Tag Archives: reading and empathy

Why You Should Love Children’s Books, Even If You’re Not a Child

The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter at the New York Public Library
The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter at the New York Public Library

If you love to read, chances are you were lucky enough to have someone who read to you early in your life.  I remember how special it felt to cuddle up next to an adult and open the pages of a book and listen to the stories.  Like Marco, the young fisherman in my favorite book, Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool, who gazed into the pool and imagined all sorts of

You never know what fabulous things you’ll find when you open a children’s book.
You never know what fabulous things you’ll find when you open a children’s book.

fabulous creatures, I felt like there was just no telling what you might find in in the pages of each new book.

Reading leads to a richer life, beyond imagination and entertainment.  Children who are read to become skillful readers themselves.  Skillful readers do better in school.  In fact, if you want your children to do well on their SATs, make sure they read a lot. Even more basic, reading plays a crucial role in brain development and language skills.  As I mentioned in a previous post about the children’s literacy program at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, studies show that low reading skill and poor health throughout life are clearly related.

Finally, the stories that we read at an early age connect us to each other, set the stage for our curiosity about other people, other places, and open us to the larger world.   For children’s reading advocates it’s intuitive, but scientific studies have recently shown a link between reading and empathy.  That’s why I’m excited that that Minneapolis author Kate DiCamillo has been named a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux will work to raise awareness of issues related to reading and children’s literacy. She recently told the PBS NewsHour, “I want to remind people of the great and profound joy that can be found in stories, and that stories can connect us to each other, and that reading together changes everybody involved. …Story is what makes us human.”

But enough of the serious stuff.  Children’s books are fun, even for adults.  When I was in New York City in December, I got a chance to literally wander through the pages of several classic children’s books in a terrific exhibit at the New York Public Library. On display until March 23 their exhibit, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Book Matter” draws on the library’s collections to present literature for children and teens against a sweeping backdrop of history, the arts, popular culture, and technological change. They’ve created an Good Night Moon room, which was clearly a favorite with the young adults I saw

A walk into Good Night Moon at NYPL brings back memories of reading to my own children.
A walk into Good Night Moon at NYPL brings back memories of reading to my own children.

wandering the exhibit. According to NYPL, “The books and related objects on view reveal hidden historical contexts and connections and invite second looks and fresh discoveries. They suggest that books for young people have stories to tell us about ourselves, and are rarely as simple as they seem.”  

If you’re in or around New York City anytime soon, the fabulous Morgan Library will feature The Little Prince: A New York Story January 24 through April 27.  You can read more about the Morgan Library in my Literary Walking Tour of Midtown New York City and in Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Books Clubs and Girls on Getaways.

As W. H. Auden wisely observed: “There are no good books which are only for children.”

Dog Stories That Are an Inspiration for Life and for Travel -Part One

Slugger, a natural traveler, loved to be on the move--across town or across the country. Here, he's waiting for his next adventure.
Slugger, a natural traveler, loved to be on the move–across town or across the country. Here, he’s waiting for his next adventure.

I’m the world’s biggest dog lover, but I generally avoid “dog stories” because I invariably wind up sobbing. They’re always sad. I’ve never really recovered from reading Old Yeller in grade school.   But, I recently discovered author Leigh Brill Singh, a fellow dog lover who has her own dog story, A Dog Named Slugger, about how her service dog transformed her life as a person with cerebral palsy.  When I heard how much she travels from her Virginia home to promote her book, “ability awareness,” and the Saint Francis Service dogs that have changed her life, I had to share her story on Off The Beaten Page Travel.  Our interview will appear in two parts, so stay tuned for Leigh’s ideas and tips about traveling with pets, whether they’re service animals or not.  Before you read this post, grab your Kleenex and check out a video about Leigh and her canines.  http://vimeo.com/12630552  And, be sure to check out part two of our Q and A.

Okay, Leigh, I’m tearing up just looking at the cover A Dog Named Slugger, soADogNamedSlugger tell me a bit about your book and why it’s worth getting dehydrated to read it. 

A Dog Named Slugger is more than “a dog book.” The story offers an intimate look at what it means to live with a congenital disability. It goes on to reveal how my own life was shaped by cerebral palsy and ultimately re-shaped through my partnership with an amazing Labrador. My first service dog, Slugger, taught me to define myself not by what I had to overcome, but by what I had the courage to become. His message to me was, “I’m here for you. No matter what.”  That message inspired me. It gave me hope. Given the challenges so many folks face these days—from economic worries, to the multi-level stressors of war, to threats to health and well-being—we all need hope. That’s a big part of why I wrote A Dog Named Slugger. It’s one way I can pass along some of the many gifts that my big yellow Lab first offered me.  Just like the remarkable dog who romps through its pages, the book proves that a gift is most beautiful when it is shared.

Do you have other books in the works?

