So at the breakfast table, my youngest, my itty-bitty youngest, got a little put out with me.
You see, she’s 5, and she is a bit, well, livid, that my columns usually deal with what her older brother and sister are reading. What’s wrong with what she’s reading? Can’t I see it’s important?
I’m telling you, she was near tears, which meant I was near tears, which meant I was going to scrap my whole column (which I’ve done) about “The Bug Girl” (a true story) by 11-year-old Sophia Spencer; it’s a beautiful book about Sophia’s lifelong passion for bugs, how it was fine for her to love bugs in kindergarten, but by first grade that had changed and her classmates were mean to her and even killed her grasshopper (I’m telling you, I never thought I would shed tears over a grasshopper, but now I have), and how her mom told her that those kids were wrong.
“It’s okay to love bugs, Sophia.”
“I know,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel like it.”
So this is not a column about that book. It’s not about how Sophia never brought a bug to school ever again, or how the other kids continued to make fun of her, or how she put all her bugs away. It’s not about how Sophia’s incredibly supportive mom went above and beyond to help her, or how she finally learned she wasn’t alone, or how she got her confidence back. This isn’t even a column about the precious illustrations or the bug facts at the end. NO. This is not a column about “The Bug Girl” (a true story). (Go get the book right now).
This is a column about Dick and Jane.
Now I know there’s a lot of criticism about Dick and Jane, primarily from adults.
“The Dick and Jane stuff was so dull,” says George R.R. Martin, author of the “Game of Thrones” series. “… My generation, the baby boomers, we had ‘Dick and Jane,’ and that couldn’t convince me to keep reading. But Batman and Superman could: they were much more interesting than Dick and Jane.”
Well, clearly Batman and Superman are more interesting … to a child who can already read.
There’s more criticism than that, of course. There are cultural criticisms, social criticisms, educational criticisms; they run the gamut. And I can’t argue with a lot of them, but what I can say is that “Dick and Jane” are books my 5-year-old can read BY HERSELF.
And boy is she proud.
There are so many books out there to read to your children or with your children. And now there is the whole “I Can Read” series, which frankly, no average 5-year-old who is halfway through kindergarten can read.
There are baby books with balls and colors and numbers, books with a few words little kids can read, books with no words little kids can read, and books little kids really, really wish they could read but can’t.
And then there is Dick and Jane.
If you want your child to be a reader, let me share a secret: they need confidence. Reading is just like anything else. There’s a reason baby spoons are a different size and shape than adult spoons, or even spoons for little kids. It’s so babies can learn to use a spoon, and use it with confidence. Of course a baby doesn’t get the spoon in its mouth on the first try, and what comes after that? Frustration, tantrums, messes all over the floor and all over the baby.
Can you imagine starting that baby off with an adult spoon, one with a handle too narrow for the baby to grip, or one that is too big to fit in its mouth? Imagine the frustration then. Imagine how long it would take for that baby to become confident with a spoon, if it ever did. Perhaps, after realizing the futility of it all, the baby wouldn’t even want to look at a spoon, let alone try to use it.
Reading is the same way.
I put all kinds of books in front of my baby girl. She wants to read them, she really does, and she is happy when she finds a word or two that she can read, but she isn’t ready for them, she just isn’t. So when she came downstairs, so proud that she had “started a new chapter” in Dick and Jane, I was proud of her too. Durn it, I was so proud, and I let her know it.
So maybe this column isn’t about Dick and Jane either. Maybe it’s a column about my little baby, and the books she needs right now, at this stage of her reading life. I would LOVE for there to be other books for her, books with economic and racial diversity, books with families that don’t fit the nuclear mold. Books that have all the repetition and the familiarity with more representation of who we are and whom we love every day.
So if you’re listening, children’s books authors, please: Can you do a generation of 5-year-olds a solid and write something just for them to read, something that will inspire confidence as a reader, something that yes, is just as important as what an older brother might be reading?
I’ve got a 5-year-old of my own who would be very, very happy to tell me all about it at the breakfast table.
Juanita Giles, a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College graduate, is the executive director and co-founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.