Reading fuels imagination

By Winston A. Hall
On November 20, 2003

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

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

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

In an age of video games and television channels that arerelentlessly void of purpose (and class), many people of GenerationX and younger have managed to live their entire lives withoutconjuring up images of action, sadness, adventure and heartache intheir heads. When the time comes to be creative, televisionchannels and video games do it for them.

The result? They have no imagination.

As a child, I considered myself under-privileged because my familydid not own a Nintendo. Many of my friends owned them and wastedaway their priceless childhood Saturdays drooling in front of DuckHunt and other games.

In my father's household, the television was never watchedafter 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Consequently, without TV and videogames, my sisters and I turned to our imaginations forentertainment.

On rainy days, we performed plays using the kitchen chairs and ablanket as the backdrop for our performances. We drew and wrotestories. We even choreographed Broadway musicals using Barbiedolls. (If anyone is worried about this, I always played Ken.) Whenthat grew old, I would locate my G.I. Joes and, with aid fromHe-Man, capture Castle Grayskull.

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

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

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

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

Some books, like "Green Eggs and Ham" are soinfluential as stories that they actually become a permanent partof 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 theimagination of the children who read them.

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

In the past I used my imagination to picture barnyard animals andDr. Seuss characters. Suddenly, I was using my imagination to feelsadness, sympathy, happiness and excitement for the characters. Iwas using my imagination to picture in my mind the faces of thecharacters when one of their friends died. I noticed less the lackof pictures and noticed more the passing of chapters as I hungrilydevoured each chapter, eagerly flipping pages to know what happensin the end.

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

Books are magical, a sublime medium of communication where you canfollow the progress of characters and wonder, when you're notreading, how they're doing.

Books allow children and adults alike the opportunity to relate tothe characters and learn what it means to finish a book, feeling asthough 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 seewhat you imagine" was predictably on the front row when I satdown to read his class a story. As I opened the book, his eyes werethe widest, and when I finished, he was the happiest. He had theadvantage over his video game-playing friends.

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

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