Episode 9 - First Book - TRANSCRIPT

[Hook] I don't care if you don't have time for anything else in your day, make sure you do a read aloud together, even if it's 10 minutes and you all fall asleep with the book on your face. Just get that read aloud in.


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.

EPISODE 9 - First Book

I have a question for you. Do you remember your very first book? Not a favorite book from when you were a kid but literally - the first book you owned. Something tells me that if you DO remember it, there might be a story to go with it.
I don’t remember my first book which is to say that I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by books.
But do you know who does remember his first book? My dad.

Winford Akins: I am certain that my first book was Pinocchio. It was not only the first book, it was the only book that I remember having prior to starting to school. Uh, I've often heard the story told that from my mother and others that my sister Ruth taught me how to read before I started to school. But the question comes back to haunt me is what does she teach me to read with? I mean, it could have been Pinocchio or it could have been the books that she was reading from her school, from her library or textbooks, but there were no newspapers, there were no magazines. I have no memory of anything like that. But, um, but um, Pinocchio has stuck in my head as the book that I had. It was my book.

You know, there are a number of compelling statistics about the long term impacts of early literacy. About “parent talk” and the number of words a child hears in the first three years of life. About access to printed materials and the number of books in the home. About how these factors have a deep influence on a child’s educational and professional success (or lack thereof).

So it’s curious to me that Dad, an avid reader today, only had one book. And in fact, my grandfather - my dad’s dad couldn’t read or write. My grandmother had an 8th grade education only. My dad grew up right after the depression in a working class family in Texas. They didn’t have much. But thank goodness for my aunt Ruth and that one book. Pinocchio.

Winford: I mean this was wartime and a little tiny. Not tiny, but a little town that had a library. I do remember that we had a library. I do not remember ever being in it. Um, I guess I was, but certainly probably not back as a child preschool. I doubt that I was ever in it.

This baffles me as I look at my own children - admittedly coming from a place of privilege - who have more books stacked at the foot of their bed every night than my dad owned in his whole library when he was their age.

Which I guess might have been my story, too.

I wanted to know if me not remembering my first book was the result of my own faulty memory or if it was true so I asked my mom if either of us - me or my brother - had a first book.

Judy Akins: You know, I cannot remember a first book for either of you, although I know there were books. Um, it, uh, I, if I knew what it was, surely I would have saved it as a treasured keepsake in my keepsake box but I can't remember what one was. I remember a lot of books and um, I remember a lot of board books for both of you. Um, and very, very simple books but I don't remember a very first book.

Mom reminded me how she used to sing everything to me. Songs that someone else wrote. Songs that she made up right there on the spot.

Judy: by the time you were sitting up in my arms or, um, I was holding you in my arms. I was reading to you. Um also a lot of without books sort of, um, lots of singing, lots of a sing song rhyming that I would just say to you. So for me, in those very, very early months, it was as much as anything, the communications between us as we um sang our way through whatever or sing song poems, there was such, there were so many of them.  Um, do you remember? Um, it was a misty moisty morning when early. Oh goodness.

Emily: I don't remember it.

Judy: You don't?

Emily: No, what was it?

Judy: on a misty moisty morning when cloudy was the weather an old men came down dressed all in leather. So that wasn't a book. There was a whole bunch of those kind of, um, sing song-y little things that you and I would talk through without holding a book. Uh, and as we did it, I don't know if you remember also, but I used to make up all those songs, you know, I would sing whatever the instructions were and make up the, the ongoing, um, just one tune after another. There was a lot of that and probably a lot of rhyming, little rhyming books but I don't remember the first book.

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A lot of children today don’t grow up surrounded by books. Half of children in the US public school system come from low-income families and may not even have their basic needs met.* And - because of the research that points towards the importance of early literacy - there are countless organizations that are working to bridge the gaps and that are devoted to bringing books into the homes of all children. One such entity called First Book, actually, is an organization that identifies unmet educational needs across the nation, recognizing that “poverty is reshaping education.” This organization supplies students with books and other resources in order to transform the lives of children in need.

