Magic by Aliza Werner
A university student, in the last days of her senior year, wandered down the creaky staircase of her Boston brownstone with a blanket in one hand, a book in the other. Finding a patch of front-yard grass, she kicked off her sandals, stretched out in the late spring sunshine, and creased open her new copy of an old favorite, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. She had read this book so many times since the first time she had heard it read aloud by her fifth grade teacher. It was like returning to an old friend each time. She remembered the class gathering closely, collectively breathing in every word. The vocabulary, the story, and characters all seemed to be painted sunset yellow, a warm, watercolored feeling. It captured her attention, her imagination, her heart.
The teacher had done more than just read a notable book aloud. She had accomplished the most important act of teaching all year, because she had performed…magic. The kind of magic that suspends time, transports imaginations, permeates the core of our being, and sculpts moments of absolute wonder. The kind of magic that catches your breath at the end of a book, dances in the air, and lingers with you long after the book has been closed.
This was not the first time the girl had felt the magic and power in reading moments. Before Tuck, she often read stories to her younger sisters, particularly Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar with its impressive buffet of foods, and one sister reciting “He ate fwee pwums, a swice of swami…” (That’s three plums and a slice of salami to translate from the language of ‘three-year-old’.)
Before caterpillars and their insatiable appetites, she begged for books discovered on family road trips; The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses at Yellowstone National Park, and My Brother Sam Is Dead in Washington, D.C.
Before wartime historical fiction and native mythology, she wrote letters to authors of her favorite books, the most enthusiastic to the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series. A letter came in return thanking her for the letter, but she had mistaken the illustrator for the author, who was flattered anyway and drew her a picture of a cat in inky blue pen. She was enamored with the drawing, even though he had mistaken her for a cat lover, and kept it in a special box of cherished treasures.
Before pen-drawn cats, her great-aunt gifted her classic books each time they met. The Secret Garden, Heidi, and Little Women were hardcover gems, extra fancy with sewn-in ribbon bookmarks.
Before Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy marched onto her bookshelf, she discovered “flashlight reading.” At night, after being tucked into bed, she’d sneak Little House on the Prairie under the covers with a flashlight, or strain her eyes to read with the dim hallway light spilling into her bedroom. Just because it was bedtime didn’t mean the Wilder family was done churning butter or dancing to Pa’s fiddle music!
Before pioneer life at midnight, there were Sunday mornings with newspaper comic strips in color! Snuggled up next to her dad, she listened as Lucy pulled the football away from a charging Charlie Brown and Garfield polished off another pan of lasagna.
Before noodle-eating cartoon felines, she sat on the laps of her parents from the time before her own memories even began, and together they read The Little Engine That Could. Before she could recognize the curve of a “c,” the scoop of a “g,” or the peaks of a “w,” she exclaimed with the exhausted train, her favorite alliterative words, “I must rest my weary wheels”. She chanted along “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can!”
And that’s where the magic began for this one little girl…me.
I still believe in that magic, as an adult, as a teacher, as an aunt, as a reader. Every day that I witness those moments ignited, I want to be a part of keeping those fires stoked, as so many have done for me.
Now, I am the auntie who buys books as gifts, sharing Eleanor & Park and The Hunger Games with the teenaged niece, and reading Jack Prelutsky poems and Bink and Gollie for three hours straight last Christmas with the youngest niece. The oldest nephew cannot get enough of Dragons Love Tacos, sharing it with his kindergarten class during his “Special Person” week. I got my grandmother started reading fiction at 80 years young. Each time she finishes a book, she calls or emails in delight and confesses to her own late night “flashlight reading” to finish a gripping story. During a recent visit with cousins, the teenager and I discussed our love (hers undying, of course) for John Green novels, especially Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. At one point she leaned over and half-whispered to her father, “Dad, she’s a Nerdfighter, too.” Yes, a teenager proclaimed me to be nerdy and awesome. Magic.
Now as a teacher, I have the opportunity to bring that reading magic into my classroom and my students’ lives each day. “Creating magical moments” as a teacher is essential to carve out a path for our students to be lifelong readers. Books and their enduring magic can awaken empathy, compassion, creativity, and emotion. When you help children find the book, when they see themselves reflected in the characters that leave their words behind on the page, when they find kinship in fictional characters whose experiences parallel their own, the most important connections are forged.
My class participates in a 40 Book Challenge inspired by Donalyn Miller. We get enthusiastic about newly published books from well-loved authors. We celebrate our reading achievements. We book talk passionately and share books with each other. We write about our reading. We post the titles of books we’ve read together on the wall. We take time every day to read independently. We keep a classroom library and display favorite books around the classroom. We post our book recommendations for all to see in the hallway. We record, critique, and discuss the books we’ve read. We build a respectful and engaged community of readers, no matter our abilities. We hug our books. Literally. I teach children how to choose and care for books, how to employ reading strategies, and to recognize story elements, but I also teach kids how to momentarily capture the intangible. As I finish reading aloud Because of Winn-Dixie or The One and Only Ivan, I teach my students how to have a sacred, quiet moment at the end of a book, to take a breath, to savor the story, and to let the feeling hang in the air for as long as we can make it stay. That moment, that breath, is pure magic.
Aliza Werner has been teaching for ten years in the Glendale-River Hills School District in Wisconsin. She is currently a third grade teacher at Parkway Elementary School, known for sharing her love of reading and chocolate chip pancake breakfasts with her students. Aliza was recently selected to serve on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee. She does freelance and volunteer work year-round for Milwaukee Film on their Youth Education and Children’s Film Screening Committees. Aliza is passionate about traveling the world (Israel to Ireland, Panama to Peru, Belgium to Bali). She loves photography, theater and independent films, vegetarian cooking, working on her nearly 90 year old house and garden, and family time with her husband and Wheaten Terrier.