ATLANTA -- When I was a child, reading was about my only option for summer entertainment. Growing up in Monroeville, Ala., meant I was deprived not merely of iPods and MySpace, but of cable television and a mall as well. My hometown didn't even have a McDonald's parking lot that bored adolescents could circle in their parents' cars.
So I spent my elementary years with Little Women, The Swiss Family Robinson, Heidi and Huckleberry Finn. By the time I was 10 or so, I had acquired a taste for the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe and the science fiction of Ray Bradbury. And, of course, a favorite was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, whose hero, Atticus Finch, was loosely based on Ms. Lee's father, Monroeville attorney A. C. Lee.
By the time I reached high school, my mother handed me a list of classics, books she said all college-bound students should read. It included works by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Emily Bronte and Jane Austen, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.
Books have not lost their magic. Despite MP3s, DVDs, CDs and Tivos, the printed word still has the power to entertain, educate and erase boredom, not just for adults but for children, too. Even in an era of short attention spans and constant media bombardment, the right book is a source of joy.
Books still hold my attention as I plod along on a treadmill at the gym or sit patiently in the dentist's office. They work for my 7-year-old niece, too. Though she is a modern media kid with her own portable DVD player, I make sure she travels with books. That cuts down on repetitions of "Are we there yet?"
A reading habit also accelerates academic performance. The child who reads well learns to write well; he will likely have little trouble grasping the fundamentals of geography or Earth science and expressing those fundamentals on tests.
Many educators also believe that the dedicated reader performs better on standardized tests than his peer who shuns books. After all, most standardized tests have large chunks of written material that the student must digest quickly. If reading is a habit, that's a less daunting task.
It's no wonder, then, that children from homes where the reading habit is unfamiliar are less likely to fare as well in school. While educators have long noted a correlation between affluence and educational achievement, it's not family income itself that makes the difference. Adults from affluent backgrounds are more likely to oversee homework, introduce themselves to teachers and, of course, do a lot of reading themselves.
But impoverished circumstances need not deter a child from reading. My mother still laughs about inheriting a trunk full of books from a distant relative who couldn't read but who honored literature anyway. By the time my mother went to college, she had read several of those books, including Greek mythology. Her illiterate relative pointed her in the right direction.
Those children who aren't motivated to read at home will need other encouragement - not just from their teachers but from other adults. It's easy enough to volunteer to read to children at an elementary school or start a tutorial program at your church. Kids from disadvantaged circumstances deserve a helping hand.
For many children, it's likely that a helping hand will be enough. When an adult reads to a small child, the child learns to enjoy the rhythms of good prose, the adventure of seductive plots and the power of their imaginations. Kids taught to love books when they are young are less likely to abandon them later.
And parents who despair that they've failed to inculcate a love of books in their CD-burning, text-messaging teens shouldn't give up, either. Sometimes the example set by parents who read for pleasure kicks in late.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.