The Importance of Sharing

Read to Them‘s family literacy programs are grounded on a simple, ambitious premise: read a high quality chapter book at home with your family and as an entire school. In a perfect world, a family gathers together and each member listens to every page together.  No one misses a word.

But life isn’t perfect.

As eager as we are for our thousands of participating families and schools to read a wide-range of challenging titles, we also recognize that the most important aspect of all this is the sharing.  That’s right, the sharing.

“But even more important is the simple act of being together and sharing the text – and the moment and the choice details – together.”

Not your favorite line or your favorite character. Not “Have you read this part?!”  Or “Read that part again!”  Those discoveries are vitally important.  It’s why we read together in the first place. To create memories.  To transmit culture – stories, lessons, morals, and style.

But even more important is the simple act of being together and sharing the text – and the moment and the choice details – together. So you both know them. So you can both refer to them. (“Remember that time when you read…”)  So you both know that text, that title, that chapter, that moment, that line is something that’s now a part of both of you. It’s something you share.

Our Director of Programs, Bruce Coffey, was reminded of this central truth in a recent conversation with a professional colleague. The colleague came to the Read to Them office to talk about writing and graphics and the future. But, as Coffey notes, she is also a mother, so naturally they talked about books, too. Two of her children were reading ripe Read to Them titles – The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate) and the incomparable Wonder (R.J. Palacio).

“Such a conversation naturally turns me into a reading evangelist, but I can’t subject every person who crosses the Read to Them threshold to that kind of enthusiastic pressure,” Coffey says. “I wanted to ask, ‘Are you reading the books together?  Have you read them, too?  Do you know what’s in them?  What does your daughter think of Ruby? Or Auggie’s helmet?’  But I didn’t.”

Coffey recalls that his colleague acknowledged that one of her daughters found Wonder confusing.

“I suspected that that might be because of R.J. Palacio’s magnificent technique of switching narrators and perspectives,” Coffeymuses. “Magnificent to me, perhaps, but maybe not for each and every inexperienced reader. I sensed my opening.”

He went and pulled Wonder off the shelf and they talked about how the book is organized.  About how the perspective changes from Auggie to his sister, Violet, and then to Jack, Will, and even to Violet’s boyfriend, Justin.  And then Coffey gently suggested they might try reading it together.

“When we were done, she said, ‘I understand it so much better when we both read it out loud.’”

A day later Coffey received a highly professional email, with a memorable addendum:

“On a totally separate note, I read Wonder with my daughter out loud last night. We read the ‘Summer’ chapter together….alternating pages. When we were done, she said, ‘I understand it so much better when we both read it out loud.’ Thanks for the advice!”

This simple, elemental truth is what lies at the heart of family literacy. It’s why we at Read to Them work so tirelessly to promote families reading together in the hopes of children blossoming into lifelong readers. It doesn’t matter if Coffey’s colleague started from the beginning. It doesn’t matter if she reads the whole book with her daughter. All that matters is the sharing and the creation of shared magic through a book– one they won’t likely forget.

Even middle schoolers and their parents can still share stories together! Both are likely starved for such moments. So we invite them both – teenager and parent – to consider sharing a character or scene, a chapter or line from your book together.  Show what you think is cool or memorable – sad or funny – or unforgettable.  What’s worth sharing, worth remembering.  Bring it up when you’re on a walk or doing a chore. You can even offer to read while on a trip or the sliver of downtime that follows a meal. The when doesn’t matter, either, so long as you’re sharing with someone you love.

Remember: We all have memorable moments we are probably eager for others to know about. To connect with.  All that matters is the sharing.


