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  • Writer's pictureBenay Hicks

On Second Grade Readers, or Why It Really Isn’t Safe to Read Children’s Books Without Ch

By Daniele Berman, Communications and Events Manager

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to bring a live chat with National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson as well as copies of her award-winning book The Day You Begin to several classes at Hope Valley Elementary School in Durham. The live chat was coordinated by First Book, and it gave children all over the country the opportunity to submit questions to Woodson and hear her answers to things like how she became a writer and what inspired her to write this particular story.

Before the live chat began, I read the book with a classroom of second graders. If you don’t know the book – which just happens to have been Book Harvest’s one millionth book – it’s a beautifully illustrated story of a girl named Angelina and how she sometimes feels like she doesn’t fit in. In fact, every child in the story sometimes feels like an outsider: whether it is because of their skin color, their accent, their lunchbox contents, or the activities that filled their summer break, each of the children in the book experiences the unpleasant feeling of being different from everyone else at school. By the end of the story, Rigoberto from Venezuela has shared that his little sister has the same name as Angelina, and all the children have realized how much they have in common as well as how wonderful it is to be surrounded by so many people with so many different traditions and stories.

As I closed the book, I asked the second graders what they thought of it. Did they have any questions? Did they ever feel like Angelina or Rigoberto? What did they wonder about or want to learn from Woodson in the live chat?

One little boy piped up immediately: he wanted to know why the table in one of the photos was painted to look like a ruler. Confession? I had never noticed that detail. In fact, we discovered that there are several pages with rulers masquerading as other things: a door, a tree, another table. Second confession? This wasn’t exactly the question I anticipated discussing. But we did discuss it, of course, how an illustrator gets to make decisions about his art and how one of the things about being a creator – illustrator or author or artist or any sort of creator – is that you can do things like turn a ruler into a table or paint a pink tree. And of course, it’s a book about kids and school, so a ruler certainly isn’t out of place.

As we waited for the live broadcast to begin, the children wrote down questions that they hoped Woodson would answer. This same little boy excitedly showed me his question: “Why is the table made of a ruler?” I promised him that if Woodson didn’t address it live, I’d make sure we got it sent to Rafael Lopez, the book’s illustrator.

You can imagine my surprise when the very first thing Woodson asked the students after she read the book aloud was whether they had noticed all the rulers! She shared how much she loved this decision Lopez had made and why it was so significant: from the very first page, the rulers represented all the ways we measure ourselves against one another and compare ourselves to each other. Woodson pointed out that by the end of the book, there were no more rulers in the artwork because Angelina had learned that she didn’t need to make those measurements and comparisons anymore.

Suddenly, a book I have read dozens of times took on a whole new dimension for me. I had studied the artwork on those pages, choosing the “best” pictures to focus on as we celebrated our millionth book moment. I had thought long and hard about the messages of Woodson’s words, about inclusion and diversity, about how Rigoberto’s name rolls off the tongue “like flowers blooming the first bright notes of a song” and how rice really is the most popular food in the world. But I had missed the beautiful detail that, even on the very first page, the door through which Angelina enters the story is a representation of how she measures herself. The tree on the page where the boy gets left out at recess because he isn’t fast enough is a ruler, as is the lunch table where Nadja turns her nose up at her friend’s kimchi.

So I can’t say for sure what each of those second graders learned from their live chat with Jacqueline Woodson. But I can tell you this: I learned how important it is to make sure that we’re reading children’s books with children. How will we ever fully understand the stories otherwise?

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