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When Does the Love of Books Begin?

by Julie Douglas

Recently I had a conversation with a teacher about her state's efforts to improve reading scores as part of the "No Child Left Behind" Act.  She bemoaned the large amount of time she is required to spend teaching reading "strategies" and administering timed fluency tests.  She reminisced about a time earlier in her career when she could spend more time enjoying literature with children and less time focusing her teaching on testing results.  Reading had become a task, both for her and undoubtedly for her students.

Don't get me wrong. As a former teacher, I understand the importance of quality reading instruction.  Learning to read, and to read well, is a vital skill.  But my conversation with the teacher made me feel...well, a little sad.  I had to wonder about when and how a child learns to LOVE reading.

The answer, of course, is that a child can develop a love of books and stories long before setting foot in a classroom.  Snuggled on a parent's lap, a little one can be immersed in rich, imaginative language and soothing rhythms. Together they can explore the world inside the illustrations.  A shared story can inspire giggles and questions and conversation.

Perhaps reading to our young children is now more important than ever.  Arming a child with an extensive vocabulary, refined listening skills, and a strong motivation to learn to read might serve him/her well as he/she faces intense instruction in the primary classroom.  And with expectations and curriculum being ramped up for the preschooler, a solid foundation of pre-reading skills is essential.

The books in this month's list are simply ones that have been well-loved by the children in my life.  After all, the best reason to read is because we love to.

Parade by Donald Crews (Harper Trophy, 1986)

Sometimes reading a book can become an event, and such was the case every time my daughter and I read Parade.  Not content to simply read the words, we acted out each passing section of the parade, complete with sound effects.  For a book with a very simple story (a parade begins, continues, and ends), Parade can be different each time it is read.

Buttermilk by Stephen Cosgrove, illustrated by Robin James (Price Stern Sloan; Revised edition, 2003)

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Familiar objects look spooky to a little bunny who stays out after the sun goes down.  Facing fears (especially a fear of the dark) is presented in a gentle story that appeals to the very young. Buttermilk (and the other books in the Serendipity series) was a favorite bedtime books in our house.

Frederick by Leo Lionni (Knopf Books for Young Readers,1967)

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Frederick lives amongst practical, efficient mice who are focused on gathering food for the coming winter.  Much to the other mice's displeasure, Frederick is doing some gathering of his own. He collects images, colors, and beautiful words. Not until the mice are trapped in a gray, dull winter do they appreciate Frederick's contribution.  As a child who liked to daydream myself, I have loved this book from the first time I read it.  Frederick speaks to the deep need to gather up the wonder and beauty around us and feed our imaginations.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Puffin, 1985)

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"In the evening Alice sat on her grandfather's knee and listened to his stories of faraway places..."   Who could resist a book that begins like this? I have fond memories of sharing this book with my students and having conversations about how WE might follow Miss Rumphius' lead and do something to make the world more beautiful.

George Shrinks by William Joyce (Laura Geringer, 1985)

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What would YOU do if you awoke to discover that you were only 3 inches tall?  George, being a responsible big brother, goes about his chores and caring for his baby brother in this imaginative and funny story.  Joyce's illustrations invite the reader to consider the ordinary in surprising new way.

The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle (Philomel, 1990)

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By the time my 3-year-old godchild welcomed her new sister to the family, she had already memorized most of The Very Quiet Cricket and embarked on her big-sisterly duty of retelling the story to the newborn.  Repetition, rhythm, and bright illustrations make all of Carle's books irresistible to toddlers and preschoolers.

Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell, illustrated by B. Firth (Walker Books Ltd, 1990)

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Much like a human child, Little Bear cannot fall asleep.  For one thing, the cave where he is lives is much too dark.  My nieces could relate to Little Bear's problem, and were comforted at bedtime by Big Bear's attempts to help.  Can't You Sleep, Little Bear mirrors a child's anxiety about sleeping and offers a soothing solution.

Happy Birthday Moon by Frank Asch (Simon & Schuster, 1982)

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Perhaps you have noticed that young children are fascinated by the moon. In Asch's charming story, a bear befriends the moon. And as luck would have it, they share a birthday!  Older preschool children enjoy the humor of this book as they catch on to Bear's misconceptions. As in other books by Asch, the bright illustrations and the simple story are appealing to even the youngest listener.

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina (Harper Collins, 1947)

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An old standby in every preschool and Kindergarten teacher's bag of tricks, Caps for Sale never fails to entertain.  If you Google Caps for Sale, you can find hundreds of sites with related activities for this book.  But, truly a classic, Caps for Sale has been a hit with the preschool set since its publication in 1947 because of its humor, repetitive language, and cheery illustrations.

The Golden Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Adrienne Segur  (Golden Classics, 1999)

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Though some may argue that fairy tales often present undesirable messages (such as beauty is a female's most important trait), they still deserve a place on a child's bookshelf.  Folk tales and fairy tales provide an opportunity for children to share in the collective wisdom and understand references to stories that are widely known. For example, a child who has heard fairy tales can comprehend the meaning of phrases such as "magic beans" or "crying wolf."  Fairy tales are part of our storytelling tradition and influence much of the literature we read. Offering children a wide variety of traditional and "twisted" tales helps them discover connections in the stories and encourages critical thinking.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka (Puffin, 1996)

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You may think you know who the culprit is in the traditional tale of the three pigs, but perhaps you have not heard the Wolf's side of the story!

The Three Little Pigs by Steven Kellogg  (Harper Trophy, 2002)

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This version of the big bad wolf story has as many twists and turns as a pig's tail. Kellogg gives us a lot of background on the pigs and a good dose of swine humor.

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This article appears courtesy Missouri Humanities Council, mohumanities.org

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