Less-Than-Likely Friendships

How an Imaginary Cat, a Plastic Ball and a Jazz Band Can Teach us a Little-Bit-More about the Less-Than-Likely Friendships

Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky from “Toys Go Out” by Emily Jenkins

Winnie-the-Pooh once famously told his best friend, Christopher Robin, “I knew when I met you, an adventure was going to happen.” And no one will ever forget when Charlotte said to Wilbur, “You have been my friend. That alone is a tremendous thing.” From a bear and his boy to a pig and a spider, we have all discovered those books that have imprinted on our hearts forever, because of the relationships that play out between the pages. Whether it’s against the backdrop of a grand adventure, a family conflict, solving a mystery, or slogging through a not-so-great school year, we find characters finding themselves through the common threads that connect them to each other, and ultimately, to us.

But what about the more unexpected friendships? The ones that aren’t discovered on the playground, in the classroom, or even the barnyard?  Though we may think of friendships as the things that grow from our similarities, what about the ones that grow out of our differences?  In Toys Go Out, Crenshaw and Bud, Not Buddy, we get to watch these sorts of friendships in the making. And while all three of these books feature gorgeous prose and meaningful messages, it’s the journey into these very unlikely relationships that invite us to look at friendship through a different lens, an unlikely mirror.

In Emily Jenkins’ Toys Go Out, we meet three toys who seem only to be connected because of their love for the little girl whose bedroom they share. But soon, it becomes clear that what they don’t have in common is what bonds them to each other. Knowledgeable StingRay – the pragmatic and de facto leader of the group – realizes that life is very “un-bouncy” when whimsical Plastic goes off to find herself at the beach. Lumphy, the courageous stuffed buffalo, is crestfallen when he loses his tail in an accident, only to later be convinced by a normally unopinionated Plastic that, “he looks tougher without it.” And Plastic, who spends most of the book trying to figure out what or who she really is, eventually turns to StingRay for the reassurance she needs, because maybe StingRay isn’t just “saying she knows things when she doesn’t” and actually has everyone’s best interest at heart. Though these friendships may seem unlikely, one thing they show us is for certain: sometimes seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is the only way we can discover who we really are.

In Katherine Applegate’s book, Crenshaw, we watch another unlikely relationship unfold. Young Jackson and a bubble-bath taking, surfboard-riding, umbrella-toting cat don’t seem to have much in common, except they both like purple jelly beans. Jackson is nervous, rooted in facts, and constantly on the verge of being homeless. Crenshaw (the cat) is confident, creative, and finds home to be anywhere he shows up. And, he’s imaginary – while Jackson, very clearly, is not. Jackson, who knows that “there’s always a logical explanation” for everything, can’t find one for his friendship with Crenshaw. But Crenshaw can.

“Remember when you stole the yo-yo back when you were five?” Crenshaw asked.

“When my parents caught me, I tried to blame it on you.”

“Everyone always blames the imaginary friend.”

Though the friendship that develops between this very large, imaginary cat, and a very practical human boy is unlikely, it’s the kind of unconditional friendship we all wish and wait and yearn for. Crenshaw sums it up nicely when he tells Jackson, “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased. And then, we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.” Crenshaw knows when Jackson needs him – even when Jackson doesn’t.

“Bud, Not Buddy” National Theatre playbill cover art, based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis

Sometimes the unexpected friendships are the ones that help us see ourselves differently, as in Toys Go Out, or the ones we can tuck away until we need them again, like in Crenshaw. But what about the friendships that happen when we are looking for something else entirely? In Bud, Not Buddy, ten-year old Bud is on a quest to find his missing father but finds Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression instead. Bud has never really had friends. And all he’s ever really wanted was a family. But when the guys in the Dusky Devastators jazz band start teasing him the way only true friends can, something shifts inside him.

“All of a sudden I knew that of all of the places in the world

that I’d ever been in this was the one.

That of all the people I’d ever met these were the ones.

This was where I was supposed to be.”

