“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” — Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
To justify and maintain the status quo, enslaved Africans were denied access to education: punishment and death to those who presumed to teach or show ability in reading and writing. It was a matter of survival to feign being illiterate so that those in power might speak freely or leave open access to reading materials that fueled escapes, uprisings, and abolitionist movements. Juneteenth is a glaring example of slavery lasting an additional two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It took union soldiers arriving in Texas on June 19, 1865 to announce freedom. Texas slaves did not get the memo and, even if they did, they were unable to read it.
March is National Reading Month, an extension of Read Across America Day, started by the National Education Association in 1998. The idea was to get children excited about reading. We owe it to our children and the next wave of scholars and citizens to commemorate all history and reading every month. We need our Black children to embrace their identity while appreciating the cultures and identities of others as they become global and critical thinkers.
Do your children see you reading? Gone are the days of daily newspapers, big Sunday editions with magazine supplements, and comics. Now, we get our news as phone updates, favorite websites, and 24-hour news stations. The pandemic may have shut down access to the public library, but that well-known smiling truck does big business bringing books to our doorsteps.
Get “caught” reading a book. Leave it in the living room with a bookmark; talk about the author or share highlights of the storyline without spoilers; create curiosity about the lives hidden between the covers of a novel. Show your children that hard-working parents are still life-long learners who enjoy turning the page.
Establish family reading time. If you are already doing the occasional bedtime story, how can you expand it? Let the little ones tell you the stories as they point out the pictures. Do they recall the character names? Are they getting the sequence of events in the proper order? Are they showing you their ability to process information? Teachers will thank you when you send a child to school with a backpack full of “readiness”.
Do you have a “time for homework” in your house? Even if your children claim they did it at school, how about certain evenings every week, where television and social media get replaced by an hour of reading? Ask them to summarize, and to ask and answer essential questions. This increases critical thinking, stamina for lengthy passages, a deeper comprehension when the material is dense. Teachers will thank you when you send a child to school prepared for their next levels of learning.
If you are a Christian family, reading passages of scripture with an interpretation of the impact on how to navigate life is an option, especially for school-aged children. What used to be called “home-training” skipped a generation or two, and districts now offer lessons that incorporate and encourage self-awareness, self-regulation, and responsible decision-making.
You don’t need a paneled library or the revenue to purchase the newest titles. Do your homework to get the names of classic and contemporary books you might want to share with your family. Browse the used booksellers and resale shops. Many bibliophiles donate their gently used inventory to these places to make room for their new acquisitions. Stop at garage sales. A book bought for a class is now available for pennies on the dollar when families have a clear-out. If there is a bookstore near you, check the sales table. Use online coupons or promo codes if you want something new to own. Of course, following your area protocols, the public library may have socially distanced opportunities to browse. Know the title, author, and availability. Ask if you can get a curbside check out using your library card, if you still feel uncomfortable with public venues.
Across the country, schools have implemented culturally relevant materials. It may be the text purchased for a Black History course, an influx of literary and informational titles to the media centers, or sets of novels for small literary circles and whole-class assignments. This new focus also addresses other cultures and the LBGTQ community. The adventures of little blond Dick and Jane have been replaced with stories of Kesha and Abdul living, learning, and teaching our kids. Care is taken to provide grade level, and age-appropriate themes and selections. Media specialists are the new superheroes and heroines of a school district.
Is it working? I have witnessed the hardest stakeholder to reach — Black boys — frequenting school libraries to check out the next book in a series or something else by the same or similar author. I recall a student saying with joy that he had just read his only book. I quickly corrected him with, “No, sweetheart. You just read your first book.”
Remember reading “Native Son,” “Black Boy” or “A Raisin in the Sun” as a literature assignment when you were in school? Perhaps you’ve heard about Jason Reynolds, Octavia Butler and Sharon Draper. Maybe you have books by Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson, or Christopher Paul Curtis. We support our classic and new African American authors by spreading the love of reading.
How do families find information about books? For your little ones, consider web articles such as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s “30 Books That Inspire Black Boys to Create and Build Their Dreams.” Find those starter books that show “us” on the cover before you even get to the pages. Little faces light up when they see themselves. Children need to see it before they can dream to be it. You can also find authors and titles that embrace the bi-racial child and their experiences. Make it a fun, family project and start a small home library.
If you have older students, especially if they are reticent readers, explore the Young Adult genre. Some of the stories are edgy, there may be the odd bit of language, and the themes are often snatched from the headlines. However, this is the world of our 13- to 18-year-olds. If you don’t think so, check out their social media history.
As a parent, you may prefer some books over others. One source is Goodread’s “Best African American Young Adult Novels.” This is just one site that has compiled titles that range from fantasy, science-fiction, and adventure to teen romance. Many play out stories of teen concerns and how in a safe, fictional environment help, redemption and solutions are found.
There is a whole world of information and adventure just waiting for us to explore. We can travel back in time or propel ourselves into the unknown future. That little person you put to bed every night just might be inspired to be “the next big thing” in innovation or literature. It all starts with exposure to the right words. We find time for everything we deem important.
Let’s book time for books!