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Reading, Not Rules

by Annie Barrows
 | Oct 04, 2012
I have problems with authority. Which is a pretty funny thing for an author to admit.

I learned this about myself while I was writing IVY AND BEAN MAKE THE RULES, the latest installment in the Ivy and Bean series. It was a very difficult book for me to write, not because of the subject, which is childhood camp, or the storyline, which is about my girls, Ivy and Bean, setting up their own camp, but because—as I discovered—I am not mature enough to write a book about camp that doesn’t advocate total mayhem.

It’s not rules that bother me. I adore rules. Rules of punctuation—love those! Rules of etiquette? Great! I am a big fan of rules of the road (How many miles per hour when crossing a railroad track? Fifteen!) and safety rules (Mostly). As a parent, I have rules galore, and as a child, I followed my parents’ rules on many, many occasions.

What put me in a snit are rules dressed up as fun. Rules that organize, militate, and regiment fun, particularly kids’ fun, cause me to behave very badly. They always have. This is an enormous character flaw, because everyone knows that you can’t have a good game without rules. Where would baseball be without the Infield Fly Rule? Okay, that’s a bad example because I have no idea where baseball would be without the Infield Fly Rule.

Let’s take card games, let’s take Scrabble, let’s take Monopoly. I can’t stand any of them. I was one of those kids who knocked over the board in the middle of the game because I couldn’t bear it any more. I used to rob the bank in Monopoly so the game would just END already. Nowhere do rules and fun coincide more oxymoronically than at camp. Every camp, from the three-weeks-of-fresh-air-and-dirt camps of my youth to the five-day, four-hundred-dollar Gourmet Groupies camps of today bill themselves as big fun. Maybe educational, but also fun. Fun, fun, fun! More fun than a barrel of monkeys! Just look at all the smiling kids in the brochure! You never saw so much fun in your life!

And yet, once the kids actually get to the camp, there are lots and lots of rules. There are safety rules and instructions about how to do things. Usually, there are lots of group activities and everyone has to do them, plus tasks and clean-up, not to mention rousing songs that you’d better learn or you won’t get to participate.

And I am inside my tent, plotting a revolution.

Actually, I am not, because I never went to camp. (Also, I would hate a revolution. So noisy.)

I never went to camp because, no matter what the grownups said, I knew that if I went, they’d make me follow rules. They’d make me join. They’d make me sing. They might even make me play games. I’d be part of the gang, part of the team, part of the big, happy family. Yuck.

I refused. And what kind of wild, ungoverned behavior did I engage in while everyone else was in camp? I read. I read and read and read. Every once in a while, my mom would take the book out of my hand and tell me I had to run around the block, but that, thankfully, was rare.

Reading, to me, was—and is—perfect freedom. Sure, there are a few rules: left to right, and you’ll probably get more out of it if you hold the book right side up. I can’t think of anything else. Once you know how to read, you don’t need an adult’s help to do it. You don’t have to negotiate with anyone. You get to find out stuff on your own. You get to have your own experience. You decide when to do it and when to stop doing it. It’s not competitive. There’s no show at the end. It is absolutely unlike camp.

This is why I am an advocate of Free Reading, Drop Everything and Read, Sustained, Silent Reading, whatever you want to call it. I call it reading. More than anything else, I want reading to be a rule-free zone for kids. In my perfect world, kids would be able to read and run. They’d be able to read any book, at any lexile level, on any subject (okay, almost any subject) they desired. There would be no tests, no notes, no questions, no reading logs, and no response journals, nothing at all that regulated, militated, or organized the experience for them. Without all these mediations and interruptions, maybe reading would regain its status as a freedom, rather than a task, for kids.

I bet you’re asking yourself why, if I am a reading liberationist, did I write a book about camp? Why, you ask, didn’t I write a book about reading? Well, I did. Of course, a book in which nobody does anything but read is going to be a tad dull, so I transplanted the act of interpretation, which is the essence of reading, to the subject of camp. Bean and Ivy, bless them, are giving their free-verse rendition of the idea of camp, with accompanying good times. Their version, Camp Flaming Arrow, is their reading of “camp,” and their reading of “camp rules” is the most glorious possible: none at all.

Obviously, there are lots and lots of kids who have a great time at camp. They like being part of the gang, on the team, one big happy family. Ivy and Bean, being reasonable human beings, don’t want to change those kids. They don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. They want to live and let live. That is the one rule they follow at their camp, and it’s the one that’s the hardest for all of us grownups to learn.

Maybe there should be a camp for that.

Annie Barrows is the author of the Ivy and Bean children’s series, which has sold over 2 million copies, as well as of THE MAGIC HALF. She is also the co-author, with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, of THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY.

© 2012 Annie Barrows. Photo: Annie Frantzeskos. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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