When parents think of literacy, reading springs to mind fairly quickly. But what about history, science, maths, philosophy, music, geography, and art? Are these concepts not also to be found between the pages of books?
Erasmus once said, “When I have a little money, I buy books, and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”
My ten-year-old daughter, on more than one occasion, has told me I’m a bit like Erasmus, minus the fancy hat.
I don’t (usually) wear fancy hats, but I do adore books. If music be the food of love, then books must be the food of wisdom. And entertainment. And vicarious escapism. And a million other desirable qualities.
When I was a child (in the pre-internet dark ages), my best education existed in the typed-and-bound form of book-wormish moments. I remember barely any of what I learned at school. But I retain (to this day) vast knowledge pertaining to my reading material of the time. For example, I can still quote entire passages from K.A Applegate’s Animorphs series, and I know some great trouser-puns about Euripides, courtesy of Terry Deary.
Whilst the curriculum requirements for fictional alien invasion studies and lowbrow humour lessons are noticeably non-existent, my childhood reading material lit fires of curiosity that far surpassed the texts in question, and seared a love of learning permanently into my brain.
I developed fascinations for history, science, philosophy, art, language itself, and a hundred other areas as a result of spending a book-filled childhood reading interesting stories.
The books I read as a child were almost entirely responsible for many of the passions I’ve continued to explore as an adult.
When I first read Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, I found myself fascinated by Australian life in the eighteen hundreds, and, upon finishing the book, was hypnotised by an uncontrollable urge to spend as much time as possible in the wonderful world of horse-drawn buggies, too-tight corsets, and tragic tree-falls.
Unfortunately, I was only eight, and didn’t have unlimited access to the classic literature and dense non-fiction I craved. Had the internet been available, my hours might have been spent undertaking eager research, and downloading Dickensian ebooks. Alas, it was the early nineties, so instead I satisfied myself with writing terribly anachronistic tales about pinafore-wearing children sitting in fancy parlours, stealing food from locked larders, and saying things like, “Oh, Father!”
Fast forward twenty-something years, and here I am, still writing terribly anachronistic tales, except now my characters wear leotards instead of pinafores, and say things like, “We can't turn Pythagoras into a dog every time someone walks in here… or can we?”
When I was a child, I wrote stories about concepts that intrigued me. Now, I write stories about concepts that intrigue my children, because they, like me, have learned to love learning, through reading.
Anything - and I mean anything - can be explored in the form of a fictional narrative.
I have been home-educating my kids for well over a decade, and books comprise a huge part of our day-to-day learning. Not because the written word is magical, (although I suspect it might be) but because stories are keys which unlock doors in the minds of children.
Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think,” and he was right.
Books make us think, and, better still, they allow us to explore worlds that would otherwise have been impossible for us to visit.
In addition to incidental learning that takes place (by default) during the consumption of quality stories, books excite our brains into wanting to discover more. This is why fiction can teach children just as effectively as non-fiction can.
It has never, in all of history, been easier than it is right now to find quality children’s books on any imaginable topic.
Read with your children. Not for the purpose of learning about a specific subject, but for the possibility of lighting sparks of curiosity which will burn brightly within your child’s mind for many years to come.
George’s Secret Key to the Universe (by Stephen Hawking) is a great read for middle graders interested (or soon-to-be-interested) in astrophysics.
If your children love picture books, try reading The Last Viking, by Norman Jorgensen and James Foley, or The Cosmic Adventures of Alice and Bob by Cristy Burne and Aska.
If your child is interested in World War II, you might like to read Once, by Morris Gleitzman, preferably together. If you haven’t cried enough by the end of that book, follow it up with Then, Now, After, Soon, and Maybe. In that order.
I could provide a million book recommendations, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter so much what children are reading. It only matters that they are reading.
Maths is probably the most difficult subject to tackle incidentally through literature, but it is certainly not impossible. My oldest daughter became obsessed with teaching herself binary after reading Christopher, by Richard M. Koff. The chapter numbers of the book were written in binary, which inspired her to write out every number between one and one thousand in binary. Then, just for fun, she used YouTube videos to teach herself how to add and subtract large numbers (in binary), which lead to her researching the meaning and purpose of using a base two number system as opposed to a base ten or base sixty number system. She was nine years old at the time.
My son did a similar thing last year, except his main mathematical interest was Roman numerals. After reading this book about Roman numerals, my then-six-year-old memorised all Roman numerals up to one million, and entertained himself for hours on end, calculating answers to maths questions, and writing them out as Roman numerals. No one asked him to do this. He did it purely for his own amusement, and to satisfy his own curiosity. Such is the impact books have on brains.
Perhaps my son will never encounter an occasion in which to utilise his extensive knowledge of Roman numerals, but the positive associations he has formed in relation to mathematics will last a lifetime. And the happiness he finds in the pleasure of reading for its own sake is worth more than a thousand worksheets.
One of my favourite Plato quotes is, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
No matter what learning looks like in your home, books are, and always will be, our greatest allies, and our children’s deepest sources of inspiration.
Love Nanci x
P.S I would love to hear what your kids are currently reading!
Nanci Nott is the author of ‘Zany Circus: Paradox’, ‘Zany Circus: Pythagoras Rules’, and ‘Why does my child hate school?’
Nanci believes in the abolishment of boredom, and the presence of play in education. She likes writing for children almost as much as she loves reading with them.
For more information on educational fiction, home-schooling resources, lesson plans, puppet templates, random goats, and more, please feel free to visit Turner Books.