Reading books aloud to my second graders is about my favorite part of the day. We almost never miss it. I tell my students, it is a chance to share my favorite books with my best friends. I mean it too. Some of the very best books I have ever read have been written for kids. Nothing beats Charlotte’s Web for me. Or Number the Stars or The Wizard of Oz, Bridge to Teribithia, Because of Winn Dixie, Holes, Stargirl, Pictures of Hollis Woods, Ida B., Walk Two Moons… The list is too long.
And then there are picture books. I begin and end every year with an old Shel Silverstein book called The Giving Tree. It was the first real present I gave to Heidi Mills when we were first dating back in 1976. So of course it has special meaning to me, but it does for a lot of people. And it does for my students by the time I get through with them. There are some books that are downright hard to read aloud because they are so good, so real, so inspiring. Pink and Say, It’s Not My Fault, The Children We Remember, Fly Away Home, Faithful Elephants to name a few.
So this week we were at the end of a sweet little chapter book called Caleb’s Story by Patricia Maclaughlin. It is the third part of a series, which starts with Sarah, Plain and Tall and Skylark. Caleb is sweet and simply written and so it is in the children’s book category. But it is one of those amazing books that adults also find powerful and intriguing. It’s about a Kansas farm family in the early 1900’s. The family is OK but Anna, the oldest child, is attached to a soldier who is fighting in the war and there is constant fear of influenza. In one scene while our family is traveling to town they see a large bonfire off in the distance. Approaching the fire they spot a tiny wooden coffin. Another family is warming the ground so they can dig a grave to bury a little one who has succumbed to the flu. It’s very powerful.
But this book is mostly about forgiveness. Grandfather (John) shows up unexpectedly. His son (Jacob) thought his father was dead and does not understand how he could have left and not stayed in contact over these many years. John is incredibly angry. Slowly, Grandfather makes his way into the hearts of the family, but not John, who cannot find it in his heart to forgive.
There are a number of small climaxes in the book but it comes down to the last few pages whether or not Jacob forgives John – who has his bag packed and is ready to leave. This little series was a breakthrough set of books for my students. The conversations we had about the readings were breathtaking. The kids were not just learning to read but learning to love literature. I think every single child looked forward to reading and talking about this book. Every child. That in itself is pretty amazing.
So Thursday we were on the last two chapters. Everyone wanted to know what was going to happen. We were reading, talking at the page breaks, making predictions, anticipating, discussing writer’s craft, being amazed at how the author could make us love these fictional characters with her well-chosen words. Curricular Heaven Heidi would have called it. Only a few pages to go. Everyone hanging on every word. I was reading this last chunk aloud while the kids were following along in their books.
But I had to keep stopping. My voice cracked a few times. The kids kept looking up expecting me to read on. Silently urging me to finish. Well, I wasn’t about to cry in front of them, so I kept pausing, waiting for the emotion to pass so I could continue.
I did finish. It was extremely satisfying. There was an immediate buzz as kids wanted to share their thoughts about the story. We went around the circle sharing ideas. When it came to my turn I said that this kind of story is sort of hard for me to read aloud. “The characters are so real to me. The emotions so strong.” They know me pretty well so they understood without me saying too much. “Anyway, that’s why I had to stop so often. I guess I’m just…” I paused searching for the right word.
After a few seconds a little girl filled in for me, “… A wimp?!” The class burst out laughing.
Another little one came to my rescue, “He’s just sensitive.”
Of course everyone had to fill in their own adjectives at this point. “A big baby?” “Sweet?” “Emotional?” “A great reader?” “Sissy?” I guess that I’m all of these things. But I believe that my students got something huge out of this shared reading. This book, and these books, went so far beyond teaching reading skills or reading comprehension. This writer taught us clearly how to make ink on paper come to life in our minds. No set of exercises can do that, only sharing wonderful books with best friends. It’s the difference between teaching reading and living and learning with readers. No comparison.
Teaching second graders is a great gig.