“Good” Reads

I am a book mom. Some of my friends are arts and craft moms. They whip out glue guns and repurpose old clothes into costumes worthy of Hollywood. Other friends are “Let’s Go! Moms.” They pile a hundred kids into their minivans and set off on Lewis and Clark adventures with granola bars and jerry cans.  My jam is books.  I religiously thumb through book reviews for bestselling picture books (Dragons Love Tacos is going on week 1,000 in this house) and scour the web for out-of-print winners like Tell Me a Trudy (thankfully the Obadiah series is back in print). These books got me through the Saturday morning my husband was sick and my three kids were bouncing off the wall.  For about two solid hours, I nursed my newborn and read book after book to my older two kids snuggled on either side of me.

When I started weighing how to talk to my children about giving back, it made sense for me to turn to books, specifically those focused on generosity. I knew that these books would entertain. My question was whether they would teach, evoke, inspire, and transform.

I first experimented with a book by the incomparable Mo Willems, Should I Share My Ice Cream? In it, Gerald buys an ice cream cone and agonizes whether he can and should share his tantalizing (and steadily melting!) treat with his best friend Piggie. It brilliantly displays the back-and-forth mental processes of a child who desperately wants the ice cream for himself but also recognizes how happy he can make his friend by sharing. The simple pictures and language make the book accessible to younger children, while the clever ending (no spoilers here!) is fun for older ones.

Should I Share My Ice Cream? predictably found a quick perch in my children’s library, but the message was (just as quickly) lost. For days, my six-year old had been studiously sounding out words in the book (#kindergartenwin!), but at one point grabbed it from her three-year old brother and ran around smirking, holding it just out of his reach. The irony was too much. I realized that if I wanted books to help me transmit important values to my children, I needed to learn how to read. I started doing some reading (I know – how meta) on how to use books effectively to teach values. What became clear is that the key to great reading is co-reading, or reading collaboratively with children instead of to children.

I started simple. When I picked up the next book on my list, The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken, I asked questions throughout the reading, directed at both the elaborate illustrations as well as the sophisticated narrative, which is part fairy tale and part morality tale. To turn the reading into a conversation, I slowed it down by giving my kids ample time to respond to my questions and ask their own.

I asked my six-year old why the quilt maker only gifted her beautiful quilts to the poor and homeless and refused to sell them to the wealthy. My daughter astutely responded, “Because the rich people only want the quilts, but the poor people need them.” This was a priceless opportunity to talk about the things in life that we need versus the things that we want, and ways we can help people who lack things they need. To balance the seriousness of that discussion, we had fun with the idea of a king so greedy he preposterously demands two birthdays to get more presents. Through the pictures and language, we tracked the development of the king, who slowly but surely gives away his fortune to score a quilt from the quilt maker. As he does so, his happiness swells and we looked at his changing and growing smile in the illustrations (“The king’s great sunny laugh made green apples fall and flowers turn his way.”)  

Some of the content sailed over the head of my six-year old. It was hard, for example, to have a conversation about why the king’s countless material possessions didn’t make him happy. I assumed, therefore, that while my three-year old enjoyed the pictures, he naturally missed the lesson of the book. A few weeks later, I realized how wrong I was. After the umpteenth time reading the book over dinner, he left the table and brought over his green “blanklet.” I sat stunned as he sweetly wrapped it around me, matter-of-factly saying “Mommy, I warm you up.” I would like to believe that the experience of reading and re-reading and digesting the book imparted the lesson that when we see someone who needs something we have, we give.  

On the Blog, I will be zeroing in on books that have the potential to help shape our children as givers. Along with a brief synopsis of the books, I plan to include strategies that will turn the experience of reading into a dynamic and collaborative one between you and your child. And of course, if you have ideas of books to review, please feel free to send them along. I am always looking to expand our library!