Apr 5, 2021
Emily wraps up the third episode on "the power of stories" with a chat with an executive from Scholastic, Inc.--the source of all those books sold to grade-school students from newsletters and book fairs. Their conversation took place just before World Read-Aloud Day, which framed their talk about grandparents reading aloud to their grands.
THE STRETCH IT TAKES (Emily's Essay): The Genetics of Reading
When I visited the home of my maternal grandparents, I don’t remember seeing a book in any room of the house. It was a stark contrast to our own house with books in each room and a many-volumed encyclopedia that we referred to almost daily. It was our Google. Whenever the questions arose, mostly at the dinner table, the answers were at our fingertips. I especially enjoyed looking through the anatomy section that had layers of transparent drawings that would help you see the many parts of the body from outside to inside.
When I asked my mother about whether or not she remembered having books in her house growing up, she had a quick answer.
“It was non-existent, other than a newspaper.”
How did that happen? How did someone grow up in a house with no books and create a home with books galore? The more I thought about that image, the less I could really grasp growing up with no books. In fact, I cannot remember a time without them. A house without books would be so empty. Like a house with no furniture. Books were there from my babyhood. I associated books with love, and cuddling with my mom, pointing at illustrations or running my hands over the covers.
Most of us remember Pat the Bunny, but books for me didn’t need sandpaper to scratch with my fingernails, a flapof fabric to lift, or even a little shock of fur to stroke. Books could be touched for their smooth pages, or the gilded binding, or the inviting artwork. A new book smelled like heaven, and the peculiar crack of the pages when you opened it for the first time was intoxicating and unrepeatable.
My own mother didn’t get to experience that until she was 10. I asked her if she even knew that you could own books and have them in your home.
“Well, I know that one little boy had books because he gave me a book for my 10th birthday...yes, Heidi! That was the first time I knew you could have books in your house. It made a huge impression on me.”
And then there was the library. My mother recalls.
“I didn’t even know there was a library until I was in high school. And I would’ve been afraid to go in. A child couldn’t register, I don’t believe. You’d have to have an adult with you.”
Even though she never had a library card, my mom made sure we did and took us to the library weekly. A trip to the library was a fun outing for me. I would scour the shelves and take as many books as were allowed. My mom was very involved in the choosing (Caldecott and Newbery Award winners were staples), and if I came back to her with all fiction books, she would direct me to the non-fiction and “encourage” me to choose something from there as well. That was a stretch for me. I remember whining that I didn’t like horses, or outer space or dinosaurs, but she would march me back to the 0-999 stacks and help me pick something. I usually got lost in the 7-800’s. But now and then I would sidle over to the B section...and come home with a biography instead.
Beyond the books at home and the books in the library, my mom used books to reward us. I distinctly remember trips to the dentist who had a treasure chest in his office. After a painful tooth extraction, I was offered a little plastic magnifying glass or some jacks and a rubber ball from the treasure chest. My mom said it was fine to choose one of those, but as soon as we got into the car, she smiled and suggested we go get a book. Off we went to the bookstore. Books became more than just sources of information. They became a balm, something I could look to for solace, something I cherished.
As a result of all of her intentionality, I still love books. As our children were growing up, we gave them each a special book for Valentine’s Day. I stopped the tradition once they got married. But books have always played prominently in our exchanges with our children and now our grandchildren. And our own children have continued the Valentine’s Day tradition of buying books for their own children.
As you have heard, stories were not in my mother’s DNA. But they became part of ours because... she decided to change things up. She was a parent who encouraged reading and opened the door to a world that she had been shut out of.
“All those things were missing in my childhood.”
I am so grateful that she propped open the door and added those things into mine. I know it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what she had grown up with, but it is a legacy that will not soon be forgotten. Thanks, Mom.
© 2021 Emily Morgan