I’ve often said that the best learning and most meaningful experiences with children happen unexpectedly. And it happens all the time, especially with picture books. You just have to seize the moment and be ready to let go of the scripted text, the one that’s in your head.
I’d like to tell you about two outstanding books where this happened, each with very different experiences:
Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston. Yes, reading those words from Gaston, by Kelly DiPucchio to the children started it all. They cracked up (it really was funny), so I read it again. More laughing, and I laughed, too. The words in the text repeated the dogs’ names. I paused, looked at the children, and read the names again—this time with a voice and an accent. Well, we roared, together. I couldn’t stop laughing. My tears blocked seeing the words in the book.
Was this planned? Of course not. It just happened. Why was this important? It made their teacher (me) more human. It was a class bonding moment. If anyone was having a bad day, they weren’t any longer. Laughter is the best medicine. Next, we finished reading the book, and we learned a few impromptu words in French. Oui, oui.
The story is about Gaston, who is clearly not at all like his sisters, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. The dogs meet another family, Rocky, Ricky, Bruno, and Antoinette, who is not like her brothers. The two mother dogs discuss what appears to be the obvious, a dog in each family that doesn’t belong:
It seems there’s been a terrible mistake. Whatever shall we do? I guess we’ll let them decide.
What happens next is a story of diversity, belonging, and love. Laced with humor, the book appeals to children and adults. It certainly appeals to my children! Belly laughing made it a memory. Oh, we now sing “Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, Ooh-La-La and Gaston” as a catchy tune.
Sometimes a simple text can be powerful. I discovered just that when I read aloud Life, by West Virginia native Cynthia Rylant.
The book starts with these words:
Life begins small. Even for elephants. Then it grows. Beneath the sun. And the moon. Life grows.
Powerful, indeed. I read the words slowly, taking time to stop and let the words sink in, and show the illustrations. Children were silent. The story depicts not only the elephant, but many other animals. In a matter-of-fact way, it tells the tale of how things are not always easy. Life. Yet, there is always hope and wonder ahead as we go through life. The book ends with these words:
And it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen. Because life begins small. And grows.
When I finished reading to this silent group, I clutched the book to my chest and paused. I said, “I love life. What do I like the most?”
Long pause and thinking.
“Singing! I love singing. Everyone knows Jennie loves singing.”
And then I looked at all those little faces, looking at me. I knew what I needed to do; I asked each child what they love about life. I was stunned. I never expected to hear these answers:
“Hearts and love. Legos. Trees. The moon. Dancing. Santa. Hearts. Rainbows. Big hearts. My big sister. Playing with Alex and Hunter. My big brother. My Mom and Dad.”
No wonder this book has been recommended as an alternative to Dr. Seuss’ book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, as a graduation gift.
If you think books and words and stories aren’t powerful, think again. When you seize the moment as you read a book aloud, and follow your instinct and heart, you will make that book far more meaningful for children. Whether it is filled with humor or worldly advice, it really doesn’t matter. You will make that book come alive. You will make a difference.
Jennie Fitzkee, a West Virginia native who lives in Massachusetts, has been teaching and reading to preschoolers for 30 years. Her blog, A Teacher’s Reflections, chronicles lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.