In light of our recent grant from First Book we decided to ask our authors to reflect on the idea of receiving one’s very first book. Guest blogger, author Joseph Bruchac talks about the influence books have had on his life and the continued importance of books in the lives of children today.
What does a book mean to a child? A book all his or her own? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have books. I was raised by my grandparents in a house full of books that belonged to my grandmother. I loved to pull the books off the shelves and look through them, even when I didn’t understand most of the words.
But what meant the most to me was having my own books. It wasn’t easy to get books when I was a child. This was long before Borders, Barnes & Noble, and ordering books online. We lived in a small rural town, far from the nearest bookstore. One of the most exciting things for me was when my grandmother drove me to Glens Falls, twenty miles away, where there was a bookstore with a small children’s section. For the two dollars saved from my monthly allowance, I could buy a book—usually about nature—such as one of those in the Old Mother West Wind series by Thornton W. Burgess. All the way home I’d sit in the back of our old blue Plymouth, clutching that new book, eager to open its pages and be lost in the world it created for me.
That was more than sixty years ago. Do books still hold that sort of magic for children? Is having a book of one’s very own meaningful to a child in the 21st century when mobile devices make it possible to connect with the world in ways unimaginable in my childhood?
I firmly believe the answer is yes. It’s not just because I write books for young readers. My belief is based on what I’ve seen and continue to see when I visit schools. Kids cherish their books. Sometimes they express it to me in person or through letters and e-mails that they write to me, saying how much they’ve enjoyed a book, asking questions, and even offering suggestions for additional books I ought to write about the same character. When I see fifty excited third graders standing in line waiting for their chance to have their books signed by the author, I am certain that connection between children and a personal copy of a book is still strong.
I’ve seen this connection in children from every conceivable ethnic and economic background. It’s been my good fortune to be able to frequently visit schools on Indian reservations and in inner cities. There, rather than having a home full of books, children’s own first book may be the only one in the house.
Several years ago I did author visits to schools on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is perhaps the most economically disadvantaged community in the United States, situated far from any place where jobs can be found. Even the water on most of the rez is undrinkable and pure water must be brought in by tanker trucks. Levels of alcoholism, suicide, and abuse are shockingly high. Yet some of the finest people I’ve ever met still live on Pine Ridge.
“Know how many kids we have living with us?”
I shook my head.
“Eleven,” he said. “Only four of them are ours. The rest are all kids who were homeless.”
I just nodded. He wasn’t looking for praise, simply letting me know how things were. The traditional Lakota way is to view all children as your own, to care for any child in need.
Then he smiled. “Today,” he said, “every one of those kids is going to get a book.”
And later that day, when one of those children handed me her copy of my book Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path, she said, “I really like where this book takes me.”