When taking into consideration all of the inventions since long before the modern era, our progress in communication, transportation, medicine and government all pale in comparison to the impact of the movable-type printing press that has given us mass-produced books. Allowing us to share ideas and sentiments across the globe, and to communicate our culture and stories across eons, “Time” magazine judged the printing press the single most important invention of the past 1,000 years.
Books are an obvious fuel to turbo-charge formal and informal learning. They can bring the world into a home and within easy reach of the developing minds of inquiring children. Sociological research indicates that a book’s power lies in the fact that its mere presence alters the conversations enjoyed in a home. Books elevate the discourse to include topics, events, people and places that, in the absence of books, likely would be unknown to a home’s residents. Most importantly, book-enriched conversation is the greatest source of intellectual stimulation for most little ones’ growth toward school readiness.
Books have been offering kids portable, on-demand information, entertainment and conversation topics for centuries prior to cable television and Internet streaming services. The very first book specifically for children’s pleasure reading, “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book” by Englishman John Newbery (Yes, THAT Newbery!*) was first published and mass-produced, in 1744. It is credited with proving that there was indeed a market for books designed just for children. Since then, the proliferation of documents in the compact, paper-based format we call “book” has invited children to start and stop their learning at any time, reconsider a page or section as needed, jump to the middle of a story or exposition to find something of current interest, and to ponder and share its contents at will.
While children’s books are written for an author-determined age group, once they are turned loose in the marketplace of ideas, books can take on a life of their own. Avid readers can always find something to spur wonder and reflection even in a book not remotely like those they prefer. Struggling readers, finding their interest piqued by a challenging book, often can make sense of it even though its writing is far above their identified level of comfortable reading. Advanced readers bring their in-depth understanding of text and story structure, along with their background knowledge and intellect, to find vivid life connections and metaphoric depth in even the simplest of texts. What’s wonderful is that the books serving each of these three kinds of readers could all be the very same book!
Those sharing a book side-by-side can even be reading different parts of the page at the same time, and at their own rates, and get understandings quite different from each other. If those two readers are teacher and child, youngster and parent, or cross-grade reading buddies, then the conversation that occurs between the pair can enrich them both, though quite possibly in very different ways.
For all of these reasons, let’s work hard to ensure that a consistent part of each child’s literacy education at home and school includes the veneration of books, not merely as another brick in the wall of building better test scores, but as an element for creating a unique lifetime of learning joy and self-determined fulfillment.