The book was a very large volume of Richard Scarry’s Little Big World (which I am sad to say I have since lost), and I can still smell the tea, my grandmother’s roses, and the sea-salt smell of my grandfather’s hands turning the pages.
As a child I was an independent reader. I remember reading to my parents and friends, and always being content to sit and read alone. Outside of teachers at school, I don’t really remember being read to. I know my parents must have, because I did read early and voraciously (and because my mom likes to remind me about it), but the only clear memory I have of being read to is by my grandfather one summer in India. This is also the only really clear memory I have of him.
Being read to is a formative experience in so many lives, and there are studies upon studies that tout the benefits of reading to children even before they understand what reading is. But what I remember more about learning to love reading was learning to share books with other people. There is a certain kind of pride one feels when a favorite title is shared with someone, and that new person likes the book too. I remember going to camp early in the summer, telling counselors about a book I liked, and having them tell me later in the summer that they also tried it out. That experience was such a self-esteem booster for someone who (like most young, voracious readers) was a little on the introverted side, and sometimes felt too shy to try to connect with large groups of people. By talking about books, I was sharing a part of myself in a low-stakes way. Every interaction that showed that someone had taken an interest in what I thought—whether they liked the book or not—was its own affirmation that I had a place in this world, that I would be accepted.
That is why I think it is so important that when we talk about cross-generational relationships, we don’t only look to our elders and what we can learn from the past. We also need to actively engage with those who are younger than us.
When I lived with my cousins it was much easier to be involved in their lives. I helped with their homework. I played dinosaurs and practiced piano. I baked cookies and I read bedtime stories. But I think what counted most was that I did just try to impose my thoughts on them, I also let them suggest things to me, and followed through on them. Now that I am an ocean away, it is much harder to sustain that relationship—but with a close to two-decade difference in age, the onus is on me. Remembering how I built my own long-term friendships, I made a point of checking out all the books that my cousins considered their favorites—namely the Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, and some selections by Roald Dahl (the author I chose most frequently for storytime). Sometime soon, my cousins will be receiving a letter in the mail, not only speaking to how much I missed reading these things with them, but also asking for more book recommendations.
I might not be able to read with them each night, or be with them everyday, but I hope that, through a shared love of stories and by taking a genuine interest in what they think and like, I can serve as a quality influence in their lives, despite the dearth of quantity. Because it is those quality interactions that shape lives and have a chance to influence the kind of world we create, far more than anything we might do or say on this strange place that is the internet.