Another organization is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Since 1995, Imagination Library has been giving books to children all across the US and, more recently, Canada, the UK, and Australia. By 2003, the program had mailed out a total of 1 million books. But they’ve grown so much that now, as of 2016, the organization is mailing out 1 million books EACH MONTH.

Here in Kansas City we have an organization called Reach Out and Read KC - a branch of the national organization - which takes a different approach and distributes books to children through pediatric well baby visits - from birth through age 5. In this program, doctors prescribe books and reading aloud to families as a way to encourage those warm, positive, and language-rich interactions between parents and young children that stimulate early brain development. Since 1997, Reach Out and Read has prescribed over 1 million books to children in Kansas City. I spoke to Jenny Horsley and Janice Dobbs to learn more.

Jenny Horsley & Janice Dobbs: I'm Jenny Horsley and I’m the executive director. I've been here in this role for just over a year. I've been at Reach Out and Read for about three years. Great. And I’m Janice Dobbs and I'm the book coordinator for Reach Out and Read, Kansas City and I have been in that role for 17 years and before that I served on the Community Council for a few years.

Janice told me more about how the book even becomes an assessment tool during the pediatric well baby visits.

Janice: Oftentimes, and what we encourage is that the doctor walks in with the book and actually uses that book.

Emily: Oh, I think I saw that in one of the videos

Jenny: They actually bring in two books. And so the child has to choose which one.

Janice: If I were to be walking in and, and if I hand you the book like this, I'm watching to see what you do with it. Well you turned it around.

Emily: Yeah.

Janice: Now do you know how to open it up? And then depending on your age, I might say, can you find something red on that page or just watch your little eyes and see what they do?

Emily: Sure.

Janice: So it's, it's not just a book it's used in the development assessment. It's really a tool, a tool. Um, but it also relaxes that doctor's appointment.

When Reach Out and Read KC expanded, they opted to expand with a specific focus on safety net clinics which are clinics that serve lower income families and at risk children, which they did because the research shows that those are the children that don’t hear as many words growing up. Reach Out and Read KC wanted to train and empower those parents to talk, sing, play with their child. And to read to them.

Janice: Many of our families are pretty nervous when they come in, you know, they've gotten questions and we all have been through that, you know, you're just not sure that your kid’s doing the right thing or you're worried about something and it gives the doctor an opportunity to say, wow, look at your kid. He's putting that book in his mouth. That's just what a six month old should do. You know. So it's, it's getting the parents on that same side of, oh, we’re together in this and we're building up our kid and then they're going to be families where it's pretty obvious that books have not been shared. And you know, mom might even take the book and put it down or you know, she doesn't really know how to react with the child. And so in those cases, we hope that our provider will take the extra 60 seconds to take the child and, you know, show show the mom kind of how to or the parent or whoever it is to share that book with that little one. Um, again, no, we're not trying to teach kids to read. We just want them to love books. We want them to love being in mom's arms and we want to take that stress away for 30 seconds if that's all it is of, of sharing that book.

Jenny: And the other part of that is we also train our volunteers to read with kids in the waiting rooms. And the part of that training is, you know, there's a lot of ways to share a book. You don't always have to say, do you want to read a book? You can share a book. And that can look like, you know, if you ask the child if they'd like to read and when they say, I don't know how to read and say, well you know how to look at pictures, right? Tell me what's going on. That not only lets the child know how to enjoy a book by themselves, but it could. We never know what the literacy level of our parents are. It could be teaching mom who's just watching. Oh, I don't have to read the words. We can share that book in another way.

I asked Jenny & Janice about the magic of picture books and I like their response - which makes it feel like an everyday kind of magic - a magic that starts as a little thing and becomes simply part of the fabric of the family.

