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Reading fuels imagination

Published: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Updated: Saturday, September 11, 2010 08:09

Children are often smarter than we give them credit. On Monday, I asked a second grader at McGill Elementary School how he defined the word imagination. Without hesitating he responded: "Imagination is being able to see what you imagine."

The answer seemed ridiculously obvious at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his words contained much wisdom.

Sadly, though, many of the people of my generation cannot grasp his simple wisdom.

In an age of video games and television channels that are relentlessly void of purpose (and class), many people of Generation X and younger have managed to live their entire lives without conjuring up images of action, sadness, adventure and heartache in their heads. When the time comes to be creative, television channels and video games do it for them.

The result? They have no imagination.

As a child, I considered myself under-privileged because my family did not own a Nintendo. Many of my friends owned them and wasted away their priceless childhood Saturdays drooling in front of Duck Hunt and other games.

In my father's household, the television was never watched after 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Consequently, without TV and video games, my sisters and I turned to our imaginations for entertainment.

On rainy days, we performed plays using the kitchen chairs and a blanket as the backdrop for our performances. We drew and wrote stories. We even choreographed Broadway musicals using Barbie dolls. (If anyone is worried about this, I always played Ken.) When that grew old, I would locate my G.I. Joes and, with aid from He-Man, capture Castle Grayskull.

But above all this, I found one thing that always, always ignited my imagination—reading. My room contained almost a hundred books, stacked side by side on two bookshelves in the corner of my room, some with dust some without, but all of them containing a story that challenged me to see between the lines and cultivate an imagination.

Stories like "Owl at Home" by Arnold Lobel bring pictures to mind of my mother's best friend reciting the story while holding a candle and even managing to squeeze out a fake tear or two. Lobel also wrote the "Frog and Toad" series that many of us remember reading as a child. (Lobel's first accomplishment as an author was learning to spell the name of his hometown: Schenectady, New York.)

"Stand back," said the elephant, "I'm going to sneeze," is another phrase many of my generation relate to their childhood. I remember reading the book over and over trying to bring to life the actions of the animals in the story.

I would be remiss not to mention one "book" of sorts that I read often as a youngster. "Calvin and Hobbes" also played a huge roll in my childhood because it forced me to use my imagination to picture the life of a boy who always used his imagination. (Three cheers for Spaceman Spiff!)

Some books, like "Green Eggs and Ham" are so influential as stories that they actually become a permanent part of mainstream American culture. (Dr. Seuss has several of these, including "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat.")

The reason this happens is simple: these stories capture the imagination of the children who read them.

Reading as a child serves as an incubator for appreciation of literature as whole later in life. I remember vividly my transition from a reader of children's books to a reader of "real" books. I picked up "Remembering the Good Times" by Richard Peck, which my sister was reading at the time, and began absorbing the story, line by line.

In the past I used my imagination to picture barnyard animals and Dr. Seuss characters. Suddenly, I was using my imagination to feel sadness, sympathy, happiness and excitement for the characters. I was using my imagination to picture in my mind the faces of the characters when one of their friends died. I noticed less the lack of pictures and noticed more the passing of chapters as I hungrily devoured each chapter, eagerly flipping pages to know what happens in the end.

I gathered the same sensation when I completed John Knowles' "A Separate Peace." I understood then why we read books.

Books are magical, a sublime medium of communication where you can follow the progress of characters and wonder, when you're not reading, how they're doing.

Books allow children and adults alike the opportunity to relate to the characters and learn what it means to finish a book, feeling as though you aren't the same person you were when you started. Simply put, books are the number one way to cultivate an active, creative, uncontainable imagination.

The same boy who told me "imagination is being able to see what you imagine" was predictably on the front row when I sat down to read his class a story. As I opened the book, his eyes were the widest, and when I finished, he was the happiest. He had the advantage over his video game-playing friends.

He had not just heard the whole story—he had seen it as well.

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