Family Traditions: literary liturgy

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Photo by M-C Scarlett

Last weekend while on a Zoom call with my family, who is scattered throughout the country, we referenced at least three children’s books we had enjoyed growing up. Reading picture books with my parents, grandparents and siblings is not only a cherished memory but something to which I attribute my love of learning. 

Starting from one or two years old, my parents would read to all of my six older siblings and me nearly every day. Sometimes we would read short, simple books and other times “long” books with lots of words. We read silly books like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” (Laura Numeroff) about a mouse with a never-ending list of requests, heartwarming books like “Love You Forever” (Robert Munsch) about a toddler who constantly gets into mischief and serious ones like “The Wall” (Eve Bunting) about a father and son visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Each of these books exposed us to a broad range of artistic styles, emotional content and historical events. In addition to forming my mind and imagination in countless ways, these books have brought  my family together even after we have all grown up. 

We still joke around using made-up voices of characters from “Bread and Jam for Frances” (Russell Hoban) and frequently quote from a quaint, out-of-print British book called “The Chocolate Wedding” (Posy Simmonds). Sometimes we made trips to our local library for storytime with the children’s librarian, which was always exciting and encouraged cooperation and manners in us. 

Besides the year-round fixtures, we had special books that were packed away in closets for seasonal occasions. One of my favorite books for illustrations and pictures  was “An Early American Christmas” (Tomie dePaola), which described traditions from 18th century New England like placing bayberry candles in the windows and stringing cranberries and popcorn on Christmas trees. Along with colorful baskets and eggs at Easter time, we would read books like “The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes” (DuBose Heyward). 

One of our bookshelves was dedicated to books about saints. Once I could read on my own, the stories of martyrs and heroes contained between those pages provided an endless source of fascination and inspiration. 

I am forever indebted and grateful to my parents for their dedication to my early education through children’s literature. Looking back, it is impressive that I cannot recall a time when I was denied the request to have a book read to me. As I grew older, I learned that not all children were so lucky. 

Declining literacy rates and increases in media addiction has led my family to donate to organizations like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which “mails a high quality, age appropriate book to all registered children, addressed to them, at no cost to the child’s family.” According to the Literacy Project Foundation, young children who are read to and have access to print materials, especially toddlers age three and younger, develop larger vocabularies and succeed academically more than children who do not have this experience. 

Aside from the pragmatic reasons to read picture books to children, especially to help people out of poverty through literacy, books are at their heart a familial treasure-trove. Crowding onto a big couch, wrestling over family members to see the pictures and blurting out the memorized, cherished words before they are read aloud all encapsulate the unitive, sentimental ritual of the read-along. 

Looking at the picture that accompanies this article never ceases to bring a smile to my face; it reminds me of how the stories I read in my childhood have led me to immerse myself in the Core at the University of Dallas.

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