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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