I’ve been very honored to hear from readers throughout the world who have described A Dog Named Slugger as an eye-opening, entertaining, and uplifting read, one they’ve read over and over until the spine is creased and the their favorite pages are “dog-eared.”  Readers ask, “What happens next?” and I am hard at work on the answer. My second book will pick up where the first ended and I’ll also be introducing some new friends, both human and canine.  But, my well-trained service dogs could tell you I’m not always good at executing a “sit/stay” at my writing desk; these days my sweet Lab Kenda and my hard-working Golden, Pato are helping me improve that skill. In addition to writing the sequel to Slugger, I’m exploring some ideas for a fictional children’s book series featuring a young girl who solves mysteries with the help of her service dog. It will likely be a while before the project is ready to launch, but it sure is fun.

I understand that the book has become a springboard for your efforts to promote the importance of service dogs and “ability awareness.”

I serve on the board of directors for Saint Francis Service Dogs and volunteer in a variety of ways to further the foundation’s mission. I especially enjoy talking with other service dog partners and lending support to new teams. My dogs and I often provide ability awareness presentations, that is, teaching people about the abilities of people with special needs rather than their disabilities. Whether we are teaching elementary school youngsters about diversity or assisting with fundraising efforts for Saint Francis Service Dogs, my canine partners and I love every opportunity to spread a positive message.

Recently, my efforts have reached even further than I could have imagined.  I was contacted by the Centre for Learning Resources (CLR), in India. CLR’s mission includes broadening educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth living in rural India. Now, after months of hard work and collaboration, an adaptation of my book will be included in the centre’s ESL (English as a Second Language) materials to help inspire and educate youngsters there.

I often encourage people to read books, then go do something related to the topic/story of the book.  So, if one were to read A Dog Named Slugger, what would you suggest doing as an activity?  For example is there someplace to visit or volunteer where they train service dogs? Maybe have a fundraiser for the cause? 

I love the concept of reading a book and then following up with a related activity. That

Trained to climb into her car when asked, Pato waits for Leigh Brill Singh to give him the "load up" command.
Trained to climb into her car when asked, Pato waits for Leigh Brill Singh to give him the “load up” command.

would likely add to the “take home value” of both the book AND the experience. That pairing could also lead to unexpected treasures—a new hobby, greater understanding… the possibilities are endless.  Readers of A Dog Named Slugger might enjoy learning about service dog organizations. I encourage everyone to find out more about Saint Francis Service Dogs. Tours, and special events at the training center in Roanoke Virginia are a great way to get involved. Assistance Dogs International also provides a helpful list of other service dog organizations throughout the nation and beyond. In my experience, most service dog organizations are thrilled to have volunteers—the work of raising, training, and placing service dogs offers lots of opportunities for folks to use individual talents and interests.

I also hope that people who read my book will incorporate new awareness into their everyday lives.  Perhaps the story I’ve shared will enable readers to have greater insight into what it means to deal with a disability.  Hopefully my work will also illuminate the important roles that service dogs play in the lives of their human partners. Here’s one example:  If you are traveling and you happen to see a beautiful dog assisting a disabled person, DO NOT PET the dog. I know that for many dog-loving folks (including me), petting the animal feels like an automatic response, but it’s not the wisest one.  It is far better to ask a working dog’s handler if petting is permitted.  If not, it isn’t because the handler is being unfriendly or snobby; it is simply because petting a service dog who is working can distract the animal and cause problems for the dog’s partner. Such service dog etiquette is helpful for service dog teams everywhere no matter where you roam.

Any other great dog books you love? 

I love good books of all descriptions! Some of my all time favorite dog-themed books include:

Amazing Gracie: A Dog’s Tale—by Dan Dye

A Big Little Life—by Dean Koontz

The Art of Racing in the Rain—by Garth Stein

A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans—by W. Bruce Cameron

Where the Red Fern Grows—by Wilson Rawls

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle— by David Wroblewski

To find out more about Leigh and her dogs at http://authorleighbrill.com

The Immigrant Experience: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading

It’s sort of an American tradition to treat immigrants to this country like dirt and try to get the most work out of them for the least money.  If your family was among the first waves of immigrants to the U.S.—the Germans or the Irish, for example—their experience as new arrivals was was a long time ago and perhaps forgotten. Yet, Benjamin Franklin opposed German immigration, stating that they would not assimilate into the culture.  There was an anti-Irish “Know Nothing” movement in the 1840s and ‘50s predicated on the idea that Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelming the country. The largest mass-lynching ever in the U.S. took place in 1891, after several Italian immigrants were acquitted of a murder in New Orleans. The scorn has been renewed with each new wave of newcomers–Jews from eastern Europe; my relatives, those dirty Scandinavians; the list goes on.

Literature takes immigration from the realm of policy and the culture wars, the view of immigrants as “those other people,” and makes it real.  There’s no better way to get a glimpse immigrant life in America than by reading their stories. Their experiences kindle empathy, no matter what your political views.  To that end, fellow book-blogger Colleen at Books in the City has thrown down the gauntlet with a reading challenge: to read a specified number of books about the immigrant experience in 2011. Check out the reading list. I plan to read Major Pedigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson), Zeitoun (Dave Eggers), The Brief  Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) and 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Jane Ziegelman).