Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Sendoff

           He was the baby who always nodded off in the special backpack I wore while cross-country skiing. He was the toddler who especially loved tactile board books, the boy who curled up on our laps for bedtime reading and the preteen who once convinced me to buy him a ridiculously expensive coffee table book on astronomy, which he read over and over and over for years.
            He was the ten-year-old for whom I wrote my first young-adult novel (which just happened to get published three years later, leading to thousands of other kids reading it and a surprise career change for me). I wrote much of it in chilly ice hockey arenas as he attended practice sessions. He was the official teen editor of my Take it to the Extreme series. (I learned to take feedback; he learned some diplomacy.) 
            We raced whitewater kayaks together, first in a double and later separately. We hiked and cross-country skied together. When he outgrew his snowboard boots around age 13, I claimed them because they were my shoe size. This prompted him to hand-draw a gift certificate that read, “This is good for one snowboard lesson.” When we arrived on the mountain together, he gave me five minutes of instruction, said “You’re good to go” and disappeared. I worked my way down the mountain by myself, then had to ask a young boy how to get on and off the ski lift with my board.
            I borrowed his mountain-biking pads to play paintball last year. They failed to stop the inadvertent friendly-fire pellet that bruised my rear end.
            He was the teenager who wrote heavy metal lyrics for his garage band, which I was not allowed to call a garage band, and who spent an entire family vacation with his nose so buried in one of the Harry Potter books that he barely lifted his head to grunt at us now and again. He read each and every one of the Harry Potter books four times.
            And finally, he was the adventurous spirit who was more than happy to take up extreme sports I wasn’t willing to when I was researching them for young-adult novels. He helped me so much with my mountain-biking book Adrenalin Ride, I allowed his photo to appear in the back of the book with mine.
            He helped choose the book covers when Whitecap Books asked for my input, and it’s even possible that many of my characters are based on him and his friends. (My character Peter of my Extreme series was consciously based on his best friend in elementary school, but I forbid him to ever tell his best friend, for fear that his friend would someday sue me. Of course, Peter soon outgrew his original inspiration and took on his own personality.)
            This week my son Jeremy is the newly minted university graduate about to fly halfway around the world. And I’m fiercely proud and happy for him, but also just a tiny bit panicked to lose his company.
            Jeremy finished his university degree in anthropology in December. This week he leaves for several months in Syria, where he’s doing an immersion course in Arabic prior to graduate school in the fall. Am I allowed to be a sentimental mom who is dreading this new stage just a little?
            It’s not like it’s the first time he has left home, but this time feels so much more final. Two summers ago, he participated in archeological digs in Jordan through a university program. (He ended up in the hospital with food poisoning and sunstroke.) Last summer he did a solo bike trip through Sicily, Italy, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Holland, France and England. He slept in farmers’ fields, biked up mountains through torrential rainstorms, got invited into remote farmhouses for pasta and wine, and generally had the adventure of a lifetime. I ordered a 21st birthday cake to be delivered to his youth hostel in Rome via the internet. He said he was the most popular guy in the hostel for the ten minutes it took for the cake to disappear.
            The only child of a chemistry professor and writer, did he grow up to be a keen reader and writer? Yes, but I’ll credit that more to my husband reading to him a lot when he was a child, than to my own efforts or influence. That’s the male role-model factor, so important for boys.
            There was also his childhood asthma, which forced him to sit beside a machine for hours per day somewhere around fourth grade. It put rocket launchers on his reading abilities and inclination. Then again, that’s partly because we handed him a book rather than television for those sessions.
            As I prepare for the sendoff, I’ll share this memory: reading chapters of my first novel Raging River every night to him as a bedtime story when he was ten years old. Like any kid trying to extend his bedtime, he’d say, “Mom, won’t you read me just one more chapter?” Glancing down at my manuscript, I’d say, “No, because I haven’t written it yet.”
            When I was finished, he told me it was “pretty good.” Higher praise I’ll never receive.
            Bon voyage, Jeremy. You’ve done us proud.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A book for Christmas? Are you kidding?

        I was speaking at a middle school a few years ago, telling the kids about my next teen novel, when a boy eagerly volunteered his dad to work with me as an expert on the sport I was writing about.
        “Perfect!” I said. When his bemused father agreed to help me with background, I gave the boy an autographed copy of one of my books to thank him.
        “He couldn’t put it down,” the father told me during one of our meetings.
        “That’s great!” I replied. “So now you know what to get him for Christmas -- another book from my series!”
        The father blanched. “Oh no, I’d never get him a book for Christmas. He’d kill me.”

       I was too stunned to respond. Imagine! A middle-school boy was enthused about reading (fiction, even), and his father was convinced that he didn’t need to support or encourage that. Here was a dad who believed that his son’s interest in electronic gadgets and sports equipment should overrule a golden opportunity to send a message about the importance of reading. (Why not gift the boy with both?) The father, a successful businessman, told me he had not been a strong reader himself as a child. Clearly, he was projecting his own childhood feelings about books onto his son -- and at an age where children (especially boys) are in desperate need of strong role-modeling from parents on the importance of reading.
       I loved that this dad was a dedicated farther who spent time with his son, especially on sports activities. But there’s just one piece of information this father was missing: In today’s information age, reading is key to academic achievement like never before. With each passing generation, it’s harder and harder to achieve business or any other type of success without more reading and education than one’s parents had. Today’s college degree is equivalent to yesterday’s high school degree. And children whose interest in reading wanes before high school are the ones most likely to be left behind.
        For too long, parents have assumed that teaching their kids to read was the school’s job. But a comfort with reading begins at home, and special efforts to encourage reading are never more important than in fourth grade and beyond. That's why in February 2011 I'm launching, with a friend, The Keen Readers Foundation. I'll reveal the website address as soon as it goes live. It's dedicated to youth literacy, and offers parents and mentors the support they need to get or keep their children reading. More about that soon, I promise.