In a Washington, D.C., bookstore last month, I found an ancient copy of “Baree, Son of Kazan,” a book targeted at pre-internet pre-teens wanting to know more about dog/wolf hybrids, noble fur traders and the depraved man-beast Bush McTaggart.
On the flyleaf was inscribed, in copperplate handwriting: “To Vadim, with much happiness. From Tania. August 23, 1929, Los Angeles, Cal.” Next to the inscription was a rubber stamped “V. Sounitza.” I bought the book, went back to my hotel room, and fired up Google to learn about Vadim Sounitza.
He was born in Russia in 1918 – an interesting time there – and the book was apparently a gift for his 11th birthday. Vadim later studied history at UCLA, fought in World War II and worked for the CIA. He died in a Maryland nursing home in 2010.
He must have held on to “Baree, Son of Kazan” until he died. Why? Was he a pack rat? Was it because Tania – friend? sister? aunt? – gave it to him? Or did he just love the book?
I want to think it was love – love for the giver, love for the story, love for the physical book itself and the sheer joy of falling headlong into a story of no discernible literary merit. But I wonder whether today’s 11 year olds will know the same love.
Our school district gets mountains of test data every year. We know that about half of Stoughton’s sixth graders aren’t reading at grade level. Even the kids who do read at grade level read fewer books than their counterparts did 30 years ago.
This is not just a Stoughton problem. Reading scores at school districts throughout Dane County show similar results – a generation of preteens who don’t read well, and too many who can barely read at all. According to a story in the Isthmus, 1994 Wisconsin ranked third in the nation in average fourth grade reading scores and 2017 Wisconsin ranks 34th.
At some point around sixth grade, it becomes much more difficult for kids who are behind to catch up, and the implications are profound.
Teens who struggle to read will struggle in high school. Young adults who struggle to read will struggle in postsecondary education, whether it’s college or trade school. Adults who struggle to read will struggle to find good employment. And they will struggle to bring a love of reading to their children.
This year, our school board set an ambitious goal. Within six years, we want 70 percent of our grade school students reading at proficient or advanced levels. This would give us the highest reading scores in Dane County.
We’re starting with professional development. Our teachers are working across schools to make sure that every kid in every school gets the same strong curriculum and the same level of preparation. We believe reading matters.
Our library runs wonderful reading programs. Community leaders like Dave Ganser donate hundreds of books to our students. Bleary-eyed parents read to their toddlers after a hard day. But if reading matters to us in Stoughton, all of us need to do more.
Reading matters because it connects us to each other and to something larger than ourselves. Reading a sacred book – whether it’s the Bible or the Diamond Sutra – connects you to generations of people like you who have tried to understand the great mysteries, maybe to God Himself.
Even a Jack Reacher novel grabbed in a panic from the airport bookstore because I left my Kindle at home (it’s full of Shakespeare, really) connects me to the college student across the aisle reading the same thing.
Me, I’m connected to “Baree, Son of Kazan,” even though it’s a weeknight and I have a Courier-Hub column to finish and work tomorrow. I’m on page 212, and the valiant Napeese has just escaped Bush McTaggart by outrunning him through the snow, then jumping to her certain death off a 50-foot waterfall into Blue Feather Gorge. Baree, the noble dog/wolf has been shot in the head and cannot walk straight, and it’s looking grim for the good guys.
I sit in my ratty lounge chair, listening to my non wolf-hybrid dogs gently snore, and swear to myself I’ll put it down and go upstairs when I finish the next chapter. But I imagine a bright-eyed 11 year old boy leaning over my shoulder, whispering. “You’re almost to the really good part. Don’t stop now.”
I’m connected to him, too. I keep reading. I have to know how it ends.