The responsibilities of community literacy work

storytent rain

It was a wet, rainy Wednesday, but three kids showed up anyway. The boy in my tent looked through the box of picture books. "Cat in the Hat. I can read that," he said nonchalantly, soundly remarkably Seuss-like himself. "I can read Cat in the Hat." Then he set it aside for Barton's Trucks which he read carefully; lots of prediction, matching, self-correcting.

After, he found a paperback copy of Going on a Bear Hunt. It was red stickered, meaning it couldn't be borrowed. He spotted another copy, one that could be borrowed, but it was a board book. He pointed to the paperback and told me, "I would borrow this, but not that [board book]."

He sorted through some more books, and I pulled out Tomie de Paola's The Knight and The Dragon. I read it to him - making up commentary for the wordless pages - and we laughed and shared. He pulled another book out of the pile and said, "I will see if this one has words, okay? If it doesn't, we can make fun of it."

Later, he pulled out an I-Spy sort of book, and we searched out objects together. He read the list of things to find, which was impressive given that he was reading a list of words out of context. An hour in, we had snack, and then he wandered off in the rain - his need to read satisfied.

storytent program
In the afternoon, the rain stopped, and more kids showed up (14 I think). I read with a preschool aged girl for a bit. She picked up Five Little Monkeys, and said, "I want to read it." She followed the text closely, including the nontraditional beginning, suggesting a home life where reading happens; and happens often enough that she was able to memorize most of the text. It also showed a child wanting to read, valuing reading, and confident in reading - which says something else about her home life.

boys like books
Just after supper, pulling the bookwagon through the neighbourhood, we met a family who was going to camp this weekend. Two of the three boys borrowed, and then mom called down from the stoop, "Do you have any good chapter books? Bring me a chapter book, for camp." For you or for him, I asked. "For me, to read Sunday," she said. I wasn't sure of her reading level, so I pulled a couple of the Rapid Reads (One Fine Day and Love You to Death) for her.

In the next court, we were stopped by a boy who wanted to borrow. Mom called down from her stoop, get some books for the babies. "Here!" he said, running up to her with a Cap't Underpants book. "No!" she said, "For the babies! Get one with a hard cover. A small one." She came down to sort through the board books, got tangled in a tug-of-war with her son over a couple of them ("I want that one!" "No, I'm getting it for the babies!"), and made off with three. It was another household where family reading happens.

If there's a softness in our work now, it seems to me, it has to do with these stories: kids wanting to read, reading, families where reading happens and books are valued. We're providing access and a service, but maybe not to families who are in crisis - at least, not in the a-literate, book-starved, families-not-learning sort of crisis you read about. It feels like a civilized service; not family literacy first aid. Maybe....

Well, maybe there's a neighbourhood somewhere that needs us more.

storytent program
But that was Wednesday.

On Friday, I was over cleaning and sorting. (We don't work Fridays, but we'd left things in a state on Thursday, and had a tent on Saturday to prep for.) I was walking up to the Superstore for something when a lady in a wheelchair flagged me down.

"Is anybody at the library today?" she asked.

I started to answer "Yes," thinking she meant the community library we'd put together down at the Resource Centre. But she added, "Is Cheryl around today?"

And I realized that by library she meant the centre where we store the books and wagon. She told me she needed more V.C. Andrews books for the weekend. Would I be around?

Yes, I'll be around. I've got cleaning and mending and repacking to do, and I'll be there for a couple of hours, I said.

Which is how it is she got to return two books and borrow five more.

The lady in the wheelchair - who we've sort of become responsible to. And the babies. And the boys, and the moms. All these people and families we tricked and talked and cajoled into becoming readers. We're responsible to them.

Gives a person pause.

Because you can't interfere in people's personal lives, and then leave them high and dry just because somebody else might need you more.

boys like books

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