Be a Story Advocate

George Lucas: “The sciences are the how, and the humanities are the why. Why are we here? Why do we believe in the things we believe in? I don’t think we can have the how without the why.” From  “The Heart of the Matter,” a recently published video by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Michelle Isenhoff reminded us in “What Characterizes Tween Literature” that the ages of about 11 to 14 are “the time to start introducing tweens to tough topics they will face as adults, as Lois Lowry does in The Giver. Yet these topics must still be handled appropriately. Tweens are ready to empathize, to problem solve, to experience real life in a sheltered way.”

The power of story—to help us to feel, to understand, and to question—is crucial and exciting for readers of all ages, but especially for the formative and impressionable years of youth. All too often, however, our society pays mere lip service to the value of books and reading. As a humanities teacher at an engineering college, I support the recent focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, especially for girls, but I also worry that the importance of the humanities is too easily overlooked in favor of more financially lucrative and “productive” pursuits.

Fortunately, the humanities and literature in particular are finding an ally in their natural partner: science. For example, last year’s New York Times article “Your Brain on Fiction” discussed brain imaging studies suggesting that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

This headline perhaps best sums up recent research: “Science Confirms the Obvious: Literature is Good for Your Brain.”

Of course, we all knew this, but I think that we can also use a (not so) gentle push to be more vehement in our defense of humanities, especially story telling. How can we be better story advocates?

  • We can defend a tween’s decision to spend hours reading fiction “just for fun.”
  • We can take the time to continue to read to children after they learn to read for themselves, even tweens, and especially if they struggle with reading or have learning disabilities.
  • We can read the books our children read so as to have informal book discussions in the car or on walks.
  • We can fill our homes with books of every genre and reading level.
  • We can turn to books instead of smart phones when we need to wait for an event or appointment.
  • We can be an example of someone who values reading enough to carve out time to do so, even if it means unplugging for an hour every night or cutting back on other activities. We can say within a child’s hearing, “I’d love to, but tonight is my reading night.”
  • We can talk naturally with our children about how literature has affected us or helped us better to understand ourselves, others, or our world.

How are you a story advocate?

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Lisa RiveroLisa Rivero is the author of several books for readers of all ages, including the award-winning The Smart Teen’s Guide to Living with Intensity and the children’s historical novel Oscar’s Gift. When she is not writing, she teaches technical composition, creative thinking, psychology, and humanities courses at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

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21 thoughts on “Be a Story Advocate

  1. Fantastic suggestions! My two kids are four and almost-six, so not exactly tween stage yet, but I am always looking ahead, trying to plan for the next stage with them. A lot of good tips here for helping them hold on to the love for literature we’re trying to instill in them right now, and helping them use that love to navigate through life.

    (Side note: one of my college professors mentioned in a class once how he still read to his two tween sons every night before bed – they were currently going through the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was the first time I’d ever heard of a parent continuing to read to their kids long after those kids were independent readers, and it really stuck with me. I thought then, and I think now, that it was a terrific idea.)

    1. It is wonderful that you are thinking ahead for your kids (I wish I had done so)! Reading aloud to independent readers is an overlooked gift and pleasure, I think because we mistakenly assume that it will somehow deter children from reading on their own. And the habit doesn’t have to stop at the end of childhood. My 21-year-old son got married on Saturday, and while packing for their honeymoon, he made sure to include Lord of the Rings to read to each other in the evenings. His wife (still getting used to writing that!) has long read to her mother on long car rides as a way to pass the time. How cool is that?

  2. Lisa, this is a great post on the importance of reading, thank you for sharing. I’m a science girl at heart and I strongly back STEM. But it’s so important to remember the link between innovative sciences and creativity and how they are so closely linked. Books and stories help us to think outside of ourselves and open up our creative brains! Great post!

    1. Ansha, thank you! I was a math minor (and English major) in college, so I’ve never understood the idea that arts and sciences need to be separated as much as they sometimes are. I have been trying to think of a STEM-like acronym for humanities domains but haven’t had any good ideas yet. 🙂

  3. Excellent advice. Fortunately, my middle school-aged daughter is rarely seen without a book in her hand, but as for myself, I have to make an effort to remember to take the time to read.

    1. Jane, I know what you mean. I often have to schedule time for reading the way I schedule other things, but when I do, I find myself going right back to that childhood joy of losing myself in the world of a book. It’s more important than ever in our crazy-busy lives.

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I’d love to hear what else we can do to encourage a life-long love affair with reading, especially given the other distractions in our world today.

  4. Fascinating post. I really like the empirical evidence you give for supporting the humanities. I’ve always found the works of fiction I like most are those based on scientific principles.

  5. Technology has become such an integral part of our lives, it’s often hard to remember to “unplug” once in a while and enjoy other facets of life. Terrific post, Lisa! Anything that helps encourage kids to read more for pleasure is worth trying 🙂

    1. I agree, Alan. It’s amazing (and kind of scary at times) how fast I have become used to a plugged-in life.

  6. I love this post, Lisa. I have very strong feelings that fiction is one of the best ways to learn about societies, both past societies and present ones. I’m trying very hard to encourage readers of my blog to in turn encourage the tweens (and other age groups) they teach/parent/love to read fiction about political issues. Reading is so important. You can tell a kid that the Jim Crow South was a very hard place for blacks to live, or you can give that kid a copy of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The book lets the kid know the Jim Crow South, the fears and anger and frustration. Climbing off my soap box now. Thanks so much for this post!

    1. Thanks very much, Liz. I couldn’t agree more. One book that stands out for me in terms of helping me to know that there was a world and history beyond my small rural life was Farewell to Manzanar, which was recently published at the time. I remember that I got it through our monthly Scholastic book orders (oh how I looked forward to those order forms!) rather than reading it as part of a school assignment, and the story and characters stuck with me for years, far more than if I’d learned about Japanese internment camps from a textbook.

      1. Exactly, Lisa! I haven’t yet read Farewell to Manzanar, but about a year ago I read A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, a great tween book about the Gila River Internment camp. I also just read Barbed Wire Baseball, a picture book for older kids about a baseball professional who built a baseball field at the Gila River camp. It would make a great read aloud book for younger tweens..

  7. Great post. I’m especially a fan of continuing to read to kids. There are so many benefits to that time together. And we have “family reading time” but my husband is better about putting everything else aside and reading than I am. Your post has motivated me to be better at that. Thanks!

    1. Shannan, I think it’s terrific that your husband takes the lead for family reading time! I agree that the benefits go beyond the literary–simply being together, focused on the same thing is a rare occasion these days. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. I was one of those tweens who would read fiction for hours and hours (and I had to move around or hide away sometimes otherwise I’d be given housework to do instead, LOL).

    Unfortunately my parents didn’t quite believe that a child would be interested in reading anything and everything and I think they had quite forgotten about the Sidney Sheldon and Shirley Conran books in easy reach in the bookcase… I’ve never forgotten those books. Way, way too much information too soon.

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