The feeling of a real book is important to reading

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

Published Apr 12, 2013 at 05:00AM

My daughter Mary and I downsized early this year, moving from a home I had lived in for the bulk of 30 years. Downsizing has its positive side — who knew how much junk one could collect in an attic over that period — but there were, and continue to be, less positive moments. Most of mine seem to involve books.

It happened again a couple of weeks ago when, finally, I began sorting through the dozen or so boxes labeled “Mary’s books.” She had insisted we bring them all to the new home, though I was pretty certain they wouldn’t all fit. Nearly three months after the move, she was finally comfortable enough to let some go.

Most of these were not the stuff of childhood memories, mind you. Those are boxed up still and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Even so, as a few Disney stories and even a couple of Christmasy picture books were discarded, they got me to thinking.

If books themselves, the things your child holds, turns pages in and even scribbles on from time to time, disappear in favor of electronic gear, won’t something be lost? Real, honest books, it seems to me, have a role to play in the critical business of learning to read.

Patti Knollman, a retired reading specialist who finished her career at Bend-La Pine Schools, is, like me, something of a bibliophile; unlike me, she has spent years teaching others how to read.

The process begins early, far earlier than many parents think, and doesn’t always involve reading or “education” at all. Play, Knollman says, is a child’s work. In fact, most if not all the senses are involved in getting ready to learn to read.

Sight’s the obvious one, surely. For most of us reading is all about seeing, at least on the surface. A baby has to grow into it, however, learning to bring things into focus, to follow things with his or her eyes, and so on.

Touch is important, too, and it was touching Mary’s books that started this train of thought for me. Books, the kind with paper pages and paper or cloth bindings, have a feel to them unlike most other things. They’re not cold, as a piece of glass can be, and they’re surprisingly varied. Some book covers are pebbly, for example, and some pages are light and flimsy while others are relatively dense.

Smell is important, too — some books smell of ink, others of paper, still others of age. As for hearing, well, that’s a critical one for a kid cuddled up in an adult’s lap listening to a story.

In fact, Knollman says, spending just 15 minutes a day with a small child and a book does all sorts of wonderful things. First and foremost, it’s fun. It gives child and mom or dad time to devote to one another for no reason other than the enjoyment of it.

Then there’s this. As a child learns to settle down so story time can begin, Knollman says, he learns to control his little body. And that, she says, is a precursor to reading.

Infants and toddlers are tactile little creatures, so long before they understand what “reading” is, they’re using their hands to explore what you’re holding. Toddlers love stories such as “Pat the Bunny” by Dorothy Kunhardt, which includes pages with cotton puffs and other textures for a child to feel. No electronic version could duplicate that. Too, infants and toddlers put absolutely everything they can reach in their mouths, an expensive proposition when the “book” is loaded on even the most inexpensive Kindle.

Older children, not much older than toddlers, are tactile in another way. They watch us write, and they pick up a crayon or a pen and begin imitating us. Those childish scribbles — mine are in a prayer book I let my oldest play with during church — become fond memories of a time long past. And writing and reading are inextricably linked skills, I think.

It would be terrible if real books were replaced by electronic ones, especially for the youngest “readers.” Moreover, given how unintentionally destructive kids can be, real books need not be expensive. Thrift shops are full of them, just waiting to be taken off the shelf and into a child’s heart.