David Hill: Read to your kids and you'll transform their lives

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Kids who read stay out of jail (unless they grow up to be financial investment directors). Photo / Thinkstock
Kids who read stay out of jail (unless they grow up to be financial investment directors). Photo / Thinkstock

I've been thinking about Dion this week.

I taught - tried to teach - Dion when he was about 15. He was abused, neglected, feral, almost uncontrollable. You never knew when he'd explode at another kid or a teacher. In class, he sat at the back with arms folded, and glowered. I had him for English. He was barely literate, and scorned efforts to teach him such skills.

I used to read aloud to my classes, inviting them to pick up books themselves, indicating that words mattered to me. One day, I was working through Barry Hines' Kes, where a slum boy's life is transformed after he tames and trains a small hawk.

The class were hooked by it, and I also began relaxing into the words. Then after a few minutes, I remembered Dion, and shot a quick look to check he wasn't dismembering any adjacent pupils. He wasn't: he sat listening, as rapt as the others. And he was sucking his thumb.

I don't want to sentimentalise it. Dion's well into adulthood now, and it's a life of violence, crime, jail. But I shan't forget the lost boy, held briefly in the spell of a story.

I've been thinking about Dion because the NZ Post Children's Book Awards winners are announced on June 24. This week finalist authors are touring parts of the country, reading and talking about their books. I'm lucky enough to be a finalist this year. I won't win; several of my friends have had the gall to write much better works than mine. But I'm pleased to be there, and I'm pleased to write books for children.

It's hard to think of a more worthwhile act than reading to kids, or encouraging them to read. Studies have shown that children who are read to develop brain synapses sooner and more enduringly. Reading grows intellectual and psychological resources, makes kids more at ease with themselves, gives them understandings and realisations that hardly any other activity can.

Kids who read stay out of jail (unless they grow up to be financial investment directors). Reading gives them words. Words give them the ability to express and clarify themselves to others. How many young guys end up in strife because they don't have the vocab to explain what they're doing, and so they move from incoherence to frustration to violence?

Reading helps young people come to terms with themselves and their issues.

I watched a 20-something rugby fan on TV a few years back, after the All Blacks had lost yet another World Cup knockout match. "Oh, mate," he went. "I haven't got words to express how I feel, mate!"

Well (mate), I thought, if you read more, you'd have more words, and that might just help you handle the next semifinal.

Reading isn't a solitary activity. It's a time of continual connections: with the characters, with aspects of the reader's life that the story evokes. Reading makes sense of things; it helps give shape and meaning to the world. Julian Barnes puts it perfectly: "Life says, this happens. Books say, this happens because ..."

Reading or being read to takes kids deeper. It cuts through superficiality. The slow possession of a story transforms the reader/listener, during and after; makes him or her gentler and more at ease.

So do read to your children, and encourage them to read - as others have been doing during this Children's Book time. You'll improve lives. Remember Dion. Remember also that it's just over two years till the next Rugby World Cup semi.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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