The Power of Choice by Cynthia Lord
When I was a child, my mother gave me two of the greatest gifts a reader can receive: access to books and choice.
Though not a reader herself, my mother always let me buy three books from the Scholastic Book Club flyers when my teacher sent them home. I would pour over those whispery pages, agonizing how to whittle my choices down to three.
My mother never put any restriction or judgement on the books I picked, so I was free to try new things, to take risks. I was also free to find comfort in something familiar. I was even free to fail, to experience making a choice that I later regretted.
I bought great literature, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I also bought (and still have!) The Peanuts Lunch Bag Cookbook. No one would classify that as great literature, but it made me feel powerful. I could create something and expand my definition of myself to include “cook,” even if all I made was “Full of Bologna Sandwiches.”
I’d walk to the bus stop with my book order in a long white envelope, tipping it back and forth to feel the coins rolling inside. And when those sharp-cornered, glossy-covered books came, I felt like the richest kid on earth carrying them home.
Making all those choices, I discovered something even more important than the books themselves—I learned about myself as a reader.
Sometimes I hear parents shame a child’s choices, even when they think they’re helping. “You’ve read a lot of these. Maybe you’d like to try. . . .” “Look, this one has an award sticker.” But a child’s free reading books shouldn’t be about us feeling good about their choices. It should be about them feeling good about them.
Sometimes a book fills a need that’s not easy for us to see. My son has autism, and every week my husband and I take him to the library. We limit his books to twenty, but we don’t limit his choices. Most weeks, he’ll get eighteen nonfiction books and two Chris Van Allsburg picture books.
We already have those picture books at home. But in a world that’s often confusing and out of my son’s control, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and Two Bad Ants and The Sweetest Fig are his emotional anchors, right where they should be under letter “V,” providing the comfort and security of an old friend. That’s what he brings home by choosing them.
Many years ago, I learned the hard way that a book is more than the story. As a young student teacher, I taught first grade in a college community in New Hampshire. We had a wonderful children’s librarian at the school named Mrs. Jenks. She had a way of making every child feel affirmed. As they brought her their chosen book, Mrs. Jenks always said, “Good choice!”
George and Martha. “Good choice!”
Harry the Dirty Dog. “Good choice!”
Goosebumps. “Good choice!”
I don’t know if the children ever realized that she said the same thing to everyone. But if they knew, it didn’t matter. They all beamed.
Mrs. Jenks allowed students to take out any book, even if was far above their reading level. She felt that a child would get something good from the book, just from choosing it. As a student teacher, I followed Mrs. Jenks’ lead—except one time.
Crystal was young, both in age and in development. Reading hadn’t happened for her yet, and she could barely carry The History of Aviation over to show me, a huge smile on her face.
Maybe the author was a parent or grandparent and had donated the book? That’s the only reason I can imagine for it being there. It wasn’t a children’s book. It didn’t’ even have a lot of photos. I flipped through the pages, trying to see why Crystal wanted it.
“Are you sure you want to read this?” I finally asked.
Her smile disappeared. “Oh, Mrs. Lord. I’m not going to READ it!” she said, as if I was being ridiculous. “I just love the way it smells.”
Clutching the book to her chest, she carried it to Mrs. Jenks to sign it out.
I’m sure I tried to teach Crystal something that day. Something written on lined paper with sharp pencils. But whatever that was, it wasn’t nearly as important as what she taught me.
When a child brings us a book they’ve chosen, glance at the book, but then look into the child’s eyes. If there is a light there, a proud joy of ownership, do whatever you can to keep it lit and not snuff it out.
That day, trying to be a grown up, I’d forgotten the magic of those sharp-cornered, glossy-covered books in my hands. Reading was always part of that experience, but so was choosing and holding and smelling those books, making them mine. Making myself a reader.
Crystal, I’m sorry. I failed you that day. So I’d like to say to you now what I wish I had said to you then.
Cynthia Lord is a former elementary and middle-school teacher and the children’s book author of Rules, Touch Blue, Half a Chance, and her newest novel, A Handful of Stars. She is also the author of the Hot Rod Hamster series, illustrated by Derek Anderson, and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series, illustrated by Erin McGuire, all published by Scholastic. She lives in Maine with her family, a dog, a guinea pig, and two bunnies. You can visit her at http://www.cynthialord.com.