Under the Covers: Reading is hard, B.J. Novak can help

February 26, 2015

I was a big reader during elementary school, which probably won’t surprise anyone, but I didn’t start out with a love for literature. The book that left the biggest impression on me as a child wasn’t Harry Potter or one of the many tomes in the Redwall fantasy series that I scarfed down like mad. No, it was a book called Blue.

Blue sat in the corner of my kindergarten classroom until the designated reading time began. Every student was supposed to grab something to read for 45 minutes or so, and the unsaid (or perhaps it was said—it’s been a while) implication was that every day we should read something new. For 6-year-old me, this was a pernicious form of sadism.

I hated the process of learning how to read. Every night, I would hide under the bed or in my backyard to avoid having to decipher the squiggly lines. My saintly mother would chase and wrestle me until I relented. Blue was nothing special, even by the forgiving standards of drooled-upon kindergarten picture books. It gave a pretty damn basic rundown of what sort of things were blue in the world—jeans, the oceans, etc.

But Blue was important because a teacher’s aide helped me read through it. I memorized the words, aided by the images on each page. Every day when reading time rolled around, I would pick the book up and give every page an intense stare of faux-concentration.

While the other kids fumbled with their ambitious assaults on The Cat In The Hat or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I was safe with my text that I could recite at any point to any grownup. From an uninvolved teacher’s perspective, I was an excellent reader.

Of course, my ruse was eventually uncovered (though it took my teacher, Ms. Steinthal, quite a while) and I was banned from ever touching my beloved Blue again.

I told this story about my early literacy-feigning to a friend of mine recently and her reaction surprised me. “Yeah, I think most kids do that to some degree,” she said. “I know I did. With picture books it’s easy to pretend that you can read.”

It’s true. In addition to being a wonderful form of art that deserves a bit more appreciation, picture books are a crutch for kids who aren’t ready yet to tangle with the challenge of words dislocated from their meanings. When we get older, we graduate to pictureless books (for the most part, of course—I’m not forgetting you, graphic novel-philes).

A couple of weekends ago, I came across B.J. Novak’s new childrens’ book The Book With No Pictures at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle. I was a bit intrigued. “I would have hated this as a child,” I thought. “It definitely wouldn’t be able to hold my attention.”

But then I read it. The Book With No Pictures operates around a simple concept; everything written in the book has to be read out loud by the grownup who is presumably reading it along with the child.

The deal has to be fulfilled, no matter what—even if the lines are ridiculous. They run the gamut, from the nonsensical “GLIBBITY-globbity globbity-GLIBBITY”  to the just outlandish “My head is made of blueberry pizza.”

My favorite, quote, by far, is surprisingly self-aware: “I am a monkey who taught myself to read.” No one is too young to become aware of their status as socialized apes, in Novak’s view.

Much of Novak’s book involves getting the adult to exaggerate the pronunciation of words or spout gibberish. This is the book’s most important aspect. The Book With No Pictures delights in the entertainment value of the written and spoken word. The inclusion of images would not be able to make it any better than it already is.

I could have used this book when I was a kid. The message—that words aren’t just a means of explaining pictures, but something worthwhile, even fun, by themselves—is something that needs to be celebrated and more widely disseminated. Words are something that we spend a lot of time using but not enough time thinking about. The earlier we start doing so, the better off we’ll be in the long run.

I haven’t seen a kid reading The Book With No Pictures yet—I’m in college, so it’s not like I’m surrounded by children—but I’d wager it’s been a big hit.

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