Once upon a time, I watched children’s literature win the Super Bowl.
OK, not literally. There were no overpriced commercials armed with bad jokes, cold beer, and cute puppies. Justin Timberlake never got within a mile of the microphone. There were no questioned calls, no fireworks and high-flying blimps, no appearances of the Tom Brady game face. (Broncos fans, take a moment to cheer, please.)
But the small city of Emporia, Kan. lined the streets for a huge parade. Well-known children’s authors from across the country descended on the school system for classes and events and even sleepovers. LeVar Burton himself, he of Reading Rainbow, showed up to be the emcee on the big day.
It was 2002, the 50th year of the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards. And on that day, there was no doubt that reading had power.
As the last remnants of Super Bowl LII-RTD-LOL-EIEIO get scraped off the field, it’s good to remember. Football champions come and go. But a good book lasts.
This week – in theory, at least – it’s time to call that out.
The first full week in February, it seems, marks one of the thousands of obscure holidays that the world has to offer – Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week. Normally, I call holidays like this out to tease them a bit, on the order of National Popcorn Day (Jan. 19), National Kiss a Wookiee Day (June 15), and Eat Country Ham Month (October, which must make trick-or-treating a little interesting). But in this case, even if the date is forgettable, the topic’s a close one to my heart.
I started reading when I was two and a half. I never really stopped. Kids’ books were old friends, from Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss, to Stuart Little and Encyclopedia Brown, to The Westing Game and The Secret Garden. Never mind the family read-aloud time, where my sisters and I discovered Middle-Earth, Green Gables, and many more.
Each story led to the next … and possibly, to my habits as a night owl. When I met my wife Heather, she was the same way – she had shed tears at the end of Charlotte’s Web as a child, and thrown 1984 across the room as a teenager in anger at the ending. Even now, as guardians to Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt Missy, our most sacred time of the day is the evening storytime. (Often with Mr. Harry Potter, the audience favorite.)
I know some will call this memories of a bygone era, that social media and smartphones have eaten any desire to actually read. I smile and remember working in a bookstore in the 1990s, when television and video games were the worries of the day … and children streamed in to buy Goosebumps books. Or helping with children’s summer theater during the 2000s, when the internet was taking over … and seeing half the cast parked backstage with the latest Harry Potter.
Books have found distracted youth before. They can still find them now.
And they’re still needed.
A good book builds empathy. It requires you to put yourself in a character’s shoes, live in their brain, see how they experience the world. Chosen well, it can make you reach outside yourself and enter a world you never knew.
A good book can build family. Taking even a little time to read together – and I know how that seems to get harder every day – not only spurs interest in a story, it strengthens family bonds to simply have the time together. (It also means there’s a guide on hand for the more challenging words; I first learned “fortnight” and “quay” from reading Tolkien with my dad).
And yes, it builds language and learning skills – but maybe even earlier than anyone realizes. A recent study found that babies learned more quickly if they were read stories that had named characters. As young as six months.
It doesn’t take a halftime show by Bruno Mars, or an overflight by the Blue Angels, or a trick play drawn up by Bill Belichick. Just time, love, and a library card.
And if you want to hold your own private parade for your favorite title, I’ll be the last to stop you.
Go, team. Let’s book ‘em.