Recently I responded to a Facebook query about encouraging children to care for their books. The parent posting for advice described how their own child would leave books lying around, bend spines, and dog-ear pages. I smiled, certain of my reply as I set my teacup down on a stack of half read paperbacks. Then, as I looked around at the dishevelled shelves and floor-books among the general mess I faltered.
I have long been aware that I am a bad keeper of books. I not only rest teacups on book covers, I too dog-ear pages and even crack spines. My husband is, in contrast, a model keeper of books. He gently peers through barely open pages. He keeps books away from all liquids. He remembers page numbers so that he never needs a bookmark. We combined our library long ago and you can tell whose books are whose and whose books have been read by whom.
That is why I know that I am 100% to blame for our son’s current approach to looking after his library. He loves books, don’t get me wrong, but they are as much played with as read. As objects of play books are stepped on, stacked and toppled dramatically. Like stuffed toys they are discarded (on the floor) when the play takes an unexpected turn. For all this rough usage, my son’s books are remarkably intact which is a testament both to his deep-rooted love of their contents but also the manufacturing standards of modern printing and binding.
A playful approach to books should be lauded, right? The legendary Margaret Wild imagines her central character in The Bush Book Club using books for all kinds of playful construction. But then that character is a reluctant reader who cannot sit still long enough to listen to a story. A lesson seems to lurk in the pages: inspire the reader within and books will stop being used for purposes other than reading.
The story arc of The Bush Book Club swirled through my mind along with the floor-books and dishevelled shelves as I wrote my reply. In the end I took the middle ground. I dutifully commended the Mum for being so vigilant, divulged my own terrible record and recommended putting any prize hardbacks up high. The middle ground usually feels safe but the question of how children should treat books and my own example continued to worry me. Would my son grow up to read books or use them to prop up wonky table legs?
My gnawing parental insecurity lingered until I watched my son play with his collection of Andy Griffiths’s and Terry Denton’s Treehouse books over the course of a whole day while recovering from a winter cold. Our collection of Treehouse books has been used repeatedly for purposes of play, and read thoroughly too. On this particular day several titles were deployed as engine parts for a spaceship, fed to an imaginary donkey and lovingly arranged as ‘how to guides’ for a supervillain cat. The latter repurposing seemed particularly apt.
If it hadn’t been for that parent’s post, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to my son’s interaction with his books over the course of a whole day. But I’m glad I paid attention because it gave me pause to really look at what was happening and to feel confident that for us at least a relaxed approach to books is best. You see if I were to insist on keeping books on the shelves and in good order all of the time, I am not at all certain that my son would feel comfortable playing with them. That play is essential. The contents of the Treehouse books (and all the other titles my son repurposes) cannot be separated from his games; they are the props but also the inspiration. This is the reason why, I’m sure, my son continues to love listening to stories even though he can take or leave a home-reader and recoils from a list of sight words.
So, should I see another worried parent ask about their child keeping books badly, I will not hesitate to respond, nor will I feel the need to occupy the middle ground. I will be recommending with far greater confidence that books need to be accessible, everyday objects, even if that does mean a few spines get cracked along the way.