The House That Reading Built by Donalyn Miller
I grew up clinging to the lowest middle class rung. My younger brother, Wendell, was born with cerebral palsy. His medical needs drained my family emotionally and financially. My parents struggled to pay our bills, but we scraped by most of the time.
For my two sisters, my brother, and me, we celebrated three kid holidays a year—our birthdays, Christmas, and Income Tax Refund Day. These special days were the only days we received gifts or new things. We went out to dinner at Sizzler or Wyatt’s Cafeteria. We got new jeans and shoes. Sometimes, we got toys and books. Over the years, we filled two shelves with Charlotte’s Web, Little House in the Big Woods, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, Wind in the Willows, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Where the Wild Things Are—I can still see each one in my memories.
We treasured the few books we owned and kept our reading lives fed with our library cards most of the year. Our parents knew we needed to read. Besides, the library was free and we could walk to it.
When I was thirteen, our house burned down. I remember standing in our yard watching it burn. We all cried because our guinea pigs died. I cried for our books, too. We moved in with my dad’s mom for a while. She made us watch televangelists all day. Grammer owned rows of Reader’s Digest Condensed volumes stored in her dining room. If she was in a good mood, she let us read them, but she warned us not to read anything sinful. It was the longest summer of my life.
On the third day of seventh grade, my dad had a heart attack at work. My parents were waiting until payday to install a phone in our new place, so my dad’s boss sent the police to our house to get my mother.
I vanished into shadow in middle school. My grades were mostly good. I never measured up to my classmates, but I was smart. I had that at least. I sat in the back of the class, reading used paperbacks out of my desk. My teachers let me get away with it.
My husband, Don, grew up on his library card, too. The first book he owned came from the RIF mobile. He still remembers the title, Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? by Jean Fritz. When Don was seventeen, he worked as a library page at the Belle Isle Library in Oklahoma City. He made $5.00 an hour and all the books he could carry. Don was responsible for shelving 000-499. He read piles of books on philosophy, religion, mythology, and dreams.
Don and I lived privileged childhoods because we had books.
Books as gifts. Books as escape. Books as shield. Books as solace. Books as education. Books as self-agency. I cannot fathom what my life would be like now if I hadn’t read my way through childhood. Don feels the same.
Because Don and I were lucky (white) enough to live in middle class neighborhoods with good schools, we had opportunities denied to many other children. Don and I read our way to better lives because we had books to read in the first place. Many children raised in poverty—disproportionally children of color—grow up in communities without meaningful, consistent access to books or positive reading experiences.
Children in poverty are less likely to:
- Begin school with adequate early childhood literacy experiences like read alouds and vocabulary exposure.
- Attend schools with experienced, certified teachers and librarians.
- Attend schools with adequate school and classroom libraries.
- Live in neighborhoods with public libraries and bookstores.
- Own books at home.
Children in poverty are more likely to:
- Receive literacy instruction delivered through test prep, scripted programs, basal textbooks, and worksheets instead of authentic literature.
- Experience gaps in schooling because of instable housing and unemployment.
- Drop out of high school with poor literacy skills.
Reversing the lack of accurate, inclusive, affirming portrayals of diversity in children’s literature is long overdue, but writing and publishing more diverse authors and stories only takes us so far if children never see these books. As a global community, we cannot continue to accept or perpetuate inequities limiting children’s open access to books.
In a twenty-year study at the University of Nevada, Reno, seeking to identify what influences the level of education a child will attain, researchers found that children with access to 500 books achieved three more years education than children without this access. Book access is the game changer for our children.
Access means all children have books to read. Access means all children have books that accurately reflect and acknowledge their experiences, and the experiences of people with different stories to tell. All children deserve access to their full promise through the improved opportunities literacy provides.
The books we create (or don’t), sell (or don’t), buy (or don’t), shelve (or don’t), read aloud (or don’t), assign (or don’t), and promote (or don’t) shape the narratives our children write about our world and themselves.
What do our stories tell us about who we are?
The division and hatred scrolling across our screens 24/7 fill many of us with impotence and despair. Will it ever get better? Can we make a difference? Can we ever learn to love each other?
If we hope for a better world through our children, literacy provides us with the best chance we have to change things.
Don and I get on our knees in gratitude for our blessings every day. We live in the house that reading built. We improved our circumstances because reading helped us overcome a tough start, and we try to repay this debt every day.
Reading can help all of us write a different story.
**In this season of gratitude, I encourage you to support nonprofit literacy organizations and charities that increase children’s educational opportunities and access to books. Through donations and volunteerism, we can make a difference. I have listed a few organizations below, which I have researched to the degree possible using Charity Navigator, a rating service for non-profit entities.
*Full disclosure, I sit on the Boards of both Changing Lenses/ Changing Lives and The Book Love Foundation. The profits from the Nerdy Book Club Cafe Press store are donated to Reading Is Fundamental every year.
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.