’s philologistic bent and his attraction to what the arrangement of words can do began in earnest the day he turned seven. As a birthday gift, I made him a promise. Though his brother and sister had to go to bed at the normal hour, he, being the seven year old that he was, could stay up as long as he wanted, so long as he was reading. Often he would dutifully lay awake for two hours anyway, living a kind of second life in his mind. I didn’t think we had much to lose, and perhaps a lot to gain. We put a light above his bed and waited.

To provide fuel for this experiment, I regularly tossed irresistible books at the end of his upper roost as I said goodnight. But I also slipped in some science, a few books on numbers, accounts of how children lived in other lands, and lots of children’s history, in addition to the normal fiction. I had some idea that I could give him books of the kind he might not pick up during the day if I mixed them in with the most tantalizing ones. All these books came out of that pulsating collection of books appearing everywhere in our home, a living space that was already experiencing the first stages of that national epidemic called “shortage of shelf space.” I managed to convince him that the beauty of the cover made almost no difference. In fact, if the cover were worn, the chances were certainly better that he could expect a great read. And, I made some efforts at encouraging him to finish what he began.

Being interested in an extensive education for my children, and being convinced that the right books provided both the wind and the stabilizers for it, I collected whatever inexpensive volumes I could from garage sales, library sales, thrift stores, and that strange assortment of used bookstores I found wherever I traveled. I felt a drive to find more. I wanted our own library that included all the kids could need right through until adulthood. New books came into our home every week, sack after sack. There was no end to them. We soon had a serious collection of fine works which I am convinced anyone could own, wealthy or poor, with just a little passion for it.

No gift to this day has been more appreciated or has yielded so many returns. The first night the light went off and on over and over again. He would tire, the light would go out, and then he would whirl back into action, raised up by the sheer unimaginable ecstasy of being able to read as long as he liked. He could sleep any time, but through these books he could wade the muddy Okeefenokee swamp, fly an airplane over the Andes, or ride a horse with Genghis Khan. How foolish to quit now!

Words became as addictive as books were ubiquitous. And we knew a true love had begun. As was said of that great reader and world renown preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, when he was only a boy: “He had not done everything, but he certainly knew about everything.”

I don’t remember how I arrived at the idea of recording all that he was reading, but his “Book of Books” became a permanent part of his education. It is perhaps his most cherished possession. Every book he has read over 100 pages has been recorded there. He includes some bibliographical information and perhaps a sentence or short paragraph on something interesting in the book, or even about the time the book was read (i.e. “The Royals beat the Yankees today. We called granddad and harassed him a little.”). Over 600 books are written down (and written about) at this time in his high school career, from Moby Dick to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the number grows. Every time he reads 50 more, I take him to breakfast and buy him another classic of his choice. Books are still coming into the house weekly. Everybody reads. And when we want to do something really exciting together, we often gather in the living room and read aloud!

What does it mean? It means that he has become learning intensive. It means he can comprehend the hard concepts. It means that he has a lifelong skill and a gourmand’s appetite for understanding life. It means that he can articulate his thoughts and arrange his arguments. And it has built into him a need to communicate. He wishes to use words to impact his generation. All of this is resident in an otherwise normal kid who loves sports and music and his friends.

My son read a book seven times over about a blind boy and a seeing-eye dog. Though he has often re-read a good book, I don’t think any volume in his earlier years grabbed his attention as fiercely as this little paperback. Perhaps he thought, “I wonder if I could make it without eyes. I wonder if I could make it without reading.” I think he could, given his trust in God. However, he would miss some of his choicest companions and would likely wear out the voices of those who would be willing to read to him.

Copyright © 2005 Jim Elliff. Permission granted for copying for all not-for-profit use. All other uses require written permission,

Jim Elliff has written a book for parents to read to their children called The Eaglet, now beautifully redone. It explains in story form the nature of belief in Christ. He has also been interviewed by Dennis Rainey of FamilyLIfe Today on the subject of “How Children Come to Faith in Christ.” This is available as a CD set of seven interviews. To purchase these and other items by Jim Elliff, visit

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