My work over the last years has required me to read to or listen to children read for thousands of hours. I have spent hours combing our school library for the perfect picture book, one that I can love and that I know that kindergartners will love. It has to have the perfect text, be rhythmic, sport rare words, but not have a word out of place. It must have illustrations that invite all of us in — to interpret the colors, lines, sounds and smells of the story. It has to be in a package of interest, with beautiful, tempting end papers; a cover that piques our curiosity, and a picture of the author at the end, because the children want to know the person behind the book.
The book needs to be able to weather being read hundreds of times. The best such books can, and are still able, to hold my interest as an adult reader. Amazing magic these children’s authors do that they can create a world in 24 or so pages that invites questions every time it is read. No matter how many times I have read some of them, children still point out an insight about the text or an aspect of the illustrations that I missed on a previous read.
I have been reflecting on this as I hear teachers tell me that children sometimes try to turn the pages of a book by swiping the paper as you would the “pages” on a smartphone.
Why have I, an experienced teacher, treasured my days with books and children so much? Sitting in the afternoon light of my tiny room, with vintage chalkboards on the wall, and with children at my feet, we read real pages, of real books, written by humans. From the author’s love of the book, to my love of the book, to my passion for supporting children, to the child’s love of the book, their child’s open eyes drinking in the words, the colors, the rhymes that will help them read later — I have realized that it is love that brings children to books. Love cracks the code, creates curiosity, sustains attention and eventually lays knowledge at their feet as they become independent readers. It is an endless ancient loop of relationships, people, books, teachers, parents, children. (Before the book, it was a story around a fire.)
Humans crave connection, relationship, learning, the new. Books shared by adults, with children, create this circle of endless knowledge. From the book that taught me to love reading — with the line “Scat! Scat! Go away, little cat!” — to the most recent Caldecott winner, books are the heart of our schools, and the pathway to the future. From the most enriched homes to the most challenged, books show us a world we might not have dreamed of ourselves. They are a path out of poverty, pain, ignorance and challenge. They are a steppingstone to college, to health, to friends, to family, to work. It is relationship plus learning that is at the center of reading. No reading of a book on a computer or smartphone can replicate the love present when a human reads a book.
All of this is to say: Find a book, a child and some time, and read. Donate to causes that support literacy. Fully fund the purchase of new books in our school libraries. Dedicate yourself to bringing books to children. Read to your own children; volunteer to tutor in our city schools; support authors, and read yourself … preferably in front of any children you know.
Kris Potter, of Minneapolis, is a literacy tutor.