My first story of finding the book that made someone a reader is one of my favorites.
I work closely with classes at Markham Elementary, and last year one class began visiting me at Eastmont every two weeks. They were a small class, first and second grade special ed, with a warm and attentive teacher who worked hard to help each student find a book they wanted to check out.
One girl, a child of six I'll call Josefina, had not yet learned to read, and was not interested in doing so.
It's not hard to identify the reluctant readers in a class visit. They're the ones who, every time you show them a book, look at you something like this:
A reluctant reader throws shade on an EXCELLENT book suggestion
Josefina's very kind teacher was showing her books that she might like, and Josefina was giving her reluctant reader face. The teacher explained to me that Josefina was still learning to read, and needed something with very simple words to practice on. The books she wanted, though, were the DC Super Pets readers her classmates had swarmed upon like ants on a lollipop. Josefina wanted cute, cartoony pictures; she *needed* something with short, simple words, lots of open white space, and minimal sentences per page.
Well, I just did what any children's librarian worth her salt would do: I pulled out the Mo Willems books. I am especially fond of Elephant and Piggie, and the best part is, they're as good for struggling older readers as they are for little guys; superb cartooning, expressive linework, funny like a good joke. Josefina, though, went wide-eyed over Cat the Cat.
Josefina LOVED Cat the Cat.
Josefina checked out Cat the Cat. Her teacher read it with her, and then she read it on her own. Josefina came back wanting MORE Cat the Cat. Josefina checked out and read every Cat the Cat book in existence. (There are four)* And then, Josefina came in with her teacher all a-flutter and asked for the Cat the Cat book where she does ballet.
I searched; we reviewed all four books; we determined that there IS no Cat the Cat book where she does ballet. On the cover of Let's Say Hi to Friends Who Fly, Cat is striking a pose and wearing pink; Josefina had remembered that picture and invented a Cat the Cat book about ballet. Josefina deflated like a little polo-shirted balloon when I explained to her that, sadly, the book she was looking for did not exist. And then, I added my standard follow-up to that sentence: "...but since you want to read it, and it doesn't exist, you should write that book yourself."
I've said that to a bunch of kids over the years, and most of them have responded with the same look of hope and intrigue I got from Josefina. But I was in no way prepared for the phone call I got four weeks later from Josefina's teacher: they'd been writing, illustrating and binding the book for the past month, it was finished, and Josefina was bringing me a copy TODAY.
Also, the teacher told me, Josefina was so nervous about presenting me with the book that she couldn't eat her breakfast that morning, and the teacher wanted to make sure I knew how important it was to her so I could react accordingly.
When they came in, I was prepared with a thousand watt smile, a Cat the Cat poster I'd picked up from a giveaway, and a circle of chairs in case Josefina wanted me to read her book to the class. She did. In fact, because her book is so wonderful, I'd like to read it to you. I can never look at it without picturing Josefina shaking, hopping from foot to foot, clutching her first published work to her tiny chest, and then breaking out in a grin as she handed me one of four copies in the world of TINA, THE CAT BALLERINA.
I present it to you below in its entirety (though with her name redacted), with thanks to Mr. Willems and recommendations that you read every single book he's ever made (available at your local public library!). And as you read, I want you to pay attention to the author's already remarkable sense of narrative structure-- her pacing is spot on, and I challenge any seasoned children's author to craft a more perfect last line than Josefina's: "Last, she bowed."
Cat the Cat was the right book for Josefina. It made her not only a reader; it made her an author. Here's to many more right books in Josefina's future, including a long bibliography of her own.
TINA, THE CAT BALLERINA, by Josefina
First, Tina the Cat Ballerina went to ballet school.
Next, she was happy she went.
Then Tina was dancing in a ballet show.
Last, she bowed.**
*Mo Willems, if you are reading this, please write more Cat the Cat books. Actually just write more of everything.
**Josefina, if you are reading this, please write more books and bring me copies.