Episode 2 - Life Begins with Books - TRANSCRIPT

KELLY: “It’s really about the magic of sharing books; that’s what leads children to become readers.”


This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.


(page turn sound)

I want to start this exploration at the beginning but the beginning is hard to pin down. So I’ve chosen two beginnings. One is the beginning of American Picture Books as we know them today. I’ll come back to that one. The other is the beginning of your life. Yours, mine and many peoples. Let’s start with that for now and think through what it is like when we come into being.

(audio of baby Clara crying)

I remember feeling so unprepared when I was getting ready for the arrival of each of my babies. Especially the first. I wondered if I had everything I needed. The staff at Babies R Us certainly thought I didn’t. But I also remember someone older and wiser assuring me that - as long as the baby had food to eat and clothes to keep it warm, it would have all the things it needed. That made it a lot easier to feel ready.

It turns out - when a baby’s born … warmth and … not just food but … let’s say input in a broader sense … are essential in more ways than one. My new favorite parenting book, which, by the way, is not marketed as a parenting book but which totally should be - is Child Psychology: A Very Short Introduction by Usha Goswami. It’s part of the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press. Maybe you’ve seen them? They’re very slim volumes but incredibly dense. Basic, but thorough. Sort of like an erudite version of The Idiot’s Guide or something but with a more sophisticated looking cover. Anyway, I have found these books to be a good way to learn about something if - for example - you wish you had had the forethought in college to take a child development class but didn’t because you were too busy taking literature courses above and beyond what you actually needed for your degree because you were young and had a one-track mind.

Ahem. Well, anyway - I’ve been reading in my Very Short Introduction to Child Psychology that studies show that “warmth and responsive contingency are key to optimal developmental outcomes.” Responsive contingency just means responding to the child’s needs and keeping your focus on what the child is focused on. And warmth. Well, you know what warmth is.

One more thing that contributes to “optimal developmental outcomes” is language - both quality and quantity. The child’s brain is described in this book as being “a learning machine” that requires sufficient input to learn effectively. Studies show that the more utterances a child hears, the more effectively they can develop knowledge about language structure and sound. And higher quality language - more complex language - stimulates cognitive development and these both - quality & quantity - have a deep impact not just on intellectual skills but on emotional skills like resolving conflicts with peers.

And a great way to foster language development (and thus improve cognitive and socio-emotional function) is (you guessed it) books.

KELLY: Books are often central to those kinds of warm positive interactions that we know make a difference in overall development

This is Dr. Kelly Baker. She’s a friend of our family’s in Oklahoma. She’s been a big supporter of my project from the get-go. She’s also a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Central Oklahoma

KELLY: my work really focuses on preparing teachers for a Pre k through third grade in particular at teaching young children or actually with our graduate classes of course supporting existing teachers, those who are already teaching in their work with young children and their families. And then, and then if you were to ask me my passion, emily, I guess, um, I would say that my passion is that school would really be a place of joy as well as authentic intellectual stimulation for, for young children. And I, I, uh, I just mean that very sincerely. I'm, I'm a great believer that children, young children are very capable learners. But I also believe that learning should be joyful.

As I talked with Kelly I kept thinking about the idea of a child’s brain as a learning machine - about how they start learning right out of the gate. About how so many of these “warm and positive interactions” at the beginning are laying an invisible foundation for so much else in a child’s life. The deep impact of each phase of development- and the steady transformation that a child experiences - it all starts right then and there at the beginning.

KELLY: So we, we really do understand that the relationships that children form with the important adults in their lives matter greatly in terms of all of their future development and learning and um, you know, ultimately who they, who they will become. So I think that what we understand about the role that books play in that, I think I would say it this way, books are often central to creating the warm interactions between adults and children. And so those warm, positive interactions are, um, you know, that that's just another way to talk about the kinds of messages that children are receiving from adults. So in other words, when children are sitting in the laps of their parents or even, I don't even, I don't even say circle that because I like for children in the classroom to be really up close, huddled up, close to, you know, to see the picture and the teacher being down close to them.

