I’ve written a few times about my experience the last couple of years as a volunteer at a local school, reading to emerging readers who could use a little extra attention. Every week they read to me from a book from class and then I read to them from a book I bring with me. As a bookseller, this has proven a fascinating walk on the flip side of the reluctant reading journey. You know, the part that happens before, after, and in between visits to the bookstore. At the store, our job is to sell enthusiasm for reading by building fun experiences and conversations around books or offering tantalizing glimpses into the adventures lying within. It’s our job to hook kids with the promise of literary delight and keep offering ever more interesting options when they return. But we’re not typically on hand for the long, occasionally painful, slog as they try (and sometimes fail) to fall in love with the books they take home.
We talk a lot in bookselling about the magic of connecting readers with the perfect book and mastering the art of booktalks that will hook even the most hesitant customer. But the truth is that sending a kid home with a book is only the first part of the story. What happens next isn’t always so perfect or predictable. We know this of course, from our relationships with the kids in our own lives and from the conversations we have with customers searching for the book that will catapult someone into a lifelong love of reading. The truth is that’s not something you always get right on the first try.
This year I had the amazing experience of sitting down with two kindergartners almost every Wednesday from September through May. Although I had done this last year with second graders, building reading relationships with two kids (with very short attention spans) who were struggling to get started was a new challenge. I brought stacks of kid-tested books every week to choose from, but I watched some weeks as enthusiasm suddenly became restlessness, as humorous beats landed with one reader but not the other, or as emotions brought in from earlier in the day just got in the way.
Unafraid of repetition when we found books that really worked (I’m looking at you, Creepy Carrots), my goal wasn’t necessarily to push them but to be supportive and make the time spent reading fun. The turning point this year was about 2-3 months ago when the more reluctant reader of the two suddenly peered closely at the page we were reading and calmly but seriously asked, “How do I learn how to read all of these?” And from there, I’ve seen significant improvements every week until he recently grabbed a book out of my hands and announced, “No. Let ME read it to YOU!” And he (mostly) did!
I obviously don’t take any credit for that new confidence at all. His teachers are there doing the hard work every day, slowly and surely building phonemic awareness into real reading proficiency. I just get to come and hang out for a few minutes once a week. But it felt like a privilege to witness that kind of moment, all the more for knowing it wasn’t easy or instantaneous or the result of any magic other than the kind wrought by sitting down and trying something again, even when he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
As of this week, the program is officially over for the year, and as we completed a scavenger hunt around the school that led each of the kids to their very own book to take home, one of them turned to me and said, “Wait. Does this mean we’ll never see you again?” I said that I really hoped we would! Earlier this month, I checked in with a third grader with whom I used to read last year. She bounded up to me to say hi, and I asked what she was reading these days. She smiled, reached into her backpack, and pulled out the same copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends that she borrowed from the school library last May after we spent about a month mining its pages. She’s apparently been checking it out over and over (among other things) all year. For her, that was the big turning point book, and it stuck with her all this time. Seeing her pull it out again was a moment I won’t forget.