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AMERICANA

SOME YEARS AGO, before I learned the hard lessons of public speaking, I was invited to address a convention of librarians. I told them a harmless joke or two, praised the gallant work they performed and fondly recalled my book-hungry visits to the libraries of my youth.

The audience was eating out of my hand. That is, until I shared my newfound delight in the fact that my 12-going-on-13 son, who was once not interested in so much as reading the back of a cereal box, had finally discovered the pleasure of books.

One of the librarians immediately asked me what he was reading, and my innocent reply was that he had begun to devour the young-adult novels written by an Oklahoma woman named S.E. Hinton. Suddenly the question evolved into a full-frontal interrogation. Peering at me over her glasses, my host suggested that if I had any idea of the subject matter of Hinton’s novels, I’d best perform my parental duty by returning home as quickly as possible and tossing them in the trash. A ceremonial burning might be even better.

Explaining that I had, in fact, read the parables of good and evil attached to life in a teenage gang, I admitted that they weren’t exactly my cup of tea. On the other hand, they were well written, ultimately claimed high moral ground, had won numerous awards, sold like hula hoops and, most important, were interesting enough to lure my son away from cartoon television.

I’d have been OK had I stopped there. Instead, I suggested that if hers was the attitude of all literary gatekeepers, our next generation might well be on its way to absolute, dumbfounding illiteracy.

Things sorta went downhill from there. Trust me when I say you should never argue with the folks serving the rubber chicken.

Now, come forward with me to modern day. That kid who started his reading journey with Hinton characters like Tex and Ponyboy is now 42, a constant reader of both quality fiction and enlightening nonfiction.

And when his 9-year-old son isn’t doing homework or at soccer practice, he’s lost in the magical Hogwarts School adventures of Harry Potter. His 12-year-old cousin, meanwhile, can quote entire passages from Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight series.

Yet when ol’ granddad brags, he still gets grief: They’re wasting their time on that fantasy, magic and chaste romance-vampire tale. And don’t even get me started on the scary preteen Goosebumps stuff authored by R.L. Stine.

See where I’m going with this?

It is my firm and unfaltering belief that the valuable habit of reading doesn’t begin with the Great Works. Remember back when you couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, and when the name Tom Sawyer was more familiar than that of Tom Wolfe? What I’m saying is we’ve all got to start somewhere.

And, trust me, things are just beginning to get interesting. I’m already putting together a reading list that is going to knock the kids’ socks off this summer. There’s Holes, a National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, by Louis Sachar, and its charming follow-up, Small Steps. They’re going to love the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by mystery writer Rick Riordan and a slew of sports-related novels aimed toward kids and authored by famed New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica.

If these don’t suit, they’re welcome to make their own choices.

Duncan McDougall, executive director of the Vermont-based Children’s Literary Foundation, agrees that any and all reading is a good idea. “Parents concerned that their child is reading a book that is not of ‘high quality’ should remember that as long as children are reading, they are expanding their language skills, vocabulary and imagination. Honing their reading skills increases the chances they will succeed in school and become better prepared to read the next book and the next.”

His 12-year-old foundation, which focuses on the needs of low-income, at-risk and rural readers and writers throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, can break your heart with the statistics it has compiled, like the fact that more than 60 percent of low-income families have not a single book at home for their children to read.

Perhaps somebody needs to better explain that if you can’t afford a Barnes & Noble gift card, you might want to run down and check on a free-for-nothing deal at the public library.

That said, I hereby offer heartfelt thanks to J.K. Rowling, pleased as can be that she and her imaginary pal Harry Potter have earned so much money they’re now listed in Guinness World Records. My hat’s off to Stephenie Meyer for storming the best-seller lists and luring millions of young readers with her Twilight series. Way to go, R.L. Stine; keep cranking them out. And bless you, Susan Eloise Hinton. I shall continue to defend you wherever rubber chicken is served.

One and all, you are pointing youngsters in the right direction.

Recently, Carlton Stowers was pleased to learn that one of his books, Death in a Texas Desert: And Other True Crime Stories from the Dallas Observer, was included on the required summer reading list of the East Ramapo Central School District in Spring Valley, N.Y. Also on the list was the enduring S.E. Hinton.