KELLY: So when children are experiencing that, you know, a, a real lay person's way to talk about that is, it just feels good. If it's, um, I like this, this, uh, this, this is, this is comforting sometimes for me. This is often the part of the day that I most look forward to and because I liked this and it feels good to me, I also feel very connected. It's almost like a reciprocal, I love this event. And so it makes me love this person more or I love this person more. So it makes me love this event more. It's almost like a kind of a two way reciprocal support for the relationship and the love of books. And I was reading an article recently, and I'm sad that I don't have the, the, uh, the information on the tip of my tongue, but I'm, the author was saying that, you know, and that for some children, reading with significant adults really leads to a love affair with books. And, um, and I think about it that way and I think that, uh, you know, what we understand about child development and the science of the brain simply tells us that those warm, positive relationships are necessary.

In this idea of the reciprocal support and the critical relationships that are built around reading, I am recognizing in her descriptions this … this alchemy, as I sometimes call it,  that occurs when a child and an adult read together. Of course, no one in the modern field of Child Development is going to call it alchemy. Alchemy is what medieval practitioners did to attempt to turn lead into gold (among other things). But I think alchemy is another fair metaphor for this transformative power that books wield on all of us as readers.

Now I said we’d look at the beginning of your life, my life, many people’s lives. But I think it’s important here to recognize that not everyone comes from a place of privilege where books are abundant. But … there’s something really encouraging in the way Kelly acknowledges the powerful strides that teachers can make with any kids, no matter their background.

KELLY: You know, we, we can't guarantee that children are going to have those kinds of warm positive book experiences early in life. We, we can't guarantee that we would love that. But what we can guarantee is that when they come to us in school, regardless of what they've had in the home, we can start right then and there. And it's never helpful to look at a child as behind because they haven't had book experience. And it's, it's never helpful to, you know, put blame on a family. What we can do is we can start right then and there making books central for this child and making reading joyful and then really empowering those families as much as possible um to see their own competence in, in sharing books in their home.

And the way that reading together can transform us - regardless of - or in spite of - where we start - I think that’s magical.

KELLY: Oh, so one more thing. I have this wonderful little book that I share it with my students, but I also share it with parents any opportunity that I, anytime I get an opportunity to speak with a group of parents and it's just a little book called read to your bunny. And I don't know if you've ever, if you've ever seen it, it, it has a great little preface from, you know, T Berry Brazelton who's a renowned pediatrician. Um, and it's, it's, it's really a poem made into a book, but it basically, it says, “read to your Bunny often it's 20 minutes of fun, 20 minutes of moonlight, 20 minutes of Sun, read to your 20 old favorite minutes, 20 minutes brand new read to your bunny often” and then of course the last page is “your Bunny will read to you.” And so I sort of try to help my students see that it's almost that simple. It really is almost that simple, you know, this whole idea that we want children to become readers and you know, of course there's great value in that, but I love that this book reminds us that it's really about the magic of sharing the books. That's, that's what leads children to become readers.

I recently learned that Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, whom Kelly mentioned, passed away in March of 2018 at the age of 99. And I want to read you a few passages from the obituary in the New York Times to ground us in the profound impact that he had on child development today. According to Dr Barry Lester, a fellow pediatrician quoted in the New York Times, Dr Brazelton “put the baby at the center of the universe.” His work as well as that of Dr. Benjamin Spock completely upended the conventional wisdom in the first half of the last century, conventional wisdom that actually discouraged warm things like kissing and cuddling and encouraged cold things like distance from a child during illness.

According to the New York TIMES, the more Dr Brazelton “worked with newborns, the more he realized that they are complex, responsive and competent at birth, using behavior as their language. ”

“His advice to parents: Learn to read your baby’s language. Look at your baby. He will tell you what he needs.”

It is fitting, then, that Dr Brazelton’s 2013 memoir is titled “Learning to Listen.”  

Here’s Will Schwalbe again, whom we heard from in episode one.  

WILL: “One of the great things about reading is that … it’s a kind of radical listening. And when you read you can talk all you want but it doesn’t change the words on the page … this is a kind of listening that we really don’t do enough of in our society. …”

EMILY: “That ability to listen to my kids has made all the difference in the world.”

