When I was eight years old, I was reading to my mother. But these were practical things: permission slips, vocabulary from her ESL tests.
"How do you spell 'library'?" she asked me one night, and over and over for the next two days. She never stepped into our library in Chinatown, but she knew how much I loved to read.
We don't read like we used to. A report just released by Children Now shows that only one in four fourth-graders in California are reading proficiently. Reading should be fun, not just a skill to be measured on standardized tests. We can't solve the literacy problem overnight, but we can find books that engage our kids.
Lately my son and I have been enjoying "The Cat's Table," Michael Ondaatje's tale of a Ceylonese boy travelling on a ship to England. I have to explain a lot of words to my six-year-old: "ayurvedic," "venerable," "rabies." We learn that Sir Hector, a wealthy man, got sick by ridiculing a monk who passed by his estate. He calls the monk a "muttara-balla," a urinating dog. Insulted, the monk says he'll send the man a "muttara-balla," after which Sir Hector is bitten by his rabid dog. These are new words for me, but they're ideas that my son is already learning about.
Reading to my son has become a shared journey to unknown places, to learn what the textbooks may not teach. In these stories, people get their just desserts. It beats the grim reality: the billionaires are getting richer, they don't get rabies after hurling insults. One out of four children in this Golden State live in poverty. Their parents don't often have the luxury of reading to them.