More Important than Words by Danielle Smith
When I was nine it was Socks by Beverly Cleary.
Mr. Cheney, my fifth grade teacher, would read aloud each day immediately after lunch. Each month a new book, a class of quiet attentive children and the scent of recently applied Old Spice cologne wafting through the room.
It was nearing a fall break and the day we completed the book I ran to the front of the class so as to be the first to request the book as a take home. Looking back it seems odd to have been reading to a classroom of most likely sleepy well-fed fifth graders, but these were the moments all of my friends and I remember. And Socks was the one that stuck with me.
Eventually having acquired my own copy of Socks, I learned the value of having a good book nearby and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Throughout middle school and on into high school and college it was rare that you’d find me without a book. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that when my husband and I discovered I was pregnant after years of trying that the first purchase I wanted to make was a book for our son - Trucks Trucks Trucks by Peter Sis. No outfits or no toys – only a book. Even though our son already had a full collection of children’s book classics I’d collected throughout the years this one book meant something else to me entirely, it was his. Little did I know just how important that one book would become.
After my son (aka the “Turkeybird”) was just about a year old, he was devouring books as quickly as I could bring them home. It was also around this time that he said his first word, “truck.” Within a matter of a few weeks he accumulated a number of new words, but by the time he was eighteen months old the only time he spoke to me and his dad was when we read together.
At eighteen months old the Turkeybird was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of Autism. Basically what it meant was that he could read, had an unbelievable memory, loved letters and numbers, but lacked many of the social skills he needed to connect with others on a personal level. In many ways it was devastating and overwhelming. It seemed nearly impossible that my sweet intelligent son could see the image of the word “truck” and know instantly what the word was, but was also unable to connect the word to the trucks driving down the road.
As many of my friends know, I’m an action type of person. There’s simply no stopping me once I put my mind to something and when it comes to my children every bit of my determination is magnified a thousand percent. So after hours with speech therapists and counselors my husband and I decided to return to what we knew: books.
Day after day we continued doing what we had done since the day he was born; we read together. Trains by Byron Barton, Hop On Pop by Dr. Seuss, Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli, From Head to Toe by Eric Carle and so many more. We even used a number of basic sticker books that featured the things he loved. Little by little we worked to build connections with the words he knew and the things he saw in real life. Slowly, you could see the world opening up before his eyes as he connected what he loved with the world around him.
To this day Trucks Trucks Trucks by Peter Sis remains his favorite book. At five years old the Turkeybird is a million miles from where he was almost four years ago. Most who meet him for the first time have no idea he’s traveled as far as he has. Does he still read? Absolutely. In fact, we’ve moved on to reading middle grade books aloud because his love of the written word can’t seem to be satiated. Does he still struggle? Absolutely. In a social setting with a number of other kids he’s definitely still working to put together all of the pieces. Is he able to see the new friends and world before him? Absolutely. And all of this because of the books we both love.
Books change us, because they never leave us. They have the power to teach, to connect, to transform, to comfort and so much more. In the beginning it was Socks, but it’s also Trucks Trucks Trucks. Books gave me something much more important than words…they gave me my son back.
Which one (or two) is it for you?
Danielle Smith is the mother to two crazy kiddos affectionately nicknamed the Turkeybird and Littlebug. Most of her days are spent digging her way through the piles of picture books her children bring to her each day, but when she’s not reading to them she can be found writing middle grade novels, blogging at her site There’s A Book, on Twitter as @the1stdaughter and working with local literacy programs in her community & online.