Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 2000
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JUNE 2000

E D I T O R' S    N O T E

Can Super Heroes Build
Super Readers?

Last night, my 4-year-old son Ben (with his 2-year-old brother in tow) approached me with his favorite book of late, GI Joe, A Real American Hero, and asked me to read it to him for the 62nd time. Following on the heels of last month's favorite, the sterling Adventures of Spider-Man, I balked. Aside from being poorly written and badly plotted, the adventure books he seems to crave are filled with villains like Dr. Otto Octavious, "a tentacled master criminal," whose hydraulic arms "make sudden, pulverizing attacks"; and COBRA commander, an evil leader who threatens "to change the course of the Mississippi River" ifthe U.S. government does not deliver on his demand for "one-hundred billion dollars."

How about Green Eggs and Ham, I suggested instead, scanning the pile of gentle kids' classics that line our bookshelves. Or Eric Carle's A House for Hermit Crab? But Ben was characteristically adamant. It was GI Joe or nothing. My husband and I exchanged a glance of despair. Our fervent hope is to raise our two boys to be kind, well-adjusted, well-educated members of society; to be good readers--like the Hopkins academics in this issue ("Summertime, When the Readin' is Easy..." ) whose summer reading lists include heavyhitters like the latest translation of Beowulf and Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma. How does the tentacled Dr. Otto Octavious fit into this picture?

The short answer: Read to your kids what they want you to read them, provided it's not "really harmful." That's according to Hopkins reading specialist Barbara Wasik, principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools and herself the mother of a 6-year-old son. She told me that by discouraging your kids' interests when they're young, you risk turning them off to reading later on. And repetition is key to giving them a sense of mastery over the language. "Reading the same book over and over is horrible for you," she said, laughing, "but great for them."

Wasik further pointed out that even the most insipid adventure books include words that can help build your child's vocabulary. That last observation heartened me. I hung up with Wasik thinking about how I would pause tonight to discuss with Ben what it means for Spider-Man to have "tremendous agility," or for evil Venom to "hold a grudge." My unfailing optimism returned as I thought: Today the Super Heroes. Tomorrow Odysseus.

I'd like to offer belated but heartfelt thanks to the archivists throughout the university who offered invaluable assistance in our research for April's special "Pioneers" issue. And our apologies to the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives; we neglected to credit several images the staff graciously provided.

Sue De Pasquale, Editor