My daily calendar “Pun of the Week” is “What did the librarian say when the books were in a mess? ‘We ought to be ashamed of ourshelves!’” I can relate; my home’s filled with packed bookshelves, and despite a long library career, cataloging and arranging books weren’t professional fortes.
There’s actually some sort of order to my books’ arrangement. For example, several are dedicated to “My Most Important Books,” i.e. books that profoundly changed my life. Some are heavy-duty tomes on religion, physics, history, and so on, but a glimpse of the smallest one’s skinny spine still makes my oldest memories resonate: “A Hole Is to Dig,” written by Ruth Krauss.
In the 1940s, Krauss was a leading member of New York’s innovative Bank Street School where young children’s approach to learning and communicating were studied. According to Krauss, “young children live in the ‘here and now’ world around them, which they use as a laboratory for their explorations.” In 1945, Krauss published her first big children’s picture book, “The Carrot Seed,” a simple story of a boy who plants a tiny carrot seed over the pessimism of his parents and big brother and perseveres in caring for it until it grows into an enormous root. The book became an instant classic and helped jumpstart a revolution in kiddie lit begun by Dr. Seuss. “Carrot Seed” was illustrated by Krauss’ husband David Johnson Leisk, under his pen name, Crockett Johnson, who was already famous for his “Barnaby” comic strip and became more so for “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”
Krauss prepared for “A Hole Is to Dig” by asking children to define the meanings of certain words, like “hole,” “dog,” (“Dogs are to kiss people”), and cat “(Cats are so you can have kittens”), so her book could “reflect a child’s pragmatic approach to language.” She asked Maurice Sendak, then a budding young artist, to illustrate her text with similar simple clarity, and in 1952 a classic was born. It’s among the earliest titles I encountered in reconnoitering the world through books, and its simple language and artwork spoke comfortingly to me. As Chris Raschka wrote in our library’s copy of “Reading Picture Books With Children,” those of us who had books during childhood “carry picture books around with us, not just as physical objects in our hands with pages we turn, but as remembered stories and art, and with each other. I pick up a single picture book, and I recall not only the specific story and art on its pages but also the myriad insights that it provoked.”
Don’t think kiddie lit’s just for children. “It should go without saying that the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in execution, as the best adult literature – and also as complicated, stubborn, conflicted, and mysterious,” Bruce Handy noted in “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As an Adult.” Reading to your child’s the hands-down best way to foster a love of reading in them. I don’t remember most books my mom read to me every night, but I remember the couch we sat on, the yellow lamplight, and the deeply satisfying feeling of secure, deep love.
Your child needs to possess books. Britain’s National Literacy Trust reported last month that “children who own books are six times as likely to read above the expected level for their age,” and “more than half (56.2 percent) of young people who have books enjoy reading compared to less than a fifth (18.4 percent) of those who do not.” What’s more, the American Academy of Neurology recently reported that 32 million Americans are illiterate and “may have nearly three times greater risk of developing dementia because “being able to read and write allows people to engage in more activities that use their brain.” Even among the literate, those who read a lot tend to forestall the onset of Alzheimer’s by a decade.
Turning your child into a lifelong reader pays incredible dividends in later life, and making reading a fun, as well as regular, family activity improves the odds amazingly. As Dr. Seuss said, “You can find magic wherever you look,/ Sit back and relax, all you need is a book.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.