I didn’t read much as a kid. Playing games and romping around outside was more my style. The power of a good book didn’t become apparent to me until 8th grade when I was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird. It made me feel things.
What? Books can be engaging, amusing and address infuriating issues that matter?
So I began reading thick books and eventually majored in English education. But I didn’t discover a love of children’s books until I became an adult with a small house, full of young kids. Sure, the idea of weekly library visits and daily sofa-snuggles was charming but I never would have guessed how much I would learn from the picture books we would come to read and reread.
It was a tough season for me. My husband and I had moved from our college town to my hometown. I was excited to be near my family of origin. We bought our first house and within a year, were expecting our first child, who was quickly followed by three more children. My parents’ marriage was falling apart. We saw them regularly but they were dealing with a lot and could not offer the kind of support that comes from a place of stability. My husband’s job was stressful; he was working long hours and traveling often. It was a lonely-ish season, though with 4 little ones, I was almost never alone.
Prior to our move, good books and a great community of friends had been consistent sources of encouragement. I had always been surrounded with an amazing group of friends. Both in high school and college, my friends were people I enjoyed and respected; the type of friends with whom belly-laughs were frequent and below-the-surface conversations felt natural and easy. They challenged me toward growth!
But apparently, in adulthood, making friends would take time and energy. I didn’t have either. My time and energy were going toward daily life with the wonderful little people looking to me for food, fun and comfort. I played Uno with them on the living room floor, ‘soccer showdowns’ with them in the front yard, tag at the park, read them books on the sofa, taught them songs in the car and how to make oatmeal in the kitchen. I wouldn’t trade that work for anything. It was good, important work, and I knew it. I also knew that there were other parents doing all that and pursuing careers, hobbies and adult friendships. But at the time, I was managing all I could.
This was not the season for me to go backpacking on the weekends, update my resume on weekday mornings or read Flannery O’Connor during the evenings. By the time I was climbing into bed each night, my energy was sapped and I was doing well to read half a page in the book resting on my bedside table before turning out the lamp.
As I look back on that season of surviving through precious days that felt both incredibly beautiful and impossibly long, the small places where encouragement was found, shine brightly. And for me, one of those places was children’s books. We discovered weekly library visits and the joy of having an ever-overflowing basket of books beside the sofa. I would sit down with one child on my lap, two on my right, one on my left, and open book after book. The kids would argue over the spot with the best view, I would try to remind myself to be the metaphorical thermostat and not the thermometer in our home, and would begin to read. We encountered sweet stories, gorgeous artwork, brilliant writing, hilarious dialogue, inspiring characters and full-of-wisdom themes that felt both gentle and relevant.
Cynthia Rylant’s stories were fun and cozy. Her character, Mrs. Teaberry (from Mr. Putter and Tabby), became one of my heroes. Maybe I wasn’t in the right life-season to go “shuck oysters with the girls” or take scuba diving classes or join a baseball team, but Mrs. Teaberry seemed to be around 70 years old and she was doing all that and cooking up tasty treats for Mr. Putter, her best friend and neighbor. Maybe there was still time for me. Maybe I just needed to embrace the season I was in, knowing it wouldn’t last forever.
Mo Willems’ books made me laugh out loud. Kate Dicamillo found words for complex emotions that were relatable. Kayla Harren’s enchanting illustrations helped me to see magic in the everyday. I was challenged to rethink my morning routine by Arnold Lobel, whose main character in Uncle Elephant, begins each day by going outside to ‘ trumpet the dawn.’ How simple and beautiful and life-giving! Surely there was something in his example that could be applied, even for those of us who are neither elephants nor uncles.
In Chester’s Way, Kevin Henkes taught me the importance of accepting new friends who are vastly different from myself. His character, Lilly, is a force. Of awesomeness. In Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Henkes taught me the power of relational repair. In Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney taught me about the individuality involved in finding ways to add beauty to the world. Beverly Cleary (in the Ramona series) and Abby Hanlon (in the Dory Fantasmagory series) wrote with humor and compassion about children that seemed real. My daily experience with the ways of kids felt seen and honored. And what is more encouraging than that?
All of the above books (and so many more!) became part of who I am as a person. They also became a part of our family. We still reference them often, as life happens and situations we find ourselves in feel familiar. Indeed, we have been on so many literary adventures together! And those adventures taught me a lot. But more importantly, they sparked delight in the present as well as hope in a future that would prove to be a different kind of wonderful in each season.
Featured image by gpointstudio
- The Power of Children’s Books to Teach, Uplift and Inspire - March 6, 2023