A small red-haired boy gave me a much-needed refresher course last week in inspiring a love of reading in our children. No, he wasn’t a family member. In fact, I’d never seen him before. He was shopping at the Huntsville Madison Public Library’s used bookstore with his grandmother. As I scanned the shelves in the young adult section (my favorite hang-out) I eavesdropped on their conversation. It’s a rude habit writers have, but he was one of those precocious children whose every statement is a pronouncement, so pretty much everyone in the place heard them.
My readers know what a HUGE advocate I am for giving kids choice in reading. It’s my personal bandwagon/soapbox/mission. That commitment was sorely tested when this little guy loudly proclaimed his preference for a rather boring-looking Christmas book over the 101 Dalmatians his grandmother suggested. “But it’s July,” G’mom kept saying, an argument totally lost on a four-year-old. I have to admit, I secretly sided with her.
The grandmother noticed my smile and when her grandson picked up a book that was clearly a young adult book, and she held it out to me. “This is a book for TEENAGERS, ISN’T it?” Her wink was implied in her tone. I reluctantly agreed that it was, but then I wondered how many times I’d told my high schoolers, when they wanted to read books I'd taught to middle schoolers, that these books were not age appropriate. If it’s the first book a senior’s ever actually finished, will it matter so much if it’s a book that's easy to read – especially a good one he missed along the way? When kids are starting from scratch, we have to meet them where they are, right? Some of my favorite recent books were written for fairly young adolescents - One for the Murphys, See You at Harry's, Wonder, When You Reach Me, Counting By 7's. I'd recommend them to any of my adult friends looking for a good read.
I wanted to tell the grandmother how important it was to let the boy choose his books, but they were already at the check-out counter by the time I'd sorted all this out in my head. And then came the best moment of the day. Tiny Book Lover reached up and carefully laid the three books he’d chosen on the counter and said confidently, “Don’t worry. We’ll bring these back on time.” The volunteer behind the desk smiled and said, “Well, actually, these are books you keep. You’ve paid for them, so you don’t have to bring them back.”
“WHAT?” he shouted incredulously. His face was absolutely luminous with joy. Patrons throughout the store turned to smile as he stood beaming at the astounding news that these were HIS books – not loans from the library, but his books for always.
I’d almost forgotten – until that moment - how much I loved picking out my own books as a child. I’m sure my Dad guided my decisions now and then, but the wealth of choices was always big part of my love for libraries. Bins and walls and baskets and shelves and tubs and racks of books - beautiful books all waiting for me to pick them. I chose books the same way I choose them today – studying the front cover, reading the back copy, and peeking inside the pages to determine whether THIS one would make the trip home with me. I still remember the feel of the covers, the smell of the pages, the glossy sheen of the pictures inside, and the eager anticipation I felt cradling them on the ride home.
Just before I left the library that day, I ran into Jessica, a sweet former student – with her two precious children. The pre-schoolers overcame their shyness when I asked about the books they were checking out. The youngest is barely old enough to make a sentence, but I heard “Cat in Hat” very clearly in her lovely baby babble as she proudly showed me her choice. It thrilled me to see a book lover I helped create who was creating book lovers of her own. It's one of the very best gifts we can give our children. I'm glad my Dad knew that, too.
Have you taken a child to the library lately? You can't start too early in teaching them a life-long love of books. I’m “overdue” for a trip with some small people I love, but I’ll be taking them soon. Hope to see you there!