Patron of the Arts by Donalyn Miller
During our recent move, we gave away almost 500 books. At one point, Don and I joked that our books were reproducing because we couldn’t see a measurable difference after giving away so many. I know that we are a little over-the-top in this regard, but we love buying and owning physical books. As Anna Quindlen said, “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” Growing up in homes with limited means, Don and I consider ourselves prosperous because our bookshelves overflow.
A few kind publishers send me books because they know I will review and promote them, but most of the books that crowd our home bookshelves are books we bought. When I receive advance reader copies, I read them and pass them along to my network of teacher and librarian colleagues or Sarah, our teenage daughter, and her friends. If I love a book, I want to see its finished form. I want to smell the paper, admire the dust jacket, view the illustrations, and enjoy the author’s note. Reading a publisher’s galley is a tease, and I don’t feel the reading experience is complete until I have read the final book. I’m an unapologetic book hoarder. If it’s a book worth reading and sharing, it’s a book worth buying.
Many of my students over the years haven’t owned a single book they can call their own. It’s heartbreaking. While I recognize that many people lack the resources to purchase books, we must accept that for children to have access to books, someone—a parent, teacher, librarian, or generous donor must buy books and put them in children’s hands. If we truly value reading, the artists and publishers who create children’s books, and the children themselves, we must embrace our role as book patrons. Here are some ways to become invested children’s literature supporters:
Buy books. While there is a vibrant culture of children’s book reviewers and promoters online, we cannot forget that publishing is a business and that authors and illustrators must sell books in order to keep creating them. If my insignificant $2.00 royalty helps subsidize Maggie Stiefvater’s electric bill and keeps her computer running for another day, I’m happy to buy her books. Reviewing and promoting books are important, but buying books is the best way to support artists we admire.
If you have the ability to buy books, share this blessing with others (especially children) who cannot afford to buy books of their own. A 2010 longitudinal study by the University of Reno found that children with access to books in the home had higher levels of educational attainment than children who lack book access. Last month, Jet Blue announced a pilot program to provide free books to children who live in “book deserts” by placing free book vending machines in Anacostia, a D.C. neighborhood. Many local communities and non-profit organizations have programs that increase children’s book access. Seek out and support these initiatives with your money or time. Book access increases educational opportunities for our fellow citizens—strengthening our communities and our long-term social and economic stability.
Support libraries in all their forms. Stock a Little Free Library in your neighborhood. Volunteer at your public and school libraries. Vote for bond measures that provide funding for librarians and books. Fight to keep school librarians, who are the standard bearers for children’s independent reading lives and free access to information. Donate books to children’s hospitals, foster homes, and charities. Buy books for your children’s teachers instead of coffee mugs and holiday ornaments.
Stop diminishing children’s literature by commandeering it for teaching purposes. At a conference this summer, Lester Laminack said, “Reading a book for the first time is like opening a gift and you can only do it once.” When introducing a book to children for the first time, just read it. Don’t stop every two pages to ask probing questions. Don’t bury a picture book or a poem in a 30-minute conversation about character traits or finding the main idea. Read the book and allow children the opportunity to reflect on it. Encourage the conversations that naturally arise when a book is shared. Sarah taught me this lesson years ago, when she slapped her chubby toddler hand down on a book we were reading together and said, “I don’t want to make predictions, Mommy. Just read the book!”
From a teaching standpoint, stopping every few pages (or paragraphs) to ask questions breaks down comprehension and prevents children from engaging with the book. Our teaching goals would be better served if we read the text first, enjoyed it as readers, and then reread the text for instructional purposes.
On Voxer recently, a group of friends and I discussed our horror when discovering that there is a 52-page teaching packet on Teachers-Pay-Teachers for Kate DiCamillo’s masterpiece, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I don’t think Kate wrote this beautiful story so teachers could fill out their lesson plans for a semester. I have seen similar travesties for many notable children’s books. What message do we send kids when the only purpose for reading seems to be filling out worksheets and producing projects? Engagement is a key factor in children’s development of lifelong reading habits. We disengage them with reading when we teach books into the ground.
Embrace your role as caretaker. I cringe when well-meaning folks refer to teachers and librarians as “gatekeepers” between children’s authors and their young readers. Gates open, but they also close and lock. I prefer the term “caretakers” because it shows more respect for children and the artists who create books for them. We care for the children. We care for their books. We bring them together and get out of the way. As John Green said, “Books belong to their readers.” As much as I personally enjoy reading children’s literature and appreciate its value, I never forget that I’m not the intended audience for these works. Yes, we have a responsibility as educators and parents to ensure that our children develop strong reading skills, but we must also strive to provide our children unfettered access to artistic works created especially for them.
If we value children’s literature, we must actively support its artists, their intentions behind creating books for children, and mentor another generation of patrons who experience and appreciate its value.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. 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 Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.