Not Just for Children
It’s a quiet Sunday morning. The drive towards DC is uneventful, with very little traffic. I am looking forward to spending a few hours with my friend, LoriS, talking about books.
Trees line her street of 1930’s red brick row houses. She is in the middle of the block. I walk past her yard, it's wild with flowers, to her covered front porch. I love her original front door. It appears short by modern standards because the top is arched. It sticks a little as Lori as opens it for me.
Inside, her home is neat and cozy, with soft neutral walls next to dark wood window frames and doors. We walk through the front room, past a large deep couch and comfortable chairs. Art is everywhere. A paper mache animal fills up one corner. It’s as big as a great Dane with it's four legs that sprawled out, as if it is about to lay down. Her soon to be off to college daughter made it. There are paintings on the walls, some by her and some by her grandmother.
We make our way to the back of the house to the dining room and kitchen. A wall between the two was removed years ago, letting sunlight from the back deck spill into the room. I am there to talk with Lori about books and she is prepared. Not only are there several stacks of books but she has set out some food for us. She loves to cook. I reach for the small plate of sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and slivers of bell pepper. Two large plates sit next to the stove, from which a perfectly prepared quiche will soon emerge.
The books are big, most are almost 12 inches square, and they are thin, not a lot of pages. These are just a few of the countless books Lori has saved over 42 years of teaching kindergarten in two countries.
We step outside to take a look at her porch garden. The containers are full and green. Back inside, we eat. The quiche smells warm and inviting. The spinach and kale baked into it is soft and bursts with flavor.
The conversation steers easily to the books she has gathered. She pulls one out and says it is one of the books she shares with her class each year.
She holds the big book in her hands, and shares her philosophy of why she chooses the books that she does. She looks for meaning in every book, meaning she can share with the kids and sometimes they find the meaning for themselves. She looks for books with distinctive art, that will stimulate their minds and imagination.
"I use this book early in the year." she says. There is symmetry in her choosing a book about shapes, it opens our journey into her world.
Before I even know the name of the book, Lori opens it. She holds the bottom of the middle in her left hand and opens it, smoothing the flat as she turns the book so we both can see it. The move is familiar, and effortless. She has probably done this hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and her hands remember. I feel like one of her lucky students, anxious to hear the story.
It is Go Shapes Go! By Denise Fleming. Lori explains how important it is to her that her students learn how to see and experience the world. She starts with shapes and colors. The book starts to get wobbly and she places it on the counter, just as a Ziploc bag falls out. She catches it and turns to the front cover, pushing the bag back into place. There are several bags, with shapes in them. She describes how she lets the children play with the shapes, to feel them, and then to draw them. She asks them to draw a person. In the beginning of the year, their drawings are often limited, missing limbs or shape. She uses the book to help them see the oval that is a face, the square shape of the shoulders, and the long slim rectangle of the arms. By the end of the year, the children are drawing full bodies in front of rich, playful backgrounds. And it all started with a book about colors and shapes.
Next up are two books Lori feels everyone should own - Love and Kisses by Sarah Wilson and Love Is by Diane Adams. They are both about the importance of giving and receiving love. Inside of the book is a sticky note from one of her students. In large newly learned letters a child has written the word “love” several time and then signed her name. It is a testament to the power of these books.
With Max's Words, by Kate Banks, Lori comments on how important the art is to her in the books. Being an artist, herself, Lori understands what it takes to visually represent a story and to evoke feelings. She appreciates the time and attention it takes to illustrate a story. And she takes time to show this to her students.
Max's Words touch my own heart. First, I am a word nerd, and love the story about a boy who collects words. As an adopted Grandma to a 3 year old, I place this book in my mental shopping cart. It is story about a little brother whose big brothers have collections of things. Max wants a collection to but he doesn’t know what to collect until he realizes he can collect words.
Lori knows her students often have to deal with the harsh realities of life, like loss. And when death is the subject, Lori shares two books that helped her through hard times - Thank You Grandpa by Lynn Plourde and Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen, both of which are stories to help children deal with loss. She shows me the care that went into the publication of Tear Soup, with it's sewn binding, meant to last through years of reading.
Hopalong Jack and the Blue Bunnies by Jeri Landers makes us both laugh out loud. Lori places the book on the counter so we can both see it and she shows me the extremely detailed drawings that cover every inch of the page. From edge to edge, and back again, the drawings are detailed and interesting.
“Can you see the blue bunny?” In all this details of course I can't. So I lean in closer. It doesn't help. She explains that every two page spread has a hidden blue bunny. She says she and her daughter spent hours locating them, and they are very well hidden. Just as I leaned toward the book, I realize all her students must have done so also, learning to discern the shapes and colors until they find the bunny.
"Rain is wet," she says. Well, sure, I think, wondering what she means by something so obvious. She shows me the title of The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, from 1949. She shows me how this book, through funny and brightly illustrated ways, helps children (and adults) see the difference between what is essential and what is accidental about things. Lori says the concept that "rain is wet" is eye opening for her students. They go from that simple concept to taking a closer look at the world around them, identifying what's important, putting words to what might seem obvious.
It is prophetic that we end our time talking about the book The Bedtime Shema by Sarah Gershman. The Shema is a short Jewish prayer acknowledging the presence of G-d. Many people choose for it to be the last words they say at night before going to sleep. It is a beautiful, blue book that walks us through the tradition, and I can imagine falling asleep with it in my hands.
I don't want to leave Lori's home but it's time. I have my notes. I took a few pictures. And I have a list of books to buy, to share with family, friends, and the children in our lives.