Though the unlikely friendship he makes with the band is not at all what Bud is looking for, it’s exactly what he needs. He needs it so much that his eyes that “don’t cry no more” squeak open and tears start jumping out right in the middle of the Sweet Pea restaurant when the bandmates begin to treat him like he’s one of them. He needs it so much that when Steady Eddie suggests his band name be Sleepy LaBone, Bud can’t “tie the smile down anymore.” He knew a name like that would make him want to practice his new instrument four hours every day just so he could live up to it. He needs these friends in order to belong. And for the first time in Bud’s life, what he belongs to suddenly matters less than who.

“Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate, Indonesian print cover by Agung Wulandana

Throughout the book Crenshaw, Jackson struggles with certain facts – his family is once again homeless, he can’t fix everything, he’s talking to an imaginary cat.  Toward the end of the book, Crenshaw tells him, “Tell the truth to the person who matters most. You.” Maybe that’s the key to the best friendships. They are the ones that force us to look at ourselves from a different angle, through a different prism, in a different light. They are the friendships – no matter how unlikely – that dare us to be our true selves. And like us even more for doing so.

A bouncy ball, an imaginary cat, and a group of old jazz musicians certainly taught us that.


Explore Our Six New Winter Titles

Read to Them is proud to share six new winter titles that have been added to our catalog. Each of these titles is also supported by our regular resource materials and online supplements that can be found on the Digital Resource Hub. We invite you to take a look at the blurbs for each book below, and hope that one – or more! – of these titles will be a fantastic future read for your school community.

 

The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin (Sweet Spot)  

“Finding yourself means deciding what your values are, what you want to do – that kind of thing.” 

In Grace Lin’s own words,“​​The book is fiction, but almost everything had a real life inspiration.” Spend the Year of the Dog with ten year old Pacy as she endeavors to find herself, only to discover: a new best friend, a skill that blooms into a life-long talent, and the ups and downs of being one of two Taiwanese-American girls in an elementary school.

This book is perfect for introducing students to a culture that may be pretty different from their own. With The Year of the Dog, readers dive into Chinese traditions and customs made accessible for all grade levels, creating curiosity and developing empathy as each facet of Pacy’s culture unspools on the page. And if any kids are budding writers and illustrators, Pacy’s story of self-discovery is sure to keep their dreams alive.

 

Cody Harmon, King of Pets by Claudia Mills (Intro and Sweet Spot)

“What kind of pet show would it be if Cody Harmon, king of pets, couldn’t enter any pets at all?”

Cody Harmon really struggles with writing essays, math quizzes, and really anything related to school. When Principal Boone announces that the school will be hosting a pet show, though, Cody knows his time to shine has arrived. There’s only one problem: the entry fee to the pet show. With a huge heart and a menagerie of animals to choose from, Cody offers up his pets to classmates who don’t have their own, which somehow brings more challenges Cody’s way. 

Cody Harmon will appeal to students who face academic difficulties, who may need encouragement to shine a light on their strengths that lay beyond the classroom. The complicated situation – and its resolution – between Cody and his best friend, Tobit, present a very real moral dilemma not to be missed.  And the hijinks at the Pet Show Celebration offer a hilarious celebration of animals – including a pet pig!

 

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech (Intro and Sweet Spot)

“Okay,” Louie said. “I accept the mission.”

“What mission?”

“To save this pitiful motherless donkey.”

When Louie’s father brings home Winslow, Louie endeavors to take care of this sickly little donkey until it manages to recover. He doesn’t have the best luck when it comes to nurturing small creatures, but that doesn’t stop Louie from trying. His older brother, Gus, is far away in the army, and caring for Winslow makes Louie feel closer to Gus for the first time in ages. With the help of his new friend, Nora, Louie helps Winslow grow… and even faces a challenge he never could’ve anticipated: letting go. 

In true Sharon Creech form, Saving Winslow grants readers the opportunity to grapple with big feelings in an accessible way. Loss is always hovering in the book, but Creech provides a fine balance with the light-hearted. Older students will find plenty to discuss while younger students will enjoy Saving Winslow as a quick read aloud with loads of substance. If you’re looking for a title that’ll touch your heart and guide your school community on a journey of finding one’s purpose, this is the book for you.

