Some of my happiest memories of childhood centers on reading books. When I very young, like third grade, my Dad would pick me up from the local library on his way home from work. I had checked out a pile of books, my face barely able to reach the check out counter where the librarian stamped the due date on each book with the efficiency of a line assembler in a factory. My books tended to be cherished fiction for kids, animal stories, adventure tales, and stories of scientists. Now and then I included a book of poetry.
After we moved to a rural town, our country school arranged for the Book Mobile to appear every two weeks. Here I discovered Little Women which became my all time favorite book of early junior high. A year or so later I was asked by a teacher to read The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and give a report on it. I was a bit chagrined at the thought. Here I am a budding ‘woman’ and I’m asked to read such a juvenile trope on growing up. To my surprise, I liked it. The series of the Pepper family is a classic of how a family learns to be generous and loving though they are very poor, living in a “little brown house” in an unnamed state. A wealthy man and his son take them into their home and a series of adventures leads the family to successful young adulthood. The series was the subject of several movies between 1939 and 1941. Still, Little Women remained my favorite until Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn were assigned in later years.
The publishing industry for children is right up there with adults. Huge!! Just wander into any bookstore and look for the children’s section. Read any publishing press or major newspapers’ book review sections and you will see almost as much coverage for children and young adult books as you will for adult best sellers and newly published books. That’s a lot of books for teachers and parents to keep informed about. But of late, I am nonplussed at the rancorous school board meetings that challenge teachers for the curriculum they follow in assigning books for their classes. I remember my friends in college loving every moment of ‘Kiddie Lit,’ the affectionate nomenclature for Children’s Literature class. College students learned how to evaluate books; how to critique their content and their art; how to judge the meaning of the book. They studied the prose of the author. They did research on the genres like fantasy, adventure, animal-human relations, metaphor, sports, games, the arts and so forth. When my friends became teachers, they walked into their elementary classrooms fully prepared to teach a love for reading.
That brings me to ‘love.’ When I wormed my little self into a chair or corner to read, the world fell away. And my mother let it happen. She didn’t demand I get up and do the dishes although she made sure I didn’t avoid my chores. I had to get them done before I would read my book. I simply loved my ‘book time.’ When my brothers sprawled on the living room floor to read Jack London’s Call of the Wild, my mother looked on them with love. When any child sits up in bed to read and a parent cuddles to read with him, isn’t that an expression of love? When a toddler points to a dog or a cat or rabbit in a book and tries to say the word for each, she is taking beginning steps in word recognition and what do you do? You hug her. She knows she is loved as she explores the book.
Love and books seem to go together. You get books as gifts from people who love you. They choose carefully and you know they had you on their mind when they bought and wrapped the gift. It becomes a treasure for you. As you read a book you often think of someone you care for and your heart warms with the memory. Books can be difficult to read if they tell a story of sadness or injustice, but you learn from this. A young reader will often take the contents of the book to his parents and ask questions. This can cement relationships between parent and child more than the adult screaming at a board meeting to condemn a book, which they might know nothing about, while undercutting the professionalism of the teacher who chose it. That’s not love.
Once my brother chose a book which affected his nine-year-old heart rather significantly. It had a one word title but I cannot recall it other than it was the nickname of the main character, a black boy who wanted to join an all-white local boys baseball team. We are talking early 50’s here. After much duress and many efforts to prove himself, the boy is accepted and stars for the team. I’m wondering if this book would be accepted today with all the clamor about race and justice found in children’s books. It left my brother brushing away tears because we lived very close to an African-American settlement in our rural area and my brother played ball with boys from that settlement.
I hope we can help parents understand that teaching reading needs to be left to the teachers who are eminently prepared for the job just as one’s oncologist provides direction for your disease or one’s financial planner advises your portfolio, and you respect their counsel. Maybe some of us can help friends see the importance of accepting what teachers know as well.
What are the favorite books of your childhood? Why did you love that or those books?
What can you do to help parents be more calm, more informed about their children’s reading lists?
And, finally, do you ever encourage reading the Scriptures with your children or grandchildren? I encourage you to choose the stories sometimes in the quiet of bedtime so that the child wonders and lets his or her imagination provide the comfort of reflection.
Let us know of your favorite childhood books…