Defying the Electronic Age with the Wonder of Words


Many people know Emma Walton Hamilton as a co-founder of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor and a children’s book author who has penned a number of titles with her mother, actress Julie Andrews. In recent years, the mother/daughter team have created several books for young readers, including the popular Dumpy the Dump Truck series about a useful little dump truck and his adventures in the fictional town of Apple Harbor.

As an author, Hamilton has done many signings and book events. She has found that wherever she appears — either by herself or with her mother — the same question comes up over and over from parents and grandparents, librarians and teachers.

“How do I get my kid to put down the electronics and pick up a book?”

It’s an interesting conundrum in this digital age and one that has led Hamilton to pen a new book — this one written not for children, but for the adults in their lives who would like them to be lifelong lovers of reading. It’s titled “Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment” and in it, Hamilton gives parents tools for instilling a love of reading in children. It’s a task she admits is not easy in the video age.

“Believe me, with two kids, I get it,” says Hamilton. “You can’t avoid being aware of the statistics in the way reading has dropped off as a preferred activity over the last 50 years.”

Though many of today’s adults grew up reading for fun, times have indeed changed. The goal now, notes Hamilton is to keep the next generation of readers alive with outside influences such as television, computer and video games all vying for their attention. Through research and consultation with literacy specialists, Hamilton has found some fascinating facts about children and reading which she shares with audiences in her book. It’s no surprise that kids who are avid readers tend to do better in their careers as adults. But Hamilton notes there are other benefits to reading that many people may not realize.

“Kids who read are twice as likely to participate in the arts,” says Hamilton. “As adults they’re twice as likely to do philanthropic work and also vote.”

“The statistics are scary in terms of how much reading has dropped off  — how few people out of high school continue to read for pleasure, what a huge percentage of the world doesn’t read beyond an eighth grade level,” she adds. “The flip side shows that people who do read for pleasure are more likely to be successful in school and life. They can concentrate better and are better at problem solving.

In her book, Hamilton has looked to her experience as a theater educator in devising a strategy to getting kids to read. It’s all about keeping them engaged she says — discovering a child’s passion and providing reading material that feeds that passion.

“One of the number one reasons kids say they don’t read as much as they’d like is they  have trouble finding books they like,” notes Hamilton. “Kids need help finding good books— even high school and middle school kids. That’s where I think schools can do so much, but we have to help.”

Hamilton cites the example of her own son, Sam. When he was in sixth grade, Sam became fed up with the dark and depressing books that had been assigned on the reading list at school.

“Finally we voiced his concern to his English teacher. She had the presence of mind to say the next book could be a free read,” says Hamilton. “But he didn’t know what to choose.”

 Hamilton asked Sam a series of questions to help him find that book.

“I know he loves non-fiction and humor and nature,” she says. “We settled on Gerald Durrell’s biography ‘My Family and Other Animals.’”

Hamilton warns that reading should never feel like a chore or punishment. That, she says, is when there is a danger of losing a reader.

“When kids are babies we snuggle with them and read and everything is warm and fuzzy,” she says. “In those early associations reading equals love. Then in school they either struggle to learn how to read or if they’re great readers there’s an expectation and it becomes a chore.”

Meanwhile, parents often back off on reading to their school age children because they think they need to in order to cultivate independent reading.

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” says Hamilton. “You have to keep reading to and with them much later than you think. Until eighth grade our ability to comprehend what we hear doesn’t jive with what we see on the page. We can comprehend much more of what we hear. Parents should read books that are much farther advanced than kids can read themselves.”

Sometimes parents find that engaging a son in reading can be more difficult than a daughter. Hamilton has found that there is a higher percentage of boys who are not elective readers. She suggests parents check out the website “Guys Read” which helps males (whatever their age) find books they might like. Ultimately, Hamilton says what is most important is for parents to really zero in on what topics most interest their children and help them find a book that engages that interest.

“It really is as simple as listening to your kid — listen to what they respond to and what they don’t,” says Hamilton. “People ask me all the time, ‘What about comic books? Is it okay?’ I say, ‘Yes! It’s reading with pleasure you want to underscore. Anything that tells the brain subconsciously that reading is fun will stack the deck in your favor.”

Though Hamilton does provide recommended reading lists in her book, she admits it’s entirely subjective and urges parents to find their own path to inspiring their young reader. She suggests talking to librarians, booksellers and going on line for books kids might like. Author James Patterson has created a website called “Read Kiddo Read” which recommends books for all types of young readers. And don’t forget about audio books, says Hamilton. They are real books too and ideal for long drives in the car.

So what about those video games? Should they be banned outright?

“The whole strategy is you can’t forbid the electronics — then it becomes forbidden fruit,” says Hamilton. “What you have to do is incentivize the reading. Make it fun, attractive and as sexy as gaming. The key to that is stealth mode activities to reinforce or build the connection between reading for pleasure and fun.”

“It’s finding those doors into whatever their taste and passion is and building on it.”

On Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 2 p.m., Emma Walton Hamilton will be at BookHampton in Sag Harbor (20 Main Street) to sign copies of “Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment.”

Above: Emma Walton Hamilton reads with students at the Ross School