January 15


Climbing the Closets for Books: Why Book Ownership is So Important by Susan Knell

Sometimes my university students write things so incredible I just have to save them. We were talking about the importance of book ownership and how having your own books to read and treasure increase motivation to read. I know that as a child I got to order books from Scholastic at school and also received books as gifts. I remember owning The Best-Loved Poems of James Whitcomb Riley, Girl of the Limberlost, and countless Little Golden Books that my mother would buy for me at the grocery store. Back in the late 50s & early 60s there were not the wonderful bookstores available, and certainly nothing online!  But there are several research studies that show book ownership increases reading achievement and of course motivation to read.  So please enjoy this piece from one of my students, Karla Gonzales, who grew up in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, and is now studying to become an elementary teacher in the U.S.

“Even though I was not motivated to read, I do remember, when I was little I had a book. I remember that my brother bought me a copy of the book Alice in Wonderland. To me it was the most precious treasure in earth. I remember that I was so happy because my brother bought me the book because my dad did not have money to buy food for our family, therefore, for me to have my own copy of the book Alice in Wonderland was like having gold in my house. I treated that book like it was gold. I remember that I used to hide the book in a secret place that I had at my dad’s house. For me to have access to the book, I had to climb on top of an old closet that my dad had in his bedroom. Then, I had to get on top of some boxes that were on top of the closet. Behind the boxes, my dad had some blankets, and that is where I used to hide my precious book. Alice in Wonderland was so special to me. I did not wanted my book to get destroyed by my brother or friends. That is why I had to hide it in my secret place. The reason that I loved that book was because all the pictures that the book had got my attention, and the story itself. Maybe I wanted to have a fantasy life like it happens in the story. Also, Alice in the Wonderland was so precious to me because nobody else in my neighborhood had the opportunity to own a copy of the same book that I had, so that made me feel special.”

Hopefully, you had the same reaction as I did when you read this: “Wow”! Doesn’t this personal experience tell us how vital it is that kids own books?  Both public and school libraries are great and so needed, but those of us who have our books know the feeling this young woman shared. We need to find ways that all kids can own books, knowing that many kids come from homes where parents are wondering how they’ll eat or where they sleep. Owning books in their homes is not a priority or really an option financially.

After I read my student’s comments, what do you think I did? Of course, I gave her Robert Sabuda’s pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland.  And, of course she was thrilled and very grateful. So I hope owning that book will inspire her as a future teacher to find ways to get books into students’ hands permanently.

Think of books you own and how they make you feel. I remember the day that Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis died and her son John came outside to talk to the media.  I’ll never forget what he said (paraphrased). He told the media that his mother died peacefully with her family and her books surrounding her.  Book ownership means something.

I also know that teachers pay it forward all the time by giving books to their students for special reasons. I was lucky to find the Sabuda book on sale for half of $9.00 at a bookstore. I bought all they had, thinking I’d find someone to give them to. Maybe it’s a favorite author, a hobby, or just the gift of time. I had a college student one year who loved author Gary Paulsen. I was at an ILA conference and he was there, so I thought how much an autographed book would mean to my student. When I see him, he always brings up the book.

By looking deeper into our students’ lives we can discover a book that will make a connection to them, and they will never forget that. And by writing a message and signature in the book will most likely ensure that book will be treasured forever. By scouring book stores, flea markets, estate sales (my current obsession!), etc. we can find inexpensive books that may be just a student would love and need, and maybe even change their lives.

Susan Knell is a professor at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, NOT Pennsylvania! She teaches graduate courses in literacy education, and taught children’s literature to pre-service teachers for 19 years.  Her main interests are children’s literature and reading motivation. But she also is an avid reader of adult books.   She’s an active member of ILA of which she is now member emeritus, NCTE, Kansas Reading Association, and serves on her local library friends board.  Her book ownership continues to grow.