Monday, May 2, 2011

2011 Children's Book Week

This week marks the 95th Children’s Book Week, started in 1916 as a joint effort of the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association in cooperation with the Boy Scouts of America.  The idea was actually one the BSA librarian Franklin Matthiews had in 1913 when he was touring the country promoting higher standards for children’s books.

In 1945, the newly created Association of Children’s Book Editors took over sponsoring the week, and this group grew into the Children’s Book Council (CBC).  The Children’s Book Week is the nation’s longest-running literacy initiative.  The CBC is also responsible for the “Every Child a Reader” program.
I remember with fondness Children’s Book Week when I was in Grade School (it was held in the fall back in the 1960’s).  I still have some of the books that I was allowed to purchase; Misty of Chincoteage, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, The Giving Tree and Where the Wild Things Are to name a few.  

My kids love to read as much as I do.  I still have the lists of books they read for summer reading programs at our local library.  My son’s choices should have clued me in to the track he would follow in college.  At the age of four, his reading list, (which we had to read to him) was all non-fiction; an assortment of astronomy, geology, archeology and engineering books all picked from the older kid’s side of the children’s library.  His older sisters who were the readers were none too happy about these choices, but he insisted.  He would later graduate from the University of Washington with a double major in physics and astronomy – yes, I am proud of him.

With children, it is important that they be given access to books from a very young age. That they be read to, and allowed to read as many books as they can manage.  My father told me that if you can read, you can do anything, and that is what I passed onto my kids.  If you can read, and be able to comprehend what you read, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if you have cable TV, video games or computers at home.  I didn’t have the money to provide all that for my kids, but books at our local library were free, and we went to the library every week.  When my son was given the assignment in grade school to bring in a picture of a favorite place to hangout, he asked me to take him to our local Borders.  He asked the manager if he could climb part way up one of the ladders and take a picture of his favorite corner, complete with a leather chair where he liked to sit and read.  

When I looked at the books that my kids were required to read in school, I was shocked by the omissions.  I obtained a list of books from the American Library Association of the books that you should have read by the time you graduated from high school, and made a goal of them reading books off that list during their summer break.  Even so, my oldest daughter was surprised when she attended college, that there were books the professors assumed students had read that she hadn’t, and she had to scramble to catch up.

Reading was what gave my kids the edge in school, despite our simple lifestyle and lack of money to buy what other families had.  They were honor roll students throughout their school careers; all went to college and did well there.  My oldest daughter has a master’s degree in library science.  My youngest daughter, who is a stay at home mom, is also editor of a local magazine for moms and a writer.  My middle daughter had her education interrupted because of a health condition, but reading is her main joy now, and she writes reviews of new books for a website.  My son is getting ready to start graduate school – he doesn’t watch much TV, but he still makes time for books.  

Shining war-gear in the vessel’s hold
Kids are more able to comprehend than you might think.  I never assumed a book was too old or had language in it too difficult for them to comprehend.  If they didn’t know a word, they should look it up.  A good example of this was when my son read Beowulf.  He was in either 5th or 6th grade at the time.  I was reading a new translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (see link below).  I think my son was initially drawn to the book by the cool armor on the cover.  Then I told him that this was a book that normally you didn’t read until college, (I knew that would challenge him).  He skewered me with his most haughty look and demanded I give him the book.  And he loved it.  It was a bit shocking for his teachers to see him carting around a copy of Beowulf – I think this is when they began to notice him for the first time as an outstanding student.

What adults don’t understand is that prose like this is easy for a child to understand:
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird...
My son was shocked that there wasn’t a copy in their grade school library for other kids to read, so he bought one and donated it to the school.  He did the same thing in his junior high and high school.  How many kids were introduced to Beowulf because a boy loved this book so much?  Adults are the ones that put limits on children, they don’t.  Adults introduce a book, assuming that it will be difficult, not interesting, and too hard to understand.  

In Walden, Thoreau despaired that people got through school, and then when they leave school, “…our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins”.  I belonged to a book group a few years ago where we chose to read. “Saving the Appearances, a study in Idolatry”, by Owen Barfield.  We invited a professor of literature from a local university to join us when we discussed the book.  He came, but was in shock.  He had struggled for years to get junior and seniors in college to read this book, and here we were reading it voluntarily.  I told him that if I had read this book as a young person, it would have changed my life.  It wasn’t an easy book to read, but it was memorable.
Enjoy Children’s Book Week, whether you have children or not.  Perhaps it is time to look as what you may have missed growing up.  I have a coworker in his mid-twenties that never heard of Aesop’s Fables.  I was so shocked; I didn’t know what to say to him.

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