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The Tolkien Effect: using the work of J.R.R. Tolkien to inspire children to read - Annie White Owl

It began as an experiment.

In the Autumn of 1999, I was working as a teacher’s aid in a first grade class at an urban elementary school in central Virginia. The school itself was located in an economically troubled, predominantly African-American neighborhood of one of the Commonwealth’s aged and ailing cities; and the students were products of that neighborhood. Many of them came from homes where drugs, violence and poverty were part of the daily routine, and where little, if any emphasis was placed on literacy.

My main duty as T.A., was to somehow occupy the children for the final hour of class time each day. This is no easy task considering that by this point in the school day, the kids are talkative, rambunctious and ready to be done with the whole sitting still and listening thing. During the first few weeks of the school year, I attempted several different organized activities, each which ended in failure. The kids simply were not interested in anything that did not allow them to run around and scream at the top of their lungs. In this respect, they were perfectly normal six year olds.

As a last resort, I instituted "story time" - something which I was assured by the teacher, would also end in failure. Maybe so, I answered. But what else was there to do?

It couldn’t hurt to try.

After three days of reading Captain Underpants and other similar nonsense books, it seemed as though the teacher was right. "Story time" was a failure. The students were restless, fidgety, and with a few exceptions, were not even listening. So, I went for the heavy ammunition.

Over the summer, I had purchased for my own children, an illustrated version of The Hobbit, which they adored. My daughter, only five years old, could nearly recite the book from memory, start to finish, though she would not even cast so much of a glance at Green Eggs and Ham. With a sigh, I went to class the next day armed with Tolkien, and more than a little bit of uncertainty.

I can only describe what happened as magic. Pure magic.

Not only was the class quiet and attentive as I read, but they asked questions, reacted to what they were hearing, and even began suggesting projects that focused on the story which they could do at home. The first being to draw their own interpretations of their favorite characters. On the third day of reading, other teachers began sitting in and watching, and by the end of the first week, I had been scheduled to start "story time" in four other classes, reading The Hobbit to all.

By the time Christmas break rolled around, I had read the illustrated comic book version of The Hobbit to more than a hundred children in grades one through four, and nearly all of them were begging for more. Encouraged by the success of The Hobbit, I planned a much more ambitious undertaking for "Story time 2.0" after Christmas break . . . I would read The Lord of the Rings. To my amazement, I seemed to be the only teacher who had ever read it.

During the time in which we worked our way through The Hobbit I had received more than two dozen requests from children for a copy of the book. Though I aggressively hounded the school to provide copies for the children, there simply was not enough money in the budget. I did the best I could on my own and ended up giving away as Christmas presents to students, eighteen copies of the book: three of which were from my own bookshelves.

In January of 2000 I began reading Fellowship of the Ring to three first grade classes. For the most part I stuck to the text, though it was necessary to summarize long sections of dialogue at times. The children were immediately enthralled with the Hobbits. Remembering Bilbo at his adventures, it delighted them to see yet another story where the heroes were people of the same stature as themselves. And they seemed completely unconcerned over the lack of pictures in the book. They took it upon themselves to draw their own. Their enthusiasm was overwhelming. Though they may have been considered too young to be able to grasp a story as complex as that in LotR, you would have never thought so by watching them.

In all honesty, I had never before seen children so attentive, so responsive to a story that was being read to them. And more beautiful than that was what I was hearing them say over and over again: "I want to read that book too!" They knew I was leaving some things out. They knew there was more to the story than I was giving them, and they wanted to discover it all for themselves.

Did I mention that these were First graders? Six and seven years old. Some of whom were failing reading class and flat-out refused to pick up a book for any reason. But Tolkien had ignited something in their imagination. He had, through his words, shown them things they had never thought of before, much less seen. He had taken them into a world so different than their own and safely ushered them though without a scratch. I would love to know how many of them had followed through with reading it on their own, or had at least given it a try, and how many had gone on to discover Narnia - which I also made sure to tell them about.

Unfortunately, however, I am no longer in the same state, nor am I in touch with any of those children. The only barometer I have of how influential Tolkien was on any of them, is what I see in one of those first grade students I read to - my son. Of course, my refusal in allowing him to see the movie until he had read the books on his own may have been a factor in his decision to read Lord of the Rings last summer. But I was not in any way involved in the choice of books he made during a visit to a Denver bookstore in November. When it was time to leave, he walked up to me at the register holding in his hands, The Lays of Beleriand and Unfinished Tales.

A few months ago, I was called in for a conference by his teacher, and was told that on numerous occasions he had been caught reading when he was supposed to be completing class work. This behavior continued until finally the teacher had been forced to take the book from him. When she returned it to me during the conference, I saw that it was the LoB, now rather ragged, dirty and seemingly very well read.

Did I mention that my son is only eight?

The moral of this story is: Do not underestimate the minds of children, for they are sharp and quick to flourish. Tolkien was not just a brilliant writer, he was a magician, and children can sense that from the first word. And there’s nothing kids love so much as a really good magic show.

Annie White Owl

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