Uncategorized | July 28, 2011

I found this photo of me (left, fruit-themed outfit), and my older brother Max (right, white socks, black shoes) on either side of a melancholy Clifford (middle, big, red, dog). The photo represents the summertime task my parents took on when the teachers I idolized weren’t passing out book lists or asking me to read aloud. Really, their effort was year-round and lifelong, but during the school months books lived in syllabi, Scholastic catalogues, library posters, and alphabetized shelves. They were always contained.

I was a girl who was comfortable in that containment and rolled my eyes at those motivated to read with the opportunity to sit in a beanbag chair or wear a silly hat for the day. I was quiet, analytical, and practically smoking a pipe by the age of eight. Now entering my senior year of college, I have seen my brow furrow under the weighted seriousness of academia by the end of each semester. Summer continuously reminds me of the moments that made reading and writing important to me and those moments have little to do with containment. I have always enjoyed books, but knowing their power may have begun with shaking Clifford’s paw. By dressing us poorly then showing us how literature could be larger than life, or at least, taller than Max, my parents instilled an authority in reading that has made me feel both small and big, but never stifled.

Efforts to make reading fun can seem gimmicky. I work at the public library and sometimes wonder how effective the magician, banjo band, and yo-yo tutorial are in encouraging reading, but then I remember places like The Reading Reptile. Their summer events this year included such intriguing workshops as “Ugly Dolls,” “String Games,” and “Drums.” Days spent at this highly creative Kansas City bookstore were another summer event for our family. A day spent making a paper doll in The Reading Reptile was a day that gave a sense of awe to imagining, creating, and to the surrounding books that a gold star on a classroom chart couldn’t always do. In my panicked soon-to-be-post-grad search for a life goal, a list once filled with graduate schools and internships is unofficially being narrowed down to opportunities for me to be an educator. In my research I’ve found programs on the scale of 826National whose eight locations throughout the country offer free tutoring in any subject and writing workshops. Each center has a different themed storefront to intice and inspire kids, from Ann Arbor’s Robot Supply and Repair Store to Boston’s Bigfoot Research Institute. I encourage everyone to seek out your local library, bookstore, or nonprofit learning centers and volunteer to help glue googly eyes on a felt pom-pom. Crafts don’t necessarily inspire literary power. It’s the realization that you have created a sock puppet with the same kind of imagination that created the furry, red, dog you once stood next to in awe. That realization one day becomes the unparalleled power you feel reading your own words aloud to an audience who is listening.

Children are rightfully on the receiving end of creative efforts to encourage literacy, but it often means that adults lose sight of moments when literature made them feel small enough to realize its greatness. A recent trip home to watch the Kansas City Royals (admirably) lose reminded me of the importance of keeping that big, bizarre, summertime attitude toward reading, even as I grow up. During the car ride after the game with my dad and brothers, I was being awake, coherent, and not blinking that much, when I spotted a giant, yellow pencil. The eraser exceeded the trees and water tower in the skyline minutes from our house. For months our suburb awaited the opening of a Chick-fil-A, but a pencil-shaped radio tower had somehow gone unmentioned. We drove for an hour trying to reach what we hoped would be the sharpened point. After clearing some brush, we had found the pencil as well as a convenient, brush-free parking lot. My younger brother Noah said, “You can see this from the junior high,” the school he is leaving this year for the high school (across the street from Chick-fil-A). I was the smallest I had ever been in relation to a pencil, but not the way I felt small being a girl in junior high. I remembered what it was like to be in eighth-grade and wondered what it would have meant to me to look out of a classroom window and to know that I could harness that kind of bigness.

I have seen authors give inspirational lectures from behind podiums and I have been enlightened with analysis from behind a school desk. Without these elements a giant pencil would just be a giant pencil. I like to put books back in their place at the library and a little pipe tobacco never hurt anyone, but still, when summer arrives uncontained, I will always pull over at a literary roadside oddity and I will never pass up the opportunity to see a life-size, dog puppet give a reading.