A tattered book is a loved book: play time with texts

One of the things I’ve loosened up on most regarding reading is how children should treat books. In the early days, I was forever lecturing my kids on how look after their books, issuing a whole host of orders. ‘Stop piling them up, they’re not building blocks. Stop jumping on them, they’re not stepping stones. Stop chewing them, they’re not food,’ and so on. I was so preoccupied with keeping them in pristine condition, it took me a while to see I was completely sucking the fun out of them.

It was only when sitting looking at my own books that something dawned on me: I was such a hypocrite!

You see, my favourite books are disaster zones. In some cases, I’m on second or third copies where the originals fell apart through years of hard use. Pages are ripped, folded, flecked with food or covered with annotations. Bindings are, well, not very binding anymore. Most importantly of all, this doesn’t affect my enjoyment of these books in the slightest; if anything, it adds to it. The sight of pages wrinkled with water where I dropped it in the bath make me smile. It shows I couldn’t put the thing down, not for a second, and here are the creases to prove it.

A big part of my problem was that many of the books my girls have were gifts and I hated to think of my little whirlwinds applying their trademark sledgehammer touch and ruining them, only for the gift-givers to find out. It took looking at my train wreck books to realise that it would be far worse for the givers to see their offerings in perfect condition, their pristine nature a tell-tale sign that they’ve just not been used. Because, let’s be honest, pretty much anything kids touch is going to get messy!

With these realisations in mind, I loosened my grip and embraced the idea that books aren’t relics, they’re toys. In our house, books are toys as much as the building blocks, trains, dolls and the ever-growing pile of plastic food. There are limits, of course: deliberate destruction is a big no no, but for the most part, they interact with their books free from a running commentary on how to treat them.

I want their books to be battered and tattered, loved and used. Instead of treating them like ornaments, books should be woven into the fabric of their play. Sure, they can be books; we can, and do, sit quietly and read them. But they can also be building blocks and stepping stones; we can build with them and leap between them. Literally and figuratively. If that means a few casualties along the way, so be it. If the odd ripped page is the sacrifice required for regular, joyful engagement with books, I’ll take that deal and I know my kids will too.

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