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TODAY

Tuesday, April 23

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Airbags

We've got readers across the spectrum. One learned to read at 4 and is seldom without a book, even when navigating tricky social situations, such as exiting the L, or enjoying a birthday party. Over at the other end of the spectrum, we've got a boy who is reluctant to read, though if asked can puzzle out just about any word, such as "Mediterranean." The trouble he runs into is bridging the gap from one word to the next. Often the gap allows too much open space for unrelated thoughts and interests to arise. For example, if reading "hop on pop," the interval between "hop" and "on" might provide time to pose a query about how fiberglass insulation works, or why there was a civil war in the United States. And the word "pop"? Forget it.

It's difficult not to judge his lack of ability to read, and not to heap praise on his sister's natural aptitude for the written word. She learned to walk at 16 months; he learned at 11 months. He is really, really good at karate. She spends inordinate amounts of time drawing cartoons. It should come as no surprise that they have different operating systems. It is difficult, however, because we live in the fast-paced world of "reading readiness," and "jump starts." If a kid isn't reading at 6 years old, they are considered deficient. And were we in the realm of testing, I'm sure he'd be getting a full complement of them, and would very likely be given a variety of labels, as would his sister over there on the other end of the spectrum. But we've opted out of that for them, so the only labels that are getting stuck to him are the ones that come from myself.

I was labeled a daydreamer, a dawdler, a chatter, a note passer and once, in the worst year of my life, the 6th grade, a hothead. Later it was "does not apply herself" and "has a bad attitude." I'm still a daydreamer and a chatter, and a glorified note passer, and I dawdle when it's time to put laundry away or pay bills, but I've definitely picked up the pace a bit. Those labels are just fine with me because all of them can be viewed as positives. The others, though, perhaps especially "hothead," did a little damage. If the label "does not apply herself" had ended with "to things she is not interested in," it would have been accurate and acceptable. Bad attitude? I never thought so, but there were never any shortage of teachers, and later, power-tripping dormitory resident advisors and some employers who felt that my attitude was less than good. That label was part of a matched set, along with "not a team player."

When I get frustrated with this or that child's lack of interest, or lack of ability, I find those labels coming up from the depths. "She just has a bad attitude," for my daughter who hates ballet and rolls her eyes at her marvelous teacher, a teacher I would have been thrilled to have as a kid. "He's not applying himself" to my son who would rather not put pencil to the dotted line handwriting paper, and acts as though I'm forcing him into child labor when asked to do so. My 3 year old? He's a hothead.

I had a hard time paying attention in school as a child. Not during the parts of school where my teacher would have us all gather round the upright piano for a stirring version of "Somewhere My Love," from Dr. Zhivago, or when we got to make a quilt to celebrate the bicentennial (yes, I'm that old). Not during the best part of the day, SSR. Sustained silent reading. For 15 all-too-short minutes, we got to read whatever book we wanted, without someone asking a bunch of questions at the end.

It occurred to me then, though perhaps I wasn't able to put it into words, that if I could just read all the live long day, I would be perfectly happy. It occurs to me now that virtually every school-related thing I remember from my youth came out of a book I chose to read.

The Resource Center, as the school library was called in the happening 1970s, was only open to us on a biweekly basis, and most kids looked forward to leaving the classroom and walking through the halls to the old part of the school. In the main room (as opposed to the film strip center) was the coveted "reading nook," a tall plastic cylinder lined with shag carpet. Everyone wanted to get into that groovy nook and read, read, read! You had to sign up for 10 minute slots. While waiting for your turn, you had the opportunity to search the stacks for books to check out — either for pleasure reading, or books on a particular subject for upcoming "reports." Researching for those reports was what got me hooked. Hooked bad. Hooked on fictional accounts of real historical events. Those library bound biographies of Clara Barton, Sarah Crewe, Betsey Ross, Abe Lincoln, Marie Curie…all of the famous ladies and gentlemen, written about in a large and friendly typeface, with two color illustrations.

You just don't find books like that at Borders. Those you have to find in ye olde thrift shop, or at the garage sale of an elderly school teacher. Or at my new book shopping spot: Mary's Books. I discovered Mary in the vendor hall of a recent conference I attended. Walking into her stall was about as close to revisiting the Resource Center as I have come ere I left the halls of Muhlenberg Elementary School. Mary has them all. I dropped all of my book spending dough in one fell swoop, happily acquiring two new volumes of Rick Brandt Science Adventures, a nice Ursala LeGuin novel for my daughter and a couple of old school winners about Honest Abe and the father of our country, George Washington.