WILL: “You kind of have to listen when you read. There’s nothing else you can do. …”

(page turn sound)

As I was thinking through the metaphor of magic, the mail arrived. It was the fall issue of the USA Philatelic catalog. Perhaps, if you are a stamp enthusiast like me, you may be familiar with this publication.

In this issue there’s an article offering a brief explanation of the process behind The Art of Magic stamps issued in August 2018.

In consultation with magician and expert BJ Bueno, Greg Breeding, art director at the USPS, isolated 5 categories of magic to represent in these stamps: those categories are production, prediction, levitation, vanishing, and transformation. Production is - obviously, making an object appear out of thin air, prediction is the sort of crystal ball type trick where the magician inexplicably knows exactly what you’re going to think,do or, say. Levitation - obviously - we’ve all seen the David Blaine videos, right? Moving on to 4 and 5 - vanishing and transformation.

And that’s where it hit me. You know what else is magic besides books and reading? And, well, magic?

Parenting! Or children. Or, I don’t know - both of us. All of us.

I mean, tell me any of you with children, haven’t you stared down at your infant child and wondered “where did she come from” - out of thin air, right? That’s production.

Or - tell me haven’t you done the math to see what year she’ll graduate and tried to imagine what she’s going to be when she grows up or maybe just tried to anticipate what kind of tantrum she’ll throw today. Any of that is prediction, right?

Levitation - well, this one’s a bit of a stretch but bear with me. you know how when you watch David Blaine do his levitation thing or you see the stage show with the woman suspended in thin air and the magician slides a hoop around her body proving that there are no strings attached … well, I don’t know. I think I’ve had those moments - moments where I’ve watched my kid step out in front of her crowd and sing her song and do her dance without me helping her … or I watch her ride her bike without me holding onto her. In those moments, when no one is there helping her … She’s just doing her thing. All by herself. She’s doing it. No strings attached.

And transformation - well that’s all that childhood is, it seems. My kids say things like “we always have to clean our room” or “you never let us have candy” - these always/never statements make it seem as though we’ve trapped them in some horrible hell of sameness and maybe we feel stuck in limbo ourselves. But we all know that when we wake up one morning and realize our kids are suddenly, like, way bigger than they were when they went to bed last night that they’re transforming every second.

Which means they’re vanishing. Right before our eyes. And unlike the magic trick where the magician finds the quarter behind your ear and gives it back to you… or smashes your watch but gives it back to you intact - unlike any of those slights of hand, those babies that have vanished are totally gone.

Last week at the ice cream shop while I was finishing Julia’s second scoop of strawberry she asked me, “do you miss the old me?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know - like the old me - like when I was 2 and stuff.”

Oh, yes. Well, if I’m honest, I do. But the truth is - there’s stuff I don’t miss about you being two. And there’s stuff I love about you being 8. Like, I love that you can go to the bathroom by yourself now. She giggled at that. I basically just told her - the truth is I love you like crazy at every age and I like each age for what it brings. For the ways that you’re different at each age.

That was the end of the discussion for the time being. But later that night I grabbed her and hugged her with all my might and told her “here! Maybe this will stop you from growing!”

“Op!” she said, “I just got a little bit older.”


The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.

This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.

Special thanks today to Dr. Kelly Baker and Will Schwalbe.

And thanks to you, too, for listening.

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com


Emily: So, let’s start with your name. Tell me your name and how old you are.

Aiden: Aiden. And I’m six.

Emily: Wonderful. And tell me what is your favorite thing about reading.

Aiden: My favorite thing about reading is making pictures in my head.

Emily: That’s awesome. I like to do that too! Does it bother you if the pictures in your head are different than the pictures you see on the page?

Aiden: No.

Emily: Okay. Uh, what is your favorite book?

Aiden: My favorite book is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

Emily: And what do you like about that book?

Aiden: Um… that there’s realms.

Emily: Realms.

Aiden: Four realms.

Emily: Yes.


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