Jenny: Well, you know, I think it's that seed that's planted from, whether it's the doctor or the volunteer in the waiting room or mom and dad at home, it's a following up that's going to make it continue. And so whoever, maybe it was a special book that happened or maybe it was just a voice.

Janice: and I, I kinda think it can be just an ongoing thing, too, that it isn't necessarily an aha moment as much as it is. It becomes a routine and just a part of who you are and that's we want books just to be a part of who our kids are and part of what their families are about.

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I like the way that Janice describes reading as part of a family’s identity. And it reminds me of this fantastic TED talk by Alvin Irby, the founder of Barbershop Books - I’ll link to it in my show notes - in which he shares his organization’s focus on getting Black boys ages 4-8 to read by getting them to identify as readers. The organization does this by creating child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. This identity-based reading program connects reading to a male-centered space and involves Black men in boys’ early reading experiences. It’s a profound approach that, to me, is so powerful because it speaks to the way that books and reading become part of who we are - our identity. Here’s what Alvin Irby says, “Dismantling the savage inequalities that plague American education requires us to create reading experiences that inspire all children to say 3 words: I’m a reader.”

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Here’s someone else who didn’t have books growing up - and who probably remembers his first book. Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show and countless other books. When I visited his bookstore - Booked Up - in Archer City, TX - I read the description on the back of his memoir called Books: A Memoir, in which he shares that for much of his childhood he didn’t have any books in his house. Instead, he and his family and their neighbors would all sit on their front porches and tell stories. And so, while he may not have grown up around books, he learned the art of story from the get go.

There’s immense value in reading with children - creating those warm positive interactions that a child needs - exposing a child to as many words as possible as their growing brains are developing - teaching them to read from day one.

And I would add that there’s immense value in STORY as well.

I spoke with a woman named Mary Gallagher who is the co-author, along with Mark Thogmartin, of a book called Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books.

Mary and Mark’s book demonstrates how real books (with stories and plots) are a better tool for teaching reading than textbooks or phonics programs alone because real books are more engaging. For many years The Great Debate or The Reading Wars disputed whether or not a phonics approach results in the best readers. Phonics methods are part-to-whole instruction, teaching children the smallest individual units of language first and building towards words and sentences. Conversely, a whole to part approach depends on the idea that reading is the process of getting meaning from print, and that reading instruction should remain as whole and natural as possible. That language parts are learned in the context of the greater, whole units - like a story or a book.

According to Teach a Child to Read With Children’s Books, experts now recommend a comprehensive approach where “readers apply both whole-to-part and part-to-whole processing, using information obtained from one process to promote, or inform, the other.”

Here’s Mary, telling me a little bit about the fourth edition of their book and its applicability for kids in any stage of the process of learning how to read.

Mary Gallagher:  Yes. So what, when mark wrote it originally, you know, again, like I said, he took a lot of those principles and kind of put them into different practice. And then when I came on I added a lot of things based on my title one reading experience, which is title one is bringing students who are far behind up to speed as well. And so right now I think the book serves perfectly for really any situation. If a child is reading and reading on target and loving to read, the parents are just going to get all kinds of great resources and information in here to kind of keep that love for reading going if a child is struggling or behind in their reading skills. The strategies, um, that I've put in this, this fourth edition are all based on research that I learned throughout my master's degree and that I put into practice in my title one program.

So the nice thing, well, what a lot of parents think is well my child is behind. There must be some special things we have to do with him. Um, there must be some something else that's going to like, um, a magic button we can push, my child will learn to read and catch up. And when I tell them is the good news is everything that we would do with a reader who is on track are the same things we're going to do with a reader who is behind. We're just going to do maybe more of them or more often or more intensely, if that makes sense.

What I love about the theories and principles in Mark and Mary’s book - as well as those in several other influential and inspiring books - like Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, Mem Fox’s Reading Magic, and Sarah MacKenzie’s The Read-Aloud Family - is that these methods really are plain and simple. That reading-aloud is a straightforward and effective way to ensure positive outcomes.  