 

Wish by Barbara O’Connor (Intermediate and Middle School)

“You can’t judge people for the mistakes they make. You judge them for how they fix those mistakes.”

Due to circumstances out of her control, Charlie Reese is sent to live with relatives she barely knows in Colby, North Carolina. She’s made the same wish every day since the fourth grade, and this move makes it seem unlikely that her wish will ever come true. However, to Charlie’s surprise, her aunt and uncle are the first folks in an unexpected line of love and support; there’s a set of heartfelt neighbors, a delightfully eccentric boy, and a skinny stray dog called Wishbone. In time, Charlie’s wish does come true – just not in the way that she anticipates.

This novel offers a way for kids to work through big feelings (namely anger) in a way that’s constructive and can be used outside the classroom. (Charlie’s friend, Howard, gives her a code word to help cool her temper.) Stories about foster care – even in children’s literature! – can be dark and sad, but this is a feel-good story filled with hope, and appreciation, and no small amount of love. And even a happy ending!

 

The Terrible Two by Jory John and Mac Barnett (Intermediate)

“On your first day at a new school in a new town, you got to decide what kind of kid you were going to be.” 

Miles is not happy to be moving to a town that’s known for one thing – cows. In his old school, Miles was considered the best prankster, but a rival, Niles, is already the reigning prank master in Yawnea, so trying to reclaim that title in Yawnee Valley seems to be impossible. Still, Miles has so much knowledge in the art of pranking, it seems wasteful not to try… and once these two stop pulling pranks on each other, Miles and Niles team up to pull off the Biggest Prank (Possibly) Ever. 

Even the most reluctant readers are sure to find themselves captivated by the clever, off-the-wall pranks Miles and Niles think up. The tone of Terrible Two is consistently up-beat and its humor will appeal across age groups with everything from the cow-centric fun facts to dead-pan zingers from Miles. It also turns out there’s even a code to pranking with honor. The illustrations throughout the novel capture the characters’ personalities and the narrative’s high energy, something that is sure to aid younger readers in a school read aloud.

 

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (Intermediate and Middle School – available in Spanish!)

“Turning an insult into something you embrace is a good way of empowering yourself.”

On her first day at a new school, Malú dresses as her most authentic self: winged eyeliner, dark lipstick, a Blondie t-shirt, and silver Chuck Taylors. It upsets her when she’s pulled from class for being a distraction. But it’s not so bad, not when it sets Malú on a path to assembling a punk band of like-minded misfits to audition for the school talent show. When they’re barred from entering for being “too loud”, Malú and her pals are determined to launch their own Alterna-Fiesta, instead.

The First Rule of Punk is a brilliant way to encourage students to let their voices be heard, to embrace the non-traditional, and soothe those who feel like being different is a bad thing. Given that Malú is half-Mexican, the novel highlights Mexican traditions, foods, and a brief history of Mexican-American immigrants that is often glossed over. Punk is also punctuated with great food, great music, and zines, a homemade and surefire way to encourage students to express themselves through mixed media.


Vulnerability and Friendship

C.S. Lewis once said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

How can it be that friendship can provide so much warmth and joy – and so much worry and pain?

We’ve got over 150 titles on our recommended reading list at Read to Them. And friendship could be a theme in virtually every one, because friendship, itself, is so dynamic. Friendship is affirming. Friendship is about establishing commonality and shared interests. Friendship is about who you like to laugh with – and who it’s fun to talk or walk or write or hike or water ski with. Friendship is about finding people who will be there for you when you need them.

Friendship is also about finding people who will stand up to you, challenge you, and even disappoint you. You can only be disappointed when you come to care – when you value a friendship and rely on it and maybe even depend on it – emotionally. That’s what happens to characters in the three great titles we’d like to take a look at together.