Chicago is lacking in children's bookstores. Women and Children First, of course, is on the list, but that's not exclusively a children's book store, though it is a nice place to visit and has a lovely children's section. The only bookstore just for kids that I was able to find is called Children In Paradise, and it's down around Rush and Michigan. I don't want to speak ill of any business that is promoting children's books, but I can think of few places in the city that I'm less likely to go than to that area. I'm sure it's a lovely bookstore, and I doubt they are lacking in business. The next time I'm off for some shopping on Michigan Avenue I'll be sure and stop in.

Good old Oak Park, the village of the families, has a lovely children's bookstore called Magic Tree Books. It's what a kids bookstore should be, with a well-rounded, friendly staff, giant fake tree and a rocking chair for the weary nursing mother to take a load off. This is our family's go-to spot for birthday presents, but Oak Park is not Chicago. Why is there not a children's bookstore in Chicago? Oak Park has proven that an independent bookstore can co-exist with a couple of chain stores down the street, so why not Chicago?

I asked an old friend who once worked at The Children's Bookstore, which closed about 10 years ago, what her thoughts on the matter were. She said the shop closed right about the same time Borders came around. "People like parking," she said, "and coffee, and train tables." I suppose it's true. People do like a nice, wide surface upon which to park their cars without having to engage in a tricky parallel parking situation. That Oak Park can support three bookstores within spitting distance of one another is a commentary on the type of people who live in Oak Park. They are apparently very bookish and like coffee, and not only can you go from bookstore to coffee shop to bookstore to coffee shop to bookstore, but they've also built the Taj Mahal of libraries in downtown Oak Park. And there is a coffee shop in the lobby of the library. And it has a heated parking garage.

I know a lot of people don't enjoy books, either for their own pleasure or their children's, and this is disturbing and sad. There are plenty of people who do, though, and I know there are plenty of them in Chicago. These people are known to shop at independently owned toy stores, which seem to thrive, so it's perplexing to me that these same parents wouldn't support a good children's bookstore. Maybe I should just shut up about it and go open one.

There is a fleet of shiny new branch libraries that have opened all over town lately. I like them, though I do have one issue. The new branches have their adult fiction on a separate floor from the children's books. This is why I still prefer my little old branch libraries. I like to be able to dash off on a random book grab for myself without having to drag the kids away from their books and go with me. Is that selfish of me? Perhaps, but I know my kids are perfectly capable of sitting and looking at a few books without going hog wild and trashing the place. Well two-thirds of them anyway, and the other one can be looked after by his siblings for a few minutes. If there is a problem, guess what? You are on the same floor, so you can keep an ear, and usually an eye out while you run over and grab a few books. I don't feel comfortable leaving the floor that my kids are on, going up a flight of steps and into a room with a closed door, however, so I think it was a bad design choice. If only the city would talk to a bunch of parents before making any decisions, we'd all be better off.

The newer branches seem to have a much better selection of audiobooks, though. We listen to a lot of books as we go about our business. Our all time, hands down favorites are the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary. The whole series is read by Stockard Channing, who does an amazing job with the characters. We also really loved the whole Borrowers series, beautifully read by Rowena Cooper. Our other hands down, all time favorites are the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books, perfectly and fabulously read by Tim Curry. The person doing the reading makes all of the difference in the world. We loved the book Ella Enchanted, but listening to it being butchered by the teenager reading it made us want to drive the van into the lake and end the torture.

Some say listening to a book is not the same as reading it, and to that I say, who cares? Why is it better to take in a story via your eyeballs than your ears? Reading is in the top ten most important things to be able to do, right up there with walking and washing your hands. We've got a kid who is an information sponge, but whose brain works in an unconventional way, and who hasn't quite ironed out the wrinkles on the reading thing. Keeping him interested in words and stories and the magic of books is how we are all going to get there with him. If it means I have to listen to Mary Pope Osbourn squeak her way through one more Magic Tree House book, then I'm willing to go there. I'll probably need a few Advil, but I'll go.

If you asked my almost-reader what his favorite things were, he'd say karate and American history, not necessarily in that order. He is more than happy to lay around and listen while someone else does the reading. Not a problem. We've got plenty of books, and access to millions more. I love to read aloud, and I'm ready to do so at the drop of a hat. There aren't going to be too many more years where I will get to have the pleasure of sitting next to or lying under the covers with a kid and reading a story together. It won't be long before he, too, is gone for hours, tucked away with a book somewhere doing some SSR. I hear him whispering as I read our story of Abraham Lincoln, figuring out the words: "lantern, Kentucky, river." He is not going to learn to read the way I did, or his Dad did, or his sister, or his friends have. Though he's on a timeline I'm not entirely comfortable with sometimes, I trust he is getting there. I'll be there with him to help bridge those gaps, and get from word to word, without flying off into another subject all together, in the space between.

~*~

Chicago's own Esme Raji Codell, author of numerous delightful books for children and adults has a terrific resource book called How To Get Your Child To Love Reading, filled to the brim with tips, fun ideas, amazing book lists and enthusiasm.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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