There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all. —Jacqueline Kennedy
One of the happiest things about working at a library, for me, is the access to great books! But when I was young, I came dangerously close to not wanting to learn to read at all!
Let me step that back a bit. You see, my Mother read wonderful stories to my sister and I every night: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Five Little Pepper’s and How They Grew, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and poems from a big set of How and Why Books with beautiful pictures. My Mammaw taught me the ABC song and my Daddy would point out letters and read signs aloud when we were driving down the road. My Mother bought me a little toy typewriter, and I would cheerfully bang those letters out on sheets of paper! I loved it and I couldn’t wait for the day I would get to ride the bus and go to school like the big kids – AND learn to read!
But once I entered school, they handed us those boring Dick, Jane, and Sally books! “Run Spot run. Look Jane. See Spot run.” OMG! Nobody I knew talked like that. Not even babies! All the dog did was run. And all the family did was sit around and talk about that dog. It was boring! Reading was supposed to be fun, wasn’t it?
And to top it off, they made you sit in a circle on hard, wooden chairs to take turns reading aloud. You had to pay attention when shy Evelyn whispered during her turn and you had to be patient when Bobby came to a word he didn’t know and had to sound it out – everyone around him snickering whether they knew the word themselves or not. I would start reading ahead and when the teacher finally called on me, I wouldn’t know WHERE we were! Honestly though, it couldn’t have mattered because we were reading the same little words over and over and over again.
Once the rest of the class gleefully pointed out to me where my place was, I would read the passage very fast in a droning voice to get it over with as quickly as possible – “RunSpotrunLookJaneseeSpotrun.” There was no joy in it at all.
My teacher thought I was stupid and put me in the Blue Bird reading group. (Everybody knew that the Red Birds were the smart kids, the Blue Birds were the dummies, and the poor little Yellow Birds should have waited another year before starting school because they couldn’t sit still long enough to learn anything!) First grade really sucked!
Then we moved from east Texas to Utah and 2nd grade was worse, because my teacher just LOVED my lil’ ole southern accent – especially the way I answered her with a “Yes, Ma’am” or a “No, Ma’am.” She called on me in class all the time just to hear me speak. And when I did, she would laugh with delight and say “Oh, my word!” and clasp her hands together. Naturally, I dreaded it when it came time for the reading group to be called.
Eventually, I just refused to read when she called on me. I’d just shake my head no and make my mouth into a tight line. She moved me from the Red Birds into the Blue Birds. Still, I refused to read. Then she moved me into the Yellow Birds, but I could see in her eyes that she knew that I didn’t really belong there. Finally, she ended up just putting me out in the hall with my reading book and a little worksheet during reading circle time. I was being punished, but I didn’t care.
Then came 3rd grade and a magnificent thing happened! I got Mrs. Burgoyne for a teacher! She was an old lady with fluffy white hair and she wore big black glasses and long purple dresses and she bent down when she spoke to you. She wasn’t like the other teachers. When we had art, she didn’t give us mimeographed sheets of pumpkins to color orange and trees to color green – she just gave us a huge piece of white paper and we could draw and color whatever we wanted! If we drew a tree and painted it blue, she didn’t correct us…she told us it was “lovely” and hung it right up there at the front of the classroom.
Sometimes during the middle of a math lesson, when she could see that everyone was tired of multiplication, she would tell us to put our heads down on our desks and close our eyes and she would put classical music on the record player for us to listen to. Afterward, she would ask us, “What did it make you think of when you heard it? What did you see in your mind?”
And then she would tell us about the music and the composer…and sometimes play a little part of it again. That way, we all learned to see the little donkey struggling along in On The Trail from “The Grand Canyon Suite” by Ferde Gofre. We understood that Beethoven was trying to imitate a rainstorm in Symphony No. 9. Sometimes she broke out water colors and brushes and we painted what we heard!
The best part of all, though, was that Mrs. Burgoyne did not believe in circle time reading groups! She didn’t have Red Birds, or Blue Birds, or Yellow Birds…we were all just birds. We could read silently to ourselves or we could pick a reading buddy – one of our friends – and read to each other. One by one, she would sometimes call you up to the big rocking chair in the corner of the room and sit you beside her and you would read to her – and sometimes she would read to you too! I felt like she saw me, really saw ME.
When it was our class’s turn to go to the library, she insisted we each check out two books – one to take home and one to keep in our desk. Throughout the week she’d say, “Put away your pencils and get out your books” – and we’d get to read for 15 minutes.
When it was time to turn our books back in, Mrs. Burgoyne would pick several kids at random to tell the rest of the class something about the book they had just read. What was the best part? Did they think someone else would enjoy reading it? Why? Often kids would swap their books right there in the hall before entering the library. Mrs. Ketchum, the librarian, would be kept busy crossing out one child’s name and adding another to the little index cards kept in the back of the books.
In this way, classmate Janette Jones persuaded me to read Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. I swapped The Borrowers by Mary Norton with Rebecca Singh for A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle. The boys exchanged Homer Price by Robert McCloskey for Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls because Roger Harper cried when he was telling everyone about it.
This is the way that children should be taught! Not by repetitive drills and droning facts. Not by boring books and filling in pre-drawn sheets with specified colors. It doesn’t take much to spark a young child’s interest, but it takes even less to kill the flame.
Reading is the gateway to all learning. If you can’t read, or can’t read well, you will have a hard time learning any subject because they all require comprehension of the written word – even math. If you don’t discover the joy of reading at an early age – if reading is turned into an exercise of merely spitting out what is seen on paper – the whole point is missed.
Reading is like a contact sport. But instead of connecting to others with hands and feet, we are connecting minds. We read what others think, their experiences and feelings – and we pass that on. Reading exposes you to different viewpoints, stimulates thinking, and entertains. We can travel to places and times that we will never physically go. We recognize thoughts that we share – expressed better by someone else – and we know that we are not alone.
If you have influence over a child, make sure that the little light inside them is nurtured. Read stories to them! Expose them to art and music and literature. Dance! Teach them nursery rhymes. Let them paint and paste and cut with scissors. Sing to them. Let them glue, sprinkle glitter, and laugh. Let them experience serendipity by reading as fancy takes them.
If you do these things, I promise you will be tucked into the empty spaces between the words of every book they read…and they will always remember you.