By Beth Davies-Stofka
With one in six Americans out of work or underemployed, and many more precariously employed, the great majority of families are affected in some way, and worried. This holiday season might be a bit tough for parents and grandparents. We're challenged to provide parties, treats, and presents for the kids, but we're struggling with diminished or threatened incomes, savings, and pensions. December tends to be a season of enjoyable excess, but I'm sure most of us are trying to balance that against our worries over the long-term security of our families.
Most of us will do almost anything for our kids, and it's doubtful that sales of toys or electronics will suffer a serious blow this month. But after the Playstation, Wii, Netbook, and iPhone are wrapped and under the tree, we can still take time to think about other gifts for our children, those proverbial gifts that keep on giving.
My nominee for most amazing and fruitful gift is the gift of reading. Trite, I'm sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't an absolutely awesome gift. Children who love to read will eventually grow into adults who love to read, and they will never run out of things to read. The pleasure of the written word will always be just a library, a download, or the click of a mouse away. There are other benefits too, including an active imagination, curiosity, and contentment in solitude.
How about handing a book to a child and saying, "Enjoy, kid!" Well, this might work on occasion, but how much better would it be to read with the child? If you're very lucky, they've come home with a book, itching to share its plot, settings, and characters with you. At the same time, you might have a book or two you'd like to share. In this season of holiday traditions, your thoughts might turn to the classics. The parenting page at iVillage.com just posted a list of classic books every kid should read, and as you explore it, you might find yourself sighing over the rediscovery of an old favorite.
I loved the little thrill of recognition that I felt as I flipped through the list. There are recommendations there for boys as well as girls, including classics by Robert McCloskey and Roald Dahl. The sight of each book cover summoned a mountain of memories, wonderful memories of reading and re-reading, studying the pictures, and dreaming of these strange and wonderful worlds. It's really true that the gift of reading never stops giving.
Since we're all worried about our finances this year, I'd like to single out the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor. The rewards for reading this series (All-of-a-Kind Family, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown) out loud with your children are considerable. They were published in the 1950s, and now all but the first volume of the series are criminally out of print. This means that in order to enjoy them, you and your child will have to go to the library to check them out. This bestows two more life-long gifts: the love of libraries, and an appreciation of thrift.
In the very first chapter of the very first book, the "all-of-a-kind" family is on its way to the library. Every Friday is library day, and the girls love the trip. You see, the all-of-a-kind family lives in the tenements of New York's lower east side. It's 1913, and for this and all immigrant families, money is scarce. Actually buying a book is an "unheard-of luxury," but being able to borrow books from the public library is "heavenly."
Imagine the satisfaction of taking your child to the library, finding the books, and then returning home to read this chapter. You can compare your outing to the ones the girls have. It can feel like such a miracle to find oneself in a book!
The books are vivid and colorful, and shed remarkable insight into Jewish holidays and customs. Readers will learn about the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, Purim, Succos, and Hanukkah, all from a child's point of view. You'll learn the stories behind the holidays, and because Taylor based these books on memories of her own childhood, you'll gain fondly-remembered insight into the celebrations of these holidays by an immigrant family from Eastern Europe.
Throughout this incredibly charming series, full of smiles, understanding, joy, and acceptance, we read of a poor family that never feels poor. Part of the reason is the strong sense of solidarity within the family and in the neighborhood. When one child gets into trouble, the others pitch in to help her out. When someone in the neighborhood is too cold or too hungry, everyone finds ways to help, by finding work that will earn a few pennies, or inviting a visitor to stay a little longer by a warm stove.