Every journey has a beginning. Sometimes you can begin a journey without even knowing something very special is about to start. That’s how it was when I discovered the joy of reading chapter books as a child.
When I was young, we had a two level bookshelf that my dad built with a pull out drawer underneath. It was coated with a deep mahogany wood stain. We kept all our kids books on that shelf for years. Little Golden books like The Little Tugboat, The Little Red Hen, The Three Little Pigs, The Poky Little Puppy or Eloise Wilkin stories. These delighted me as a child and I enjoyed the sweet illustrations. I’m sure we read lots of stories in the early grades at school, but most of the time I was more interested in drawing and coloring, catching hundreds of tadpoles during recess at school, playing with dolls and toy animals, riding my bike, playing Barbies, collecting special rocks in milk cartons (because every rock I found was special), perfecting my acrobatic flip on the playground bars and joining my friends in creating our very own imaginary Charlie’s Chocolate Factory in the creek behind our school. I still remember the broken tree branches that served as a trampoline and I’m amazed those branches never broke. I loved books as a young child and there were ones I treasured and now read to my little ones. But there came a day in my childhood, when I found a passageway into reading and imagination that went so much deeper and took on a whole new world of imagination. That passageway came in the form of a beloved story, Charlotte’s Web.
It was library day at my elementary school. I remember going to the older kids’ section of the library, pulling out chapter books one by one to look at the title and cover. At the time, I wasn’t interested in science fiction or fantasy. I didn’t even know what those words really meant and the cover illustrations kind of freaked me out. I just knew it was out of my comfort zone.
As I passed by book after book, I finally pulled out a hardcover book with the title, Charlotte’s Web. I paused and took a look. The name, Charlotte, was endearing and pleasant. I loved animals and farm life. Perhaps this was a book I would enjoy. I brought it to the librarian who, in those days, pulled out the little library card in the front pocket – oh I just loved this part – and she, an elderly woman who wore bifocals on the tip of her nose, looked down at me through her glasses with that same stern, curious expression. Taking her date stamp, she pressed it into the black ink and stamped the card with the date that I was to return the book. I always said thank you, smiled and carried my book back to my classroom. I didn’t realize, but this was the beginning of my chapter book journey.
I was enthralled with this story about a little girl named Fern and her pet pig Wilbur, and of course, I then wanted to move to a farm and have a pet pig of my own to raise. I can’t remember all the ways the story intrigued me or moved me, but I remember reading voraciously with an excitement that surprised me and settled deep in my heart.
When I finished the book, I experienced a sense of satisfaction that I had not had before in reading. This story had somehow changed me. I also knew that I had accomplished something great. And in truth, I had! Reading a chapter book that makes you want to read more chapter books is a monumental step in reading. And if its a good book, a living book, it can be formative. For me, it was. I returned the book, knowing that I had met a sort of “old friend” in this story and that it would be one I would read again.
A few years ago, I began reading chapter books to my children, and what was the first one? Charlotte’s Web. As my third baby rested at naptime, I would read to my older two and we would dive into the world of the Arables and the barnyard at Zuckerman Farm together. It was a joy to share this story with my little ones. We have a tradition of reading a book first and then watching the movie. We have done this with several books already and are currently working on more! The kids love knowing that they will then see the story they have imagined in their own minds brought to life in film.
As my daughter now enters the world of reading chapter books on her own, I am remembering all the ones that formed me as a young girl and shaped the way I view life, family, heritage, God, and my purpose in life. I already see the ways the books we have read together have formed the imaginations of my children with the obvious example that the woods behind our home have been affectionately named Narnia! One day, they will be choosing their own chapter books to read. For now, I plant seeds of living books and story-formed imagination that will hopefully, one day, be stepping stones for their own journey of enjoyment in reading.