Teaching a child to be human

     I still have a collection of children’s books from my own childhood, yellowed and worn, my name and childhood address scrawled across the inside cover in my nine year old handwriting, as well as a few shelves of favorite picture books, chapter books and other story books, that I have read over and over to my four children before bed each night, and on summer afternoons as we sprawled across a blanket in our back yard.  Like magic, each one of those books takes me back in time, the same way an old song conjures up forgotten memories.  Instantly, I am drawn inside the story, walking alongside a stuffed brown teddy bear who is missing a button from his overalls, or I am watching from the side of the railroad tracks on a hillside as a little engine who knew he could chugs along reminding himself and me never to quit, or I am standing at the edge of my best friend’s front yard, excitedly waving to the big red dog who calls himself Clifford as he marches past me with a girl named Emily riding on his back! 

     In Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton, recognized the power that story-telling has over children; that it has the ability to teach life lessons through entertaining.  Every day a little boy goes over to see Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, (Mike’s beloved steam shovel), and Mrs. McGillicuddy takes him nice hot apple pies.  As for Henry B. Swap, (who had smiled in a mean way through out the story), he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new (Popperville) town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all. “

     Children’s stories provide adventure, escape, lessons and comfort, as they learn they are not alone in the world.  Every writer has a story to tell, and every child who reads is eager to escape into the world the writer creates for him. Nothing is impossible, or too far away, or too difficult to achieve, or too silly to take seriously, or too anything at all in the world of story-telling.

     Often, life’s greatest lessons can be learned best through the magic of story-telling.  Named after John Newbery, the author of “A Little Pretty Pocket Book” ( 1744), the Newbery Medal is awarded every year for the best children’s book.  Established in 1921 by the American Library Association, this award honors children’s writers for their ability to share the magic of story-telling while teaching a lesson.  John Newbery was a pioneer in creating the concept of entertainment in children’s literature, rather than packing children’s stories with only words of advice alone . Nr. Newbery came to understand what young readers already knew; that lessons are best learned through a good story.

     Through stories, adults, teens and young children reap the rewards of learning about love, relationships, self esteem, feelings, the pursuit of goals and dreams, and the inevitable heartbreaks and failures we are all destined to confront as humans.  Story-telling allows for life’s lessons to touch readers of all ages, but it is in our earliest years that we are most vulnerable and open, when magic is real because we want to believe, and it is then that stories can truly teach a child to be human.

      In the January 2017 edition of Writer’s Digest, Anna Dewdney, New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of the Llama Llama children’s book series, was quoted as follows:  Empathy is as important as literacy.  When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language.  We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.”   Sadly, the world lost Ms. Dewdney this year, but we are fortunate that this special part of her- the combination of her passion for writing and her passion for children, remains with us, and if we are smart enough we will connect with that magic in ourselves as we continue to reach out to young readers with our words, forever teaching children to be human.


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