Mouths of Babes by Donalyn Miller
We read to Emma before she was born. Sarah would prop a picture book on Celeste’s belly and read. When Emma came into the world, we brought Aunt Sarah to the hospital to meet her new niece. They didn’t need an introduction. Sarah leaned over Emma’s bassinette—whispered—and Emma turned her face toward Sarah. Recognizing her voice from all those read alouds.
I often say that readers are made not born. You can acquire both reading skill and reading passion. I talk about it all the time.
It’s mostly true. It’s never too late to become a reader, but it’s OK for us all to admit that sometimes, readers—from their first breath—are born.
Emma and Sarah were born readers. My husband and I love reading almost as much as we love each other. Don and I couldn’t wait to pass on our family reading magic. The best reading teacher of all is still a parent. Our girls know how to read, but they also know why reading matters.
We’ve made a lot of mistakes as parents and grandparents, but I know we got the reading right.
My daughters and granddaughters are the readers in the world most like me. My reading relationship with them is like no other. I’m the reading teacher who never grades them. They’re the students who can say no to me. They are tough on me—calling me out on any “lame” assignments I designed for my students over the years. I admit to nagging them about reading sometimes. I can’t help it. They’ll thank me later, I hope. I’m playing the long game with my kids and reading.
Friday, I appeared as a featured speaker for the Montana Reading Council’s annual conference. It was a great experience. My final session on conferring with readers ended at 4:30. About 4:20, my phone rang. I ignored it and wrapped up my session. Looking at my phone later, I panicked. Sarah had called. She never called. She texted when she wanted to chat.
Don injured his back last week and I was worried that something had happened. Ducking into an empty ballroom, I called Sarah back, “Honey, you never call me. Are you OK? Is Dad OK?”
“Mom, we talked about The Great Gatsby in class today and I needed to talk to you about it. Dad doesn’t remember any of it.”
“Sure, honey. What do you want to talk about?”
I was expected at the Reading Council mixer. I could hear talking and glasses clinking down the hall. It could wait. They would understand. My colleagues at the party know that the most important thing teachers and parents can do to encourage reading is listen when a child wants to talk about a book.
Sarah and I discussed The Great Gatsby for a half hour. Sarah was on fire—rattling off opinions, asking questions. Talking about Gatsby the way a fifteen-year old idealist talks about Gatsby, “Don’t you think people are still selfish, Mom? Don’t you think people care too much about money? I think that is why Mrs. Harvey wanted us to read Gatsby. It’s still relevant.”
I think you’re right, Sarah.
Rock on Mrs. Harvey.
I will keep the memory of that Montana ballroom, talking with my kid about Gatsby, for the rest of my life.
Don and I have been worried about Sarah and her slow decline into non-reading during middle school. She used to read a book a week. She hasn’t read much in the past year. I can tell from our Gatsby chat that Sarah’s in love with reading, again.
Yesterday, we sat and read together—Sarah read Locke and Key #6 and I read Doctor Sleep. We didn’t talk much. We just read. It’s fragile. I can tell. Sarah is like a spooked colt when it comes to reading now. We can’t comment about how much she’s reading. We can’t make a big deal out of it.
It’s a challenge to remain a reader throughout childhood. At some point, responsibility for reading shifts from parents and teachers. Reading has to matter to you for it to stick. Sarah had to rediscover reading for herself.
Emma’s feet are on the same road—ten years behind Sarah’s. Six degrees from Gatsby is Mercy Watson.
Showing me her library book, Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse, Emma told me, “It has a gold seal on it, Mimi. It won an award, right? How does a book get an award? What happens?” Emma read The Lion and the Mouse to me while I unpacked my suitcase. She cracked me up with the story she created from the wordless pages.
Curled up with her last night, books scattered across the bed, eating pizza off napkins—Emma and I read Steve Jenkins’ Creature Features and talked about our favorite animals. We drew pictures of Bad Kitty in Emma’s notebook. Emma doesn’t just love reading. Emma loves reading like I love reading. She’s my best reading teacher.
Celeste told me, “Mom, you offer Emma something about reading that no one else can. With us, reading is just reading. With you, Emma thinks reading is magic. You know all this extra stuff about books that most people don’t know. Did she tell you about the endpapers thing?”
“What? No, I don’t think so.”
“She told me, ‘You always look at the endpapers, Mom, because sometimes the story starts there.’ How many six-year olds know what an endpaper is?”
I happen to think that the world would be a better place if a lot more six-year-olds knew what an endpaper was. They know what a worksheet is.
Writing away in her notebook, Emma asked, “Mimi, do you think other people love reading as much as we do?”
“What do you think, Emma? Do you think everyone loves reading?”
“I don’t know. They should.”
You can’t appreciate what pure reading love looks like if you’ve never felt it yourself or seen it in the eyes of a child who loves to read. A love for reading in childhood lasts a lifetime if we let it.
It’s sad for children to lose a love of reading when they had it once. It takes a lot to bring it back.
Reading isn’t just taught. It’s passed on, like a treasure from one reader to the next. We should do everything we can as adults to preserve that childhood love of reading when it’s born and foster it when it isn’t. It’s our reading legacy.
Meanwhile, Emma and I are looking for books on ferrets. If you have suggestions, let me know.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies teacher. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.