Lesa Knollenberg
freelance writer in
madison, wi

good writing wednesdays



I love a good New Year’s Resolution. I’ve had thousands over the years. Because I’m an over-aspirer, I like to set Sunday night resolutions before I go to bed: this week I’m going to lose 10 pounds, write some killer dialogue and redecorate the living room in something bold.

We’re a month in to the New Year, and I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept my resolution. Although it sounds simple, keeping it has been difficult. The resolution is boring and old-fashioned and wouldn’t grace the cover of any magazine, except maybe Oprah’s.

In 2016, I’m going to read more.

As a writer, reading is like doing research. It’s how you learn what works and develop an appreciation for things like word choice and sentence structure. But in this frenetic world of doing too much and being too busy, reading seems hedonistic. Self-indulgent. When people find out you sat down to read in the afternoon, they give you the “must be nice” look. Somehow it’s more acceptable to spend the hour scrolling through Facebook than parsing a seamless paragraph.

But reading for enjoyment is a return to my roots.

When I was young, my mom parked me and my brothers at the dining room table for lunch (grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup), then open the closet door where the record player sat. We would listen to a scratchy rendition of a Disney album (Aristocats) over and over. The voices of those silly geese are still in my head.

My parents read to us, out loud, so I carried on the tradition. Almost every night of their little lives, my boys were read to. Sometimes hubby was in one room and I was in the other, reading about pirates or Elmo or making up words to “Good night Gorilla.” We listened to books on tape in the car, and they listened to stories in their rooms in the afternoons. The result of this tradition surprised me the day Son A said “See that girl over there? That’s what I picture Sheila Tubman from Judy Blume’s books would look like.”

But now I’m worried that the reading thing is going away for kids, in favor of screens. I recently learned of the University of Wisconsin Pediatric Early Literacy Project, focused on making books accessible and the promotion of reading a routine part of health care. Physicians involved in the group hand children a book during a regular exam and see how the child reacts. Does he/she know how to hold it? Know that it goes from left to right? They understand the importance reading plays in development:

“Reading, rather than being simply a “nice activity” or a developmental stage, allows humans to access, understand, and derive meaning from information. Even in our modern, digital society, the most efficient and effective conveyor of ideas is text. Children fluent in the language of television, DVDs, computer games, and the Internet, but not fluent in the decoding of text, will have difficulty learning.”

I think we’ll soon see the consequences of this. I’ve heard educators say that due to so much time in front of screens, primary school students have very little imagination, self-control or patience. Harried and overtaxed parents hand their children their phones just to get through the grocery store, or turn on the minivan DVD to have a rare minute to think. Life is hard enough without bickering in the back seat.

But I worry about the damage done. I see little folks at basketball games staring at a screen instead of watching the game, studying their favorite player or just looking at all the faces in the gym. To hand them a screen in the midst of all that humanity is to take away their ability to soak it all up. Especially the under-five set, when every experience creates an impressionable synapse and a lifelong learning path. They’ll recall basketball games - or reading about basketball – much more than they’ll remember being pacified with an app. Being read to in somebody’s lap, feeling their warmth and hearing their voice, should be a necessity for all children, not a treat. It should be as common as lunch.

As my own kids have grown, I’ve tried to keep tabs on their appreciation for the written word in new ways. I’ve tried “Good Writing Wednesdays,” where I read them a sample of something written really well. They balk, I ignore. We still listen to audiobooks in the car, and although they make fun of me, Son B can still recite the best line from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

Oh, I’ve led them astray in all sorts of other ways. But the reading? I’ll never regret a minute.