On Children’s Books

I think children’s books are a human emotional experience rather than an intellectual one. You have a human relationship with them.

—Fran Lebowitz to Adam Thometz

I taught at the “alternative” high school, a euphemism for the place they sent students expelled from their home schools. Most were bounced for absences, a few for drugs or fighting. Many took their exile as a wakeup call—attended, passed, did what they had to do to return to their schools next semester.

Some couldn’t manage that. Others didn’t want to, were marking time until they could legally drop out. José was one of the latter.

Well-loved copy of a favorite book

The alternative school was given few resources. We had textbooks discarded by the regular high schools, and not enough of them. We had no library. There was a public library a few blocks away and I walked my classes there to choose books and read. Some snuck a cigarette on the way. I never saw that.

José wasn’t interested in returning to his home high school. He had an uncle who was a tile setter, thought he could get apprenticed to him. He was excited about that. Almost sixteen, he was a tall, rangy kid, head and shoulders above me. José’s classwork was minimal, and he never did homework.

At the library, I wandered from one student to another, checking what they were reading: “A fashion magazine, Kalisha? Get a book.” José sprawled on a bench in the children’s section. I approached him, ready to scold, “José, you need to find something to read,” but when I got there, he grinned with a delight I’d never seen in him before.

“Miss, look, Curious George!”

I sat down next to him and read that Curious George book aloud, pausing to let José read shorter or easier sections, saw how difficult reading was for him, how much he loved that story, perhaps the last story he’d ever taken pleasure in reading before school began to overwhelm him.

Years later, at Denver School of the Arts, I taught Spanish for a while, collected several shelves of bilingual children’s books, or children’s books translated to Spanish. Once a week we had reading time, when students selected a book, read and then shared something Spanish they’d learned while reading. I grew accustomed to high school students coming to the shelves, hugging a book to their hearts and exclaiming, “Good Night Moon!” or “Oh, my God, The Giving Tree!”

I taught a one-semester Spanish intro for sixth graders. Once a week I read a story to them in Spanish, the illustrations enabling understanding, even if they hadn’t heard the story before. We sat in a circle on the floor and ate cookies, if a student remembered to bring them, which they usually did.

I left Spanish to teach creative writing the last years before I retired. For two years after that, I subbed for friends. On one of those sub days, a child I barely remembered—she had been a tiny sixth grader and was now a young woman about to graduate—suddenly called out in the midst of class: “Ms. D, remember when you read children’s books to us in Spanish? Could we do that again?”

Perhaps adolescents regress more easily than the rest of us. They haven’t as far to fall back, of course, but no matter. We older adults are capable of backspins too. Lebowitz is right. Relationships with our childhood books are emotional. They’re about love and wonder and can trigger a snap back to pre-pubescent times faster than the scent of the sea you lived beside when you were six.


Prompt: if you choose to do it, post your response on the blog, please, so I can keep them.

What childhood book do you hold to your heart? What memory does it evoke? For me, it’s The Little Engine That Could. I read it over and over again, relishing the “I think I can” repetitions, in my grandparents’ house in Queens, where I had, ever so briefly, a room of my own.

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9 Responses to On Children’s Books

  1. Bob Jaeger says:

    I don’t remember books I read as a child, but I do remember a number of them I read to my boys and then their kids. One of the best was “Sophie’s Masterpiece,” a simple lesson in a beautifully illustrated and deeply touching story that still brings tears.

  2. Michael Stipek says:

    Books! The original laptops!
    I have loved books ever since my mother, upset with our local kindergarten that I had to be held back due to my birthdate nine days after the age cutoff, made me a book out of cotton sheeting hand stitched with the alphabet represented by animals, A to Z. She would read to me, then have me repeat what she read.
    She was so successful that when I started first grade, I was reading at 6th grade level. Needless to say, the Dick and Jane series that we first graders had to read, bored me beyond belief. I often acted out my feelings, causing me to spend many a day banned to outside the classroom door.
    Later, when I got a job with the Denver Public Library opening and collating boxes of newly ordered books, I got interested in becoming a librarian so I could feed my passion for the printed word. First, I had to get a Bachelor’s degree; after that, I was transferred to various departments and branches to discover the best fit for me and for the staff.
    In the Children’s Library I was wonderfully privileged to work with that great lady of childrens books, Pauline Robinson. She asked me to become a children’s librarian, because of my patience with the little ones. I had to decline the request, because I was interested in working in the adult departments.
    Then, as a Young Adult librarian (BA firmly in hand), I did community outreach for the dept. leader, Juanita Gray. What fabulous person she was! She sent me out to the west side of Denver, where the Hispanic/Latina population predominated, with the task of interesting the young people in the services the library could provide. Unfortunately, the Head Librarian decided that librarianship should be a passive, y’all come to us kind of career and closed the outreach program.
    Then, after I obtained my MA in Librarianship, I was shunted to the suburbs; not by choice, since I have always had an affinity for the city.
    The branch librarian trial run was a disaster for me, because the librarian in charge felt I was too impatient with the local residents. For me, the suburbanites were just not a population I wanted to work with.
    Fortunately, the head of the science library downtown gave me a chance and I took to the job with passion. Jim Arsheim, the dept. head, was a truly great human being. His patience with his staff and the public, including some rather challenging people who haunted the library at night, was a lesson in gracious humanity.
    I got to review new books for purchase, thus partially satisfying my love of books; I also learned a lot about how to respect and care for those less fortunate than myself.
    Thank you, Pat, for opening the door to great memories of the love for the written word!

  3. deb says:

    Beverly Cleary!!!! Beezus and Ramona and Henry Huggins and the Donut Machine. It had a wonderful cover with Henry’s donut machine that wouldn’t stop making donuts.

  4. Gregg says:

    Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. The oldest American picture book still in print. (It will be 100 years old in 2028.) Beautifully illustrated!

    I did not yet know how to read or write, but I had a desk, paper, and pencils, and I knew there was something really magical about books, and about sitting down at a desk and writing something. So I laboriously hand-copied this book (well, part of it.) This was a pretty labor-intensive project, but I had lots of time on my hands. You know how it is when you are three. The book was hand-lettered by the author’s brother, so it probably wasn’t the pedagogically ideal choice for learning how to write. But it worked for me.

  5. Michael Stipek says:

    Any book with Arthur Rackham illustrations was a prized read for me; they took me to the places in his fantasy tales as no other artist could. Aubrey Beardsley’s amazing ink drawings were also a portal to another imaginary time, another world.

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