“Toys Go Out” Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky

Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out (first of a snazzy little trilogy) is about three toys who are friends. Or are they? The little girl who owns them says they are her best friends. But the toys seem thrown together arbitrarily. Jenkins has wisely drawn distinct characters who are alternately prickly, confident, vulnerable, and curious. They come to learn about the world, life, and each other through their mishaps and adventures. In one special chapter, Lumphy, the stuffed buffalo, ends up in the basement and meets Frank, the terrifying washing machine…who turns out to be welcoming and comforting, quick with a song to ease Lumphy’s worries. (“Dance that buffalo shuffle with me!”) As lovely as that is, it’s not the sort of friendship we’re interested in. That’s too easy.

We learn a subtler lesson about friendship when the Little Girl is going on an outing to the beach and decides to take only Plastic, the little red ball, along on the trip. This is Plastic’s big moment to shine as she is often overshadowed by StingRay, who can be cocky and supercilious and a bit of a blowhard. While Plastic is away, StingRay is distressed that she has been passed over for the trip, a blow to her faltering self-esteem. She ought to be a worthy beach companion, what with all of her knowledge of sea creatures like “jellyfish made of grape and raspberry jelly” and “garbage-eating sharks.” She assumes and asserts she is a “floater” who can “float as well as Plastic, any day.” But, in truth she is a sinker, a crushing revelation she discovers in the bathtub. At the bottom of the tub, StingRay has an epiphany. She realizes that as a dry-clean only StingRay she has missed her friend Plastic. When Plastic returns, StingRay admits, “It was very un-bouncy around here without you.” Jenkins expertly shows young readers that sometimes that bravado that can be oh so annoying is actually hiding a different truth. And sometimes letting it go makes you vulnerable, ready to be a true friend.

In Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw, Jackson’s family is facing some tough times and Jackson really needs a friend. It looks like his family is going to be homeless again…and then the mysterious Crenshaw appears. Crenshaw isn’t the everything-you-want-him-to-be pal from central casting – there to say and do the right thing every time. He is a giant imaginary cat who does buck up Jackson’s spirits, buthe is also mysterious and gnomic. Is he real? Will he always be there? Jackson could try to pretend he doesn’t see the odd skateboarding cat – or need him – but the reader can tell the boy does need this quirky new friend. Eventually Crenshaw spells it out for him: “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.”

Is this true for imaginary friends – or all friends? Is Katherine Applegate sharing a larger truth about all friendships? Is Jackson only using Crenshaw like a favorite picture book? It doesn’t seem that way. It sure seems like Jackson wants to understand the whole imaginary friend thing better, but not look too tenaciously for fear of ruining the effect. Is that friendship, too?

Eventually Jackson learns to grow from an actual human peer – the daring Marisol. She is the kind of friend who is willing to challenge Jackson to be someone he’s not. Yet. Jackson prefers the routine, the familiar, the dependable. (His family has been homeless – he craves what is sure.) But Marisol says, “I like not knowing everything. It makes life more interesting.” She is challenging Jackson to be more daring, too – to be willing to explore life with her, unsure of what will happen next. Well, that’s what friends are for – right?

In Christopher Paul Curtis’s beloved Bud, Not Buddy, we see vulnerability as an essential part of friendship, this time in a more conventional human realm – no talking toys or magical cats here. As a child who has visited and been returned from several orphanages, he has learned not to trust adults – at all. It’s Curtis’s special magic that we can learn this truth and laugh at the same time. One of Bud’s running motifs is his Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. For example…

RULES AND THINGS 87

When an Adult Tells You They Need Your Help with a Problem Get Ready to Be Tricked – Most Times This Means They Just Want You to Go Fetch Something for Them.

Bud has a couple of friends from the orphanage.  And he does meet the estimable Deza Malone (worthy of her own sequel) along the way.  So how is it that Christopher Paul Curtis manages to concoct a winning children’s book where Bud spends nearly all his time in the company of adults – especially the musicians in what turns out to be his grandfather’s jazz band? It’s because Curtis has subtle, sophisticated friendship fare to show us – and teach us – readers all.