Mary: And so that's what I teach in my facebook group and in what we teach in the book is, it's not that complicated, but we've got to get that love for reading in place and we've got to keep it there because you could have the best reading program in the world, but if it's making your children hate reading and they're bored, you know, It's not gonna work.

Mary talks about the inertia of being overwhelmed and not knowing what to do for your child.

Mary: And that's what I hear from parents a lot is I don't know where to begin or I'm afraid that I'm doing it wrong or I'm afraid I'm gonna mess my child up for life. And so I always try to peel it back to the things that Sarah Mckenzie, Jim Trelease, Mem Fox are saying. Um, it really begins with that read aloud and it begins with you bonding with your child and helping them bond with books. And making them feel that books are just the greatest things in all of the world and reading together is safe and it's enjoyable and there's so much learning that is going on in that process from baby to when you actually sit down and go, thIs is the letter a and a says, eh, parents don't realize how much learning is taking place, you know, I could, um, and, and that's why it is kind of reading magic because I also like to say reading is caught more than taught because what you're doing during that reading time is also a lot of modeling.

And we all know, you know, as parents, you know, we know that our children are watching everything we do and everything we say and they're learning. So when we're reading to them, you know, and then when we're readers in our own home and we're filling our rooms with books and we're going to the library and we're spending money on books instead of other things that may not have as much worth and when we're reading together and more and we’re turning off the tv and the ipad and the and the cell phone so that we can read with our children. We're sendIng a really strong message that reading is important and it's a culture, you know, in our family.

And so it, I always tell parents, and I've always told them, I don't care if you don't have time for anything else in your day, make sure you do a read aloud together, even if it's 10 minutes and you all fall asleep with the book on your face. Just get that read aloud in.

I had one more question for Mary about the nonsense nature of some children’s books which is one of my favorite things about kidlit. I wondered could nonsensical books also promote reading as effectively as books with clear plots or stories?

Mary: That's a really good question. Um, so the nonsense books or the books like the Dr Seuss where they're making up characters and words, we love those because those are great for reading to young children before they're reading on their own because those help develop what we call phonemic awareness. Or you might hear it, uh, phonological awareness. They're both mean the same thing and that all happens well before we sit down and actually teach phonics to children. So this is a really kind of muddy area where sometimes parents don't realize how important phonemic awareness is and that it's not something you sit down with paper and pencil and flashcards and teach. It's something you do. It's oral, it's auditory, it's helping children hear sounds and discriminate, sounds and play with sounds. And so a lot of that does include nonsense words and rhyming because we just want them to kind of play wIth those sounds so when they're doing silly rhyming and when they're hearing those Dr Seuss type books with weird words, but words that are rhyming that's really important.And like, I can't stress how important it is enough. It is, it's really the best predictor of reading success that we have if children have phonemic awareness.

Emily: Wow, okay.

Mary: So that's why those are really critical. But in the meantime though, they are telling a real story, right? Horton hears a who and you know, things are happening as opposed to kind of the contrived a phonics books like the crab shrank back in the crack. There's not real characters. We can't really connect with this crab. Um, you know, it's, it's, it's weird. It's weird, uh, semantics, you know, the grammar’s odd, the crab did dash with this shrimps. We don't really talk like that. So in those, um, other books though, the, you know, it's still following, you know, the good grammar and how we talk and how we write. And so it makes sense. But it's really great for developing that phonemic awareness, which has to happen before we sit down and do like formal phonics instruction.

Emily, Julia and Clara (singing):

There once was a bird and there once was a dog. But the bird was despondent or sad. A pensive frown on his busy beak, no matter that cake could be had. The goat suggested a convertible drive to purchase a cheering up hat at a haberdashery with a scarlet door and a baby to sell them just that. The hats had panache of course of course, a sense of excitement or style. The mezzo soprano is done with her song so let’s all just eat for a while. Tra la Tra la Tra la - and sing those tra las once more. Tra la Tra la Tra la - Try not to get crumbs on the floor.

