Lit Counts: Teach Your Children to Read at the Dinner Table

By Tiffany Quay Tyson

For a brief time in 1977, the big political scandal revolved around a girl who loved to read. Amy Carter, ten-year-old daughter of President Jimmy Carter, sent the world into a tizzy when she refused to put down her book at a White House State Dinner. Roald Dahl was infinitely more entertaining than the Canadian prime minister. Go figure.

I was just two years younger than the first daughter and I liked her. I felt we had a lot in common. We both loved to read, of course, but also to roller skate. We both had lank blond hair that wouldn’t hold a curl. We were both raised in the south and went to public schools. If we met, I thought, we’d surely be friends. So I hated to see her criticized by the press and the public for something so silly.

Everyone I knew had an opinion about the Carter family and Amy’s reading habits, none of them very kind. Women at my church called her rude or criticized her parents for not teaching her better manners, but my family had a different take. My father said everyone should leave the child alone and let her read her books. Children should read more, he argued, not less. My mother agreed. I knew I’d been born into the right family.

Then, as now, I carried a book with me almost everywhere. The world was full of boring moments and I didn’t think I should have to suffer through them, not when Judy Blume and Robert Cormier and Louise Fitzhugh and, yes, Roald Dahl had written so many engaging stories. I was a master of reading while the world churned around me. I tucked my novels behind my bible and behind my math books. I read while my mother drove me to school and I read before dance class. I read while my cousins shot Nerf balls at my head on Easter Sunday. And I read through whatever football game was playing on TV. How could anyone care about the Egg Bowl when Island of the Blue Dolphins beckoned?

And, yes, I read while I ate. Granted, we weren’t hosting any dignitaries. We weren’t the sort of family that gathered around the table each night and talked about our day. We were the sort of family that fixed a plate and retreated to our separate corners to read or watch the news. It was in those years that I perfected the skill of reading while eating.

There are plenty of etiquette scolds and even nutritionists who will tell you why you shouldn’t read while eating, but let me offer a contrary opinion. I say teach your children to read while they eat. Encourage them to read books and not their Twitter feed. It’s a skill that will last a lifetime. A child who learns to read while eating will never eat alone. I am proof of that.

This year, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling solo to promote my latest novel. As such, I often eat by myself in restaurants. I always take a book with me. I like to sit at the bar or at a small corner table. I prop my book behind my plate so I can reach my food without lifting my eyes from the page. I order sandwiches or salads instead of steaks. I like to keep utensil usage to a minimum when I’m reading. You might imagine it would be distracting to read while patrons chatter, glasses clink, and waiters bustle, but it’s quite pleasurable. The noise of the restaurant becomes a kind of background music.

On a recent trip to Nashville I took the latest Tana French novel to a nearby cafeteria, where I loaded my plate with baked chicken, cornbread dressing, and collard greens. There was football on the TV, but I couldn't tell you which teams were playing. I was too engrossed in The Witch Elm to notice. Both the book and the food were delicious. I ordered a chess bar to take away. That evening I lay in bed in my hotel room with my book and my dessert balanced on my stomach and I was so happy.

Later I turned on the news to see what was going on in the world. It wasn’t good. I wished for simpler times and I wondered what Amy Carter was doing these days.  I wondered if she still loves to read novels. I wondered if she still sometimes reads while she eats. I hope she does and I hope she enjoys every page and every bite as much as I do.

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today

Tiffany Quay Tyson's novel The Past is Never was selected as a 2018 'Okra Pick' by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Her debut novel, Three Rivers, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters award for fiction. Shorter pieces have appeared in The Rumpus, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Ilanot Review, The Tulane Review and Peeks & Valleys: A Southern Journal. She worked for a brief stint as a newspaper reporter in the Mississippi Delta, where she received the Frank Allen Award for Journalism. She is the recipient of two Heartland Emmy Awards including one for writing for a children’s public television program. She was born and raised in Mississippi and much of her fiction is set in the south. She lives in Denver.