Bud may purport to live by Rule #118…

You Have to Give Adults Something That They Think They Can Use to Hurt You by Taking It Away. That Way They Might Not Take Something Away That You Really Do Want. Unless They’re Crazy or Real Stupid They Won’t Take Everything Because if They Did They Wouldn’t Have Anything to Hold Over Your Head to Hurt You with Later.

But the truth is, over the course of the novel Bud learns something else entirely. His grandfather, Herman E. Calloway, may be forbidding and stern and distant, and Miss Thomas may act motherly in ways he sorely craves, but it’s the other members of the band who each find their way to get to know Bud – and to let Bud get to know them. It happens without Bud’s really realizing. (And Curtis is smart enough not to tell us; he lets us see it and come to recognize it just like Bud.)

Bud feels welcomed and included when he gets to eat with the band: “I didn’t notice before how funny Mr. Jimmy was. The stories he was telling about traveling around the country with Herman E. Calloway had us all laughing so much that even the nosy people at all the tables near ours quit eating and were busting their guts and throwing their two cents into the stories.”

 

When Bud realizes he’s been included…he breaks down and sobs. Miss Thomas and the band comfort him, but not for long. And once the shell is cracked, he is truly welcomed. They give him a recorder (and eventually a full blooded sax). Even better, they give him a nickname. A nice admirable nickname? No, a teasing nickname: Sleepy (because he sleeps ’til noon the first night) and Bone (because he’s so skinny), thus: Sleepy LaBone. It’s a process, and a name, that communicates a central truth of friendship – if you’re with us, you’ve got to be able to give it, and take it. And, Bud, you can take it.

All of this – the laughing and the crying and the teasing and the mutual admiration – are perfect examples of the special yin/yang of true friendship. You have to expose yourself, to risk trust and embarrassment and love, to develop the true connection of friendship. And for Bud, it’s with a confounded bunch of adults!

I think Madeline L’Engle figured it all out when she concluded, “To grow up is to accept vulnerability.”

Why do we read children’s books? Why do we share all these happy, sad, joyful, painful, lesson-filled stories with the children we love? To help them learn and grow. To help them grow up, not too fast, but grow up all the same. We can’t sugarcoat it for them. The best stories don’t shy from risk or vulnerability or pain. That’s what earns credibility with kids. We want to broaden and enrich their experience to help them grow up well, so we show them both sides of friendship – the salt and the sweet, the joyful and the painful.

Welcome to the rest of your life. What should we read next?

 

Bruce Coffey is Read to Them’s Director of Programs

 


Introducing At The Lamp-Post

“I can always get back if anything goes wrong,” thought Lucy.
She began to walk forward, crunch-crunch over the snow and
through the wood toward the other light. In about ten minutes
she reached it and found it was a lamp-post.”
          – C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 

Read to Them currently features 150 books in its active catalog. We’re book people, after all, so we’re passionate about carefully selecting books by a wide-range of voices to enrich a child’s personal library. We talk about books and what’s in them every day. Conversations about characters, themes, and even single lines enrich our work and our relationships.  The books we love provide the details that help us build the connections that come from a love of reading.

We’d like to invite you to pull up a chair and join our conversation and share your reading insights, too, by stopping by At The Lamp-Post.

Each month, we’ll select a theme and highlight three books that illustrate subtle aspects of that theme.  In January, we’ll be all about Friendship – how unlikely friends come together, how not all friendships look the same, how vital it is to show vulnerability in a friendship, how friends help you see yourself in a different light.

We’ll be sharing examples of these subtle themes in Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins, Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Our table has plenty of open seats. We can’t wait to talk with you and invite you to make your voice heard.  Please join us this month – At The Lamp-Post!

Be sure to keep up with all the latest updates at The Lamp-Post by following us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.