This is me and the girls singing the tune I made up to go with the lyrics at the end of the book 13 Words by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Maira Kalman. The book is - in some respects - utter nonsense. Not quite of the Dr Seuss variety - more just an unexpected assortment of words strung together in a strange but somehow totally relatable story. And I totally love it. At the end there is a song. Well, lyrics to a song. And the girls and I wrote this tune to go with it. Now, if you listen to the audiobook you will hear a very different song than the one we sing. But our version is … well, it’s ours.

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You know - I started out thinking that picture books might be a little like greeting cards because of their ability to foster emotional bonds between people --- especially these books that we get so personally involved and invested in. Which, by the way, we do with storybooks more than textbooks. As Jim Trelease asks in the foreword to Teach a Child to Read with Children’s Books - “have you ever heard of a child with a favorite basal reader or a favorite vowel or consonant? Of course not -- they have favorite stories and favorite authors.”

It occurs to me now that the books help us bond with one another but that maybe we bond with the book, too. Mem Fox, in Reading Magic, talks about being “knitted into the same familial fabric by a book language.” So the way that my family sings “Caps for Sale!” - the way that the girls and I sing 13 words - these are what Mem Fox calls a “private togetherness code” that connects us.

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One last story for you about bonding and books. In September of 2018 I went to Boston and upon my arrival I headed straight for the Public Gardens to see the Make Way for Ducklings sculpture. There I watched lots of families snap photos of the sculpture but I met one woman in particular whose story is delightful. She is one of 8 children - which is the same number of ducklings that Mr and Mrs Malllard had.

Grace: My name is Grace Stedje-Larsen. My maiden name is Grace Donovan. Nice to meet you. Grace. And tell me again your why you love Make Way for Ducklings. The book is a, it's a classic obviously, but it's definitely a family classic because the eight ducklings and the mother finding them a home and settling while the father’s out and about traveling. Um, as I mentioned, we're from a navy family. So we uh, we moved and grooved a lot and we just, I think as a family we identified with each duckling we'd. My mother would read the book to us and we would put our names to the ducklings. So which one are you a Mack Pack? Lack Oack is the last one. Is that who it is or Oack? Jack Lack. Oh, I can't remember the order of them. So we would be, but my parents lived in Louisburg square. So that's my next stop is to go look for their house and see it. So I think that's fantastic are. It's funny. I minds an old bound, ours is whatever printed in the sixties, um, and it's ripped and I wrote on it when we lived in Annapolis. My mother read it so much. I wrote on the front of it, no reeds book reads, please don't read this but to us anymore. And so I have that copy at my house now. Book copy. No reeds Book. About how old were you when you wrote that? What? We moved to Annapolis and I was in kindergarten so I must have been kindergarten too. Funny. So our copy is a new one that our friends, Ken and Linz, um, bought us and they wanted to put themselves in the book. So here they put a little story. I love it. That's them driving the boat. That is fun. They lived in Boston at the time that they got this for us, but my copy, I just talked to my mom the other night. So even with the little eggs we'd do, we'd say Mimi, Julie, amy, frank, Daniel, grace. Tom, John. I love that so much. When my mother was a teacher as well, so he was. So I think reading books, it's just naturally was a natural thing to her. So I think you would have been Pack. No Oack. Six oughta eight. That is wild.


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 Winford Akins, Judy Akins, Jenny Horsley, Janice Dobbs, Mary Gallagher, Grace Stedje-Larsen, and of course, Julia and Clara.

And thanks to you, too, for listening.

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

[CHIME TIME] Harper: My name is Harper and I am 8 years old. My favorite book is the Piggie and Gerald.

Etta: Etta and I’m 6 years old and my favorite book is Dragons Love Tacos.

(chime sound)

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