I wrote my first “novel” in third grade for my hero, my teacher Mrs. Kovacs. (May her memory be forever a blessing!) She had read aloud to us from Black Beauty, and I was stoked. There was no turning back. The sound of the text had addled my brain, kept me up at night, and made me swoon. My title was “Thunder: The Story of a Horse” and the colon was my centerpiece, the cornerstone of my masterpiece, the first time I had ever used one. The “book,” if you could call it that, was illustrated by the great Edward Krupman. Well, I should say, great to all those who know him, my uncle, my father's buddy, and my personal great guy. (Prior to “Thunder,” his claim to illustration greatness was drawing Snoopy on the back of a napkin for us nieces and nephews.)
It was, quite literally, a third-grader's copy of the first chapter of Black Beauty itself (picture a swap-out of all the key names and details; the star horse was now burnished copper rather than black, and the human characters' names were changed, but words like dappled and meadow were laced prodigiously through this triumphant first chapter). I was hooked on Anna Sewell. She lived in my brain.
Rather than dismiss my tome as a mere imitation, Mrs. Kovacs read my opus voraciously in one sitting (it was around four pages long, stapled together, and that may have included Uncle Ed's cover page). She turned to me and said in a voice rich with delight and awe: “You sure were inspired by Anna Sewell!” Without a hint of accusation, Mrs. Kovacs knew the truth: I had fallen in love with language, thanks to Ms. Sewell.
The profound power of children’s literature is that it teaches us how to live, not just how to read. The stories and information that children read changes them by challenging, nurturing, inspiring, and allowing them to discover and explore the world. Children breathe in the big ideas, people, places, and facts and breathe out their own ideas, theories, and opinions in response. Beyond that, reading great children's books can become a touchstone for how our children communicate themselves to the world through how they master language itself. They can read through the lens of writing and be stunned by the author's craft of language, and then they can do the same to craft their stories so others might know them too.
The reading/writing connection is beyond language. The integration of both enriches and enlivens the world of a child's mind and thinking.
Having a pen and pack of notecards or a notebook or a tablet or any device within arm’s reach can inspire a child's reading life, not bring it down. Model for students during the daily read-aloud how you are inspired by language of our great authors by showing your students how powerfully text affects your writing life. Model jotting a short quote that stands out in the text, or noting a question that you want to go back to and think about at the end of a chapter. In the middle of a read-aloud, do a “Stop and Jot” and then invite students to a one-minute reflection with a partner off their “S and J”s. Have students keep a notebook or tablet for lines or snippets that move them, make them laugh, and inspire them. They can go back to these lines later to use to inspire their own writing. They can study those lines to see the uses of punctuation, white space, and form. Then they can practice these in their own work.
While the feelings and impressions of the story or article are fresh in students’ mind, give them time to unpack and digest with a short free-write or quick talk, structured around the prompts: “I am thinking about…”, “I wonder why...”, “I am interested in...”, “I noticed that...”, “I love how the author...”.
Black Beauty was one of many books that marked my childhood, took my breath away, and made me feel like a writer. I was breathing in language, story, word beauty, and the worlds of my passions for animals and landscapes and I was breathing my first baby steps into the world of language mastery and the joy of a perfectly chosen word (or colon!). I was very fortunate that my teacher Mrs. Kovacs recognized this, and I honor that to this day by sharing with teachers around the United States and the world that children's literature is a great teacher of writing, and more, how to love language and tell the stories that matter most to a child.
Pam Allyn is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing. She has written more than 20 books, including Your Child’s Writing Life, What To Read When, Best Books for Boys, and Core Ready, and is a spokeswoman for BIC Kids, championing BIC’s 2014 "Fight For Your Write" campaign. She received the 2013 Scholastic Literacy Champion Award for her work both nationally and globally bringing literacy to underserved communities and was chosen as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow in April 2014, focusing on racial healing and equity and has appeared on NBC News, CNN, and Al Jazeera as a thought leader on equity, standards, and literacy in public education.
Allyn will appear twice Sunday, July 19, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. First at “Be Core Ready: 10 Ways to Transform Teaching and Learning for the New Era So We Can Meet the Needs of All Students”, then at “Taming the Wild Text: Cultivating Fearless Readers & Writers.” Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.