I’ve mentioned before that I’m involved with a family literacy program called Prime Time* that meets in a lovely elementary school’s library once a week for six weeks. I take the role of discussant and my partner, an accomplished storyteller, initiates each book-inspired discussion with a fully dramatic read-aloud, peppered with sound effects, emotional fluency and humor. The participating families are refreshingly racially and culturally diverse. (Thank goodness we had a first-rate translator of English, Spanish and Portuguese!)
Each week, our families, always with at least one parent, read and enjoy two provided books at home. Then they come to the school’s library for two and a half hours of inspiration from the plots, characters and illustrations in an attempt to see through the books and into their own lives. It’s a tall order for a short timeline, designed to efficiently and lovingly advance the place of books in their home-lives by deepening the kinds of conversations that families have around the kitchen table about everything in their worlds.
The books we’ve read were chosen specifically for their “humanities” content—for their ability to help readers get in touch with what it truly means to be human. Regardless of the language spoken by a participant, it’s been obvious that sharing book choices with one another has provided an impetus for deepening our understandings of each other, so long as we step back far enough from our school-selves to see that stories provide a means with which to create cohesive community.
For example, two weeks ago, we read “Going Home,” by author Eve Bunting with illustrations by David Diaza. It’s a story about the journey of a family of legal immigrant farm-workers as they traveled back to Mexico to celebrate holidays in a tiny village La Perla, located far south of the border. The family is greeted by the entire village population when they arrive. Told by Carlos, the middle child and only young boy character in the story, the book gives us a deeper, more personal understanding of the meaning of “home.”
At one point in the read-aloud, Papa and Mama, alone, silently dancing in the moonlight, are discovered by the children…and then came the tears. Not in the book’s plot, but rather in the circle of friends we had made in our short time together at the library. The mother of two elementary school children, herself a Mexican immigrant, like Mama in the story, speaking no English (“There is no need for it in the fields.”) begins weeping, having experienced the loss of her own “home” in Mexico, that we discovered that night she may never see again.
At the first teardrop, most of the other mothers were on their feet, embracing and speaking sweetly to the woman who they had met only a month ago and who, despite the language barriers, could fully understand their well-wishes and tenderness.
In that moment, strangers had become new friends. Such is the power of conversation about the HUMAN impact of books, in creating a loving, accepting community.
*Prime Time is generously funded and organized by Kentucky Humanities, an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.