First, in the deeps of time, back in the Dark Ages when I was a child and before I could read... there was a morning CBC television program. It was a mere 15 minutes long, simple and mostly unscripted, featuring just one human actor (accompanied by puppets of very unsophisticated construction), with ‘special effects,’ such as they were, laughably primitive by today’s standards. And it moved at a very leisurely pace. But I adored it. Looking back, it was hugely influential in developing my love of reading.
That’s a strange, rather unlikely endorsement, isn’t it? Especially from a purist like me: a television program fostering love of reading? But it did.
Children of --- ahem --- a certain age can probably identify the program: The Friendly Giant. Played with gentle grace by actor Bob Homme, ‘Friendly’ usually began his show in the middle of a model village or landscape, discussing things related to that day’s episode, the camera advancing slowly through houses or fields before we came upon his giant boot. (“There’s that boot. Look up. Look waaay up!”) Then he invited us to join him in his castle, where we would ‘curl up’ in chairs around the fireplace and watch his interactions with Rusty the rooster and Jerome the giraffe. Sometimes there were concerts: Friendly played the recorder, Rusty the harp, and occasionally they were joined by a pair of mute cats on other instruments. Rusty lived in a book bag on the castle’s wall, and often brought out a book for Friendly to read. Usually the book was much larger than it had any right to be, given the size of Rusty’s bag.
I loved those stories. I couldn’t yet read --- this was before I began school, remember --- but they reinforced in my preschool mind that here was a means of assisting the imagination; here were whole worlds of tales of all different types. And just as Rhiss, the protagonist of Gryphon’s Heir, desires magic in his all-too-grittily prosaic life, here was a way to infuse that magic in my own little existence. (To which some of you are murmuring sceptically, “Really, Ranshaw? Your little four or five year old mind articulated such deep thoughts?” Well, not in so many words, no. But I maintain that the basic concepts were there, yes. I may have been a tad precocious as a youngster.)
The entire show was representative of a gentler, simpler time, and I adored all of it: stories, concerts, music, literature, scale model scenes. I think it all got bundled together in one very positive experience for a young child. If books were like this, then I wanted to read.
Second, my parents also did a very simple thing to foster my love of reading. It wasn’t complicated and didn’t come from any parenting manual --- not that there were many in those days, of course; down-to-earth, practical parents who didn’t spend huge amounts of time navel-gazing didn’t need them. (The only parenting books I recall on my mother’s bookshelf were a government publication called ‘Up the Years from One to Six’ and a work by Dr. Spock. No, no, no: not Mr. Spock of Star Trek; Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician and parenting guru who was at the height of his fame/influence in the 1960s. Although the irony of the similarity in names doesn’t escape me, rest assured.) I know, I know: I digress. What did my parents do?
They read to me. From a very early age. Daily. (And nightly. Both.) They got me hooked on reading. Right from simple picture books as a toddler on up through more complicated things as I got older, they read to me all the time. And later, after I was too old to be read to (a coming of age moment I still recall as bittersweet), there were frequent, regular family trips to the public library. Even there, my parents didn’t allow me to be banished/ghettoized solely to the children’s section, and I was encouraged to try all sorts of literature. Which I did. Later still, as I began roving the city on my own, there were bookstores to visit and make purchases in. (Calgary readers, again of a certain age, will recall Evelyn deMille’s independent two-storey bookstore on 3rd Street near Eaton’s as fondly as I do.)
So there you have it. The establishment of a life-long love affair that, decades later, resulted in me penning my own first novel.
By the way, my wife and I followed the same path with our own children. Not with Friendly Giant, regrettably; it went off the air in 1985, before our firstborn came along. But PBS had outstanding television programs promoting literature when our children were young: Reading Rainbow and Wishbone were two I particularly remember. And we took our kids to the library at least weekly, each child returning home with an armload of books.
Above all, we read to our children, even as babies and toddlers, read to them all the time, with expression and enthusiasm. Reading to our kids as part of their bedtime routine was one of my sacrosanct nightly jobs (until that bittersweet moment when they too wanted to start reading things for themselves), although they sometimes had to nudge me awake if I began dozing off after a particularly strenuous day.
It’s advice I would give to parents starting out today --- especially nowadays, before kids get hooked on the plethora of electronic gadgets out there threatening to destroy their attention spans, imaginations and desires to focus on books: read to your kids, regularly, with enthusiasm and expression. Begin as soon as you can.
Get them to look up... waaay up.
They won’t necessarily grow up to be novelists. But you will have given them an enormous, permanent edge in this sometimes drab and uncaring world.