The other day, a sixth grader approached me when I was standing at the circulation desk. “Have you read Mountain Dog?” He asked.
Students approach me about books like this all the time. It’s my favorite part of the day. Sometimes it’s to talk about how much they loved a book – sometimes it’s to rant about how it drove them crazy. No matter what the verdict, it always teaches me something about the reader, the book, and about myself. Putting down my planner, I turned and tapped on my circulation computer to look it up. “The one by Margarita Engle? No, I haven’t. Should I? Is it good?”
His eyes grew round and large and he leaned across the desk toward me. “You’ve never read it? It’s amazing. I’ve read it a million times. It was my childhood book.”
“Your childhood book?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“You know, my childhood book. The book that I read over and over as a kid. Not a picture book, that’s my baby book. I mean my favorite kid book. This book made me want to read. Our library has three copies.”
I sat for a moment, speechless. How could I respond to such a thoughtful statement?
“Let’s go find it. I want to read it right now.”
Without looking at the computer, he lead me directly over to the back corner where the book was waiting. He was right – I had my pick of three copies. I brushed the rest of my to be read pile aside and put Mountain Dog on top.
Last night, as I settled in to begin the book, I had to stop for a moment. Stories can be so powerful. “It was my childhood book,” he had said. Isn’t that the most beautiful sentiment? That a book, a collection of words printed on pages, can mean so much to a child that they remember it as the core of their childhood? It’s the kind of thing you would expect to hear from, oh, I don’t know, an over-emotional librarian (eh hem), not from a middle school student. He made me wonder – how many of my students have a “childhood book”? And – perhaps even more importantly – how many don’t? How many never found it? How many are still looking to find theirs? How many are reading theirs for the first time right now? The fifth? The twelfth?
In a world of letter grades, standardized test scores, and college prep stress, the love of reading isn’t always easy to maintain. The moment something becomes a requirement instead of a hobby, the feeling starts to change. Teachers everywhere are incredible multi-taskers, unbelievably balancing their hundreds of expectations and requirements in one hand while they do their best to create joy and magic with the other – but it is hard to teach a love of reading. You can model it, you can talk about it, you can share what has sparked the flame for you personally – but you can’t force it. You can’t grade it. All you can do is sit back and guide and support and hope that under your loving care, a reader will find it.
Their childhood book.
Because that book will change everything.
I finished Mountain Dog last night. And he was right. It was great. I cried through the last few pages of the book, but it was only partly because of the gentle way Gabe and Leo took Tony in, gave him a home, and made him feel worthwhile. It was also because I couldn’t help but feel the love that my student had for this story, and the importance of the way that he had shared it with me. Creating a connection over a life-changing book is the rarest, most powerful, and most enviable part of my job. JP, thank you for sharing your childhood book with me. Thanks to you, this book has shaped my life, as well.