The writer Graham Greene once observed that books are their most powerful in childhood. He is right, of course, for it is then that our minds are most open and innocent, when we are ready and willing to believe that animals can talk, lost children can fly, houses can be made of gingerbread and that when our punishments are done our dinners will be waiting for us (and they will still be warm)
Of course, against modern technology's immediacy - like videos moving thousands of frames a second - the pace of a book pales by comparison. But, "the race is not to swift". Aesop reminded us, as when you compare a book and video in long-range power, it is book that wins. Nothing short of another living, loving human being can equal a book in its power to simultaneously move, influence, change, heal, excite, educate, and inspire. Blessedly, books come already assembled, no batteries needed, don't go out of style, leave none of candy's cavities, and wear out less easily than toys.
But initially the book is not enough. Books and people do not have Velcro sides. We do not naturally attach to each other. In the beginning there must be a bonding agent - parent, relative, neighbour, teacher, or librarian - someone who attaches book to reader. Just as there is no player in the National Basketball Association who was born wanting to play basketball or read must planted by someone outside the child. Psychologists call such a person the "significant other"
The significant others need not be educated or even come fro privileged circumstances but they serve the world mightily. Take, for example, the poor Danish shoemaker and his son. The father eventually would die mentally ill, his wife would die illiterate and an alcoholic. The son, however, would die one of the world's most widely read and beloved authors - Hans Christian Andersen. How the boys rose above his impoverished childhood can be attributed largely to the long winter nights he spent with his father - reading from the ARABIAN NIGHTS and afterward acting out the stories with cut-outs in toy theater the father had made.
Then there was the troubled Minnesota teenager, returning to his dysfunctional and abusive home one night after selling newspapers at a local hospital. With the temperature reaching twenty-below, the boy saw the warm glow of the library. His father was millitary and thus the boy never spent more than five months in any one school, always at the bottom of his class. In the library that night significant other came in the form of a librarian who offered the ill-clad teen a book, promising another whenever he was done. No performance tests, no dioramas, no grades, just a book to read and enjoy, down by the apartment furnace with a quart of milk and a box of cookies, a book to crawl into and escape the fury of this parents' arguments upstairs. One book led to another and another, until he was hooked for life. By the time that teenage, Gary Paulsen was 50 years old, he would be the award-winning author of more than 100 books, but one can only wonder what might have become of him were if not for the librarian.
Imagine how much poorer the world would be were it not for Mrs. O'Connor, the volunteer who came in each Saturday morning to read aloud to the boys at the English Boarding School. For one boy, the unachieving 10 years old who hated school and books, her weekly visits would give his first real taste of books as wonder and pleasure, instead of test and measure. One year of her Saturday morning readings and he was hooked on books. But, without Mrs. O'Connor the read, the world of books might never have had Roald Dahl the writer.
Some people would have believed that the old days were better in every way than today. Not so, certainly not in children's books, which have never been as wide and glowing as they are today. Three times as many books are being published today than a decade ago, and almost all in glorious colours. Hundreds of children's bookstores (largely unheard of just two decade ago) dot the American marketplace, the chain bookstores have burgeoning children's departments that are crowding the adults, the long grey line of school textbooks is giving way to intelligent and enchanting trade books in the classrooms, and library usage by families has children's librarians wearing the broadcast smiles in decades.
But none of it will add up too much without that significant other who brings child and book together in a grip that lasts a lifetime. In a sense, it is what Plato was talking about when he said it is the responsibility of people who carry torches to pass them on. The magnificent torch of literacy has a flame that must be fanned by moving it from generation, from one reader to another, from an adult to a child.
Books are a powerful tool. In creating a nation of readers, we create the torch bearers and leaders of tomorrow.