Greetings Learning Expressions Readers,
As many of you are no doubt aware, yesterday marked the passing of beloved children’s book author Maurice Sendak. Made famous by the likes of Where the Wild Things Are and The Night Kitchen, Sendak baulked at the assumption that children should be condescended to in literature. “You cannot write for children...they're much too complicated,” he observed. “You can only write books that are of interest to them.” Whoever his intended audience, Sendak’s books have captured the imaginations of young people for generations.
Perhaps fittingly (or unfittingly, as Sendak might have argued) the first week of May also marks the national celebration of Children’s Book Week. Established in 1919 to celebrate the transformative power of reading, Children's Book Week is now the longest-running literacy initiative in the country. With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to focus this week’s blog on children and literature. While in the past we’ve brought you recommendations on classics we love and not-to-be-missed children’s series, this week we thought we’d focus on something a little more, well, wild.
Now before I go any farther, I have to admit to you that I have spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks daydreaming about dogs. Why, you may wonder? Well, a mere four days ago my husband and I became proud puppy parents for the first time. In the days before picking up our mutt Maggie, I researched just about everything there is to know about puppies. I found myself losing sleep over questions like, What is the most nutritious puppy food? How often will she need to pee? What if she doesn’t like me? Will she agree to wear a sweater on special occasions? Well, when it came to brainstorming this week’s literary themed blog, I had puppies on the mind. To my surprise, the connection between children, reading, and dogs was not such a crazy association after all.
The word “therapy dog” often brings to mind visits to elderly. However, therapy dogs are also used to help children. All over the country, children struggle to read—and many feel self conscious about reading aloud to others. But what if kids could read to a totally unobtrusive, non-judgmental listener? And if dogs are man’s best friend, why can’t they be a child’s best reading buddy?
This was the very question that dawned on Sandi Martin, a board member of Intermountain Therapy
Animals, back in 1999. Martin speculated that the benefits that therapy animals have demonstrated in hospitals and schools might translate well to the reading environment. From there, Sandi and the ITA team went on to develop R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) which now has human/dog teams working with children all over the world.
Last week, we were lucky enough to chat with Lesley Pulsipher, the International R.E.A.D. Coordinator, and learn a bit more about the program. “Dogs are great listeners, and children enjoy reading to dogs because they never feel judged,” Pulsipher told us. “They don’t have to worry about the dog laughing at them if they make a mistake or correcting a mispronounced word. They aren’t told how fast or slow to read. It is their time and space to read with the dog on their own terms.”
And who better to ask about the benefits of the program than the kids themselves? Seven year old Jesse said of the program, “Last year in grade 1, I didn't know how to read. It didn't make me feel very good about myself. After I started to read to Chelsea I felt good. I like to read to her because she helps me with words and she's a good listener. Now I can read a lot of different books. That makes me very happy. My favorite thing I like about Chelsea is that she does cool tricks and barks to say ‘bye’ to me.”
At Learning Express, we also have a personal connection with the R.E.A.D. program. Clarisse Youmell (former Learning Express buyer and wife of our Creative Director, Dan) is an active volunteer with R.E.A.D. She and her dog, Jack, have helped many a struggling young reader.
“In my experience the kids are relaxed and at ease with Jack in a way they cannot be with a person,” Clarisse told us. “As a R.E.A.D. team Jack is the star. I am there to work on skills - but through Jack. If the child stumbles or is having comprehension issues I might say ‘Can you read that part again to Jack - he is a little confused.’ I also taught Jack a ‘paw stay’ so that if the child needs to take a water or bathroom break Jack marks the place in the book with his paw until the child comes back.” Like many other volunteers, Clarisse has noticed marked changes in children’s confidence levels as a result of reading to dogs—confidence that extends well beyond their grasp of the written word.
We couldn’t resist asking Clarisse to share with us her very favorite moment as a R.E.A.D. volunteer. Here’s what she had to say: “During Jack's first session as a R.E.A.D. dog, my husband and I ran into the family of Jack's R.E.A.D. partner at a local restaurant. When the child saw me her eyes lit up and she said ‘Hi Jack's Mom! Please tell Jack I have been working on a new book to read him on Saturday. I think he is going to really like it.’ That is when I knew the program really worked. She didn't even know my name and was working outside the program to improve her reading, and she was looking forward to reading to Jack almost a week ahead. Beautiful.” Beautiful indeed.
In December of 2011, Maurice Sendak had what would be his last interview with NPR. In their conversation, Sendak told Fresh Air host Terry Gross, "I am devoted to being an artist and a person who reads books for the rest of my life--for however long I have." In the wake of Sendak’s passing, we can’t help but be moved by the fact that children all over the world, with the help of an ever-so-gentle variety of Wild Thing, are discovering the joys of reading for themselves.
Talk to you again soon.