Recently, I visited a school so far north in Vermont that cell service there comes from Canada. I’d been invited as the visiting author guest to help the town’s school and public library celebrate the grand finale of their year-long literacy program courtesy of the wonderful Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF). I spoke to 110 K-3 students, then 110 kids in grades 4-6—and ended with a visit to a preschool with 10 toddlers and young children. At this event, a boy told me about a book that had “changed [his] whole life.” More on that in a bit.
These finale programs are fantastic fun. First, the town librarian introduces the fun summer reading programs available to the kids after school ends, then the author (at this event, it happened to be me) does a half-hour presentation, and then every child gets to pick a book to keep. CLiF chooses a fine selection of brand-new titles for the kids to peruse—everything from Caps for Sale to Inkheart to Anna Hibiscus to books about Nascar. It’s a great mix of literary and popular titles, and it’s a blast after my presentation to be one of the adults helping the kids find just the perfect book to take home and treasure. (Since I recommend books to children of all ages every day at the bookstore, it’s a familiar gig—and so much fun not to have charge any money for the books!)
Great moments with children always come out of these events. You can see the love of books lighting up their faces, and the utter joy of receiving a present they can have forever. You hear the most touching or interesting or perceptive or thoughtful or funny things from the kids. I have a couple of memories from this visit that I can’t resist sharing:
During my Q&A with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, a boy who was about 11 raised his hand. “I heard a quote I really like,” he said. “The man who reads a thousand books lives a thousand lives. The man who reads one book lives one life.” (Well, technically, that man lives two lives unless he actually wrote the one book he read, but still, great quote!) It’s not often that middle-school kids volunteer inspiring literary quotes in front of 109 of their peers.I did a search later for the quote and it looks as if it came (paraphrased) from George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons.
Afterward, another of the students—a boy around 12, tall and skinny with dark hair and two off-kilter dimples in a shy smile—approached me during book selection time. His courage was bolstered by the school librarian, Lyle, who stood behind him with proud hands on the boy’s shoulders. I had mentioned some favorite books during my Q&A with the kids, and one of the titles I mentioned was Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. “Because of Winn-Dixie changed this boy’s life,” said Lyle. I asked the child, “How did this book change your life??” He said, “I saw the movie and really liked it, so then I read the book and loved it!” Lyle interjected, “He was a non-reader. It was the first book he ever finished, and now he’s an avid reader.” The young man didn’t seem at all fazed by the ‘non-reader’ label, and he nodded vigorously. “I love reading now. That book changed my whole life.”
JEEZ! Makes my throat tighten up again just thinking about it. What an incredible gift and opportunity it is for writers, that they might change the lives of young people in profound and joyful ways.
I’ll leave you with a final moment from my visit with the 10 preschoolers, whose classroom was in a cozy, bright home in the middle of farm country, complete with a large floppy adorable 13-year-old brindled cat who allowed himself to be snuggled by tiny tots without complaint. I read my books with the kids (they helped with the sound effects) and heard lots and lots of preschool comments (these are always things like, “I have a dog! Named Oreo!” and “I had three dogs but now we have two because one got runned over,” and “Mommy kicks Ruffles off the bed if she sneaks on”). When it came time for the little ones to pick out their book to keep, some of them were a little unclear on the concept. One of the youngest boys said, at the very end, “I can keep it?” I said, “Yes, you can take it home and keep it forever.” “And ever?” he asked. “And ever,” I said. “And ever?” he asked again, just to make sure. “And ever!” I said cheerfully. And one little girl, a bit older than the others and quite wry, chimed in with perfect finality, “And EVER.”