Now, which of the Maine Crime Writers would be most likely to write about Children’s Book Week? So far as I know, only Kaitlyn Dunnet and I have written for children, and Kaitlyn hasn’t done it for a while, so, yes, this is Lea Wait. Because, much as I love mysteries, I have to admit (sh!!!) that I love GOOD books for children even more. Besides — not only do children love mysteries – they grow up to love mysteries. I’ve even seen that with my own books; young people who at age ten or eleven wrote me fan letters telling me Wintering Well was their very favorite book, are now, seven or eight years later, writing email notes saying they’re reading my Shadows mystery series. Now — how cool is that? I’m growing my own readers!
Perhaps strangely, I didn’t read many books for children until I was what today would be termed a “YA” – someone over the age of fourteen – and worked after school shelving books in my local library’s children’s department. I’d been reading adult books since I was in fourth or fifth grade and had moved beyond Betty Cavana and Walter Farley. Finally, in high school, I discovered Dr. Doolittle and Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows and hid behind the card catalog to read the picture books I’d missed as a child. I loved them all.
As a drama major in college I wrote plays for children’s theatre; my master’s thesis compared the role of the mother in teen literature of the fifties and sixties. By then I’d discovered fantasy and science fiction for young people, and was fascinated by trying to separate them. (You tell me — which did Madeleine L’Engle write?) Every year, even on a tight budget, I bought more children’s books for my growing collection. Of course, I had to have the classics. And I had to have every Newbery as they were awarded. Why? I told people they were for the children I’d have some day.
And then, when I was thirty, my first daughter arrived home, aged 4 1/2, from Thailand. She didn’t speak English, of course, but every night I read to her. I read to her sisters, too, when they came home. I’ll admit that by the time my fourth daughter joined us I wasn’t reading as much — she was almost ten, her sisters were teenagers, and the household was a bit chaotic. But it was a house full of books.
But no matter what people say, reading out loud doesn’t work miracles. None of my girls became great readers. Oh, yes, they read. One loved Stephen King. One discovered romances in high school and still loses herself in them. One became fascinated by King Arthur’s story. Only one didn’t read at all, because she had a serious learning disability. But none of them poured through shelves the way I had.
When my grandchildren were born, I gifted each of them with a bookcase, and promised to keep it full of books. One of the eight is a reader. Another is just starting, and there is reader potential there. I’m watching closely.
I choose their books carefully, hoping to ensnare them with words or pictures. I keep hoping they’ll find in books at least a bit of what I’ve found: places to escape to. People to learn from. Adventures to experience without risk. A way to learn about the world, and the people in it. A way to learn about yourself.
So – this is Children’s Book Week. A time to be reminded that children, and their books, are important. The books children choose to read, and that are chosen for them, are important. They help frame part of a child’s world. And – I firmly believe – the best children’s books today are among the best books being written today.
So – celebrate! Read a children’s book! Or a YA. And then share that book with a young person. Discuss it. Find out what THEY think about it. Organize a book group at your local school or library. Maybe a mystery group. Or a group for just girls. Or fathers and sons. Contact the author of the book your group reads and ask him or her to Skype with your group – many will! Be creative. But do something to encourage reading. The way we access the world is changing – but words are still critical ways to understand and interpret it.
Every one of us can do something to get those words – and books – to the youngest generation. In this world of screens and images, it may be one of the most important tasks we have.