The decision to become a writer was not an easy one. I had a core belief that the purpose of life was to contribute to others in a direct way. In spending my time writing, I couldn’t help the sniggling feeling that I was contributing, primarily, to myself—to my own pleasure principle.
Since then, life experiences have changed my perspective. I’ve encountered adults who are learning to read for the first time, and have seen their pride and pleasure in entering the world of stories. I volunteered at an “inner city” school, reading picture books to Kindergarteners. Every morning, I had a line of little boys, each one holding his favorite book, learning to love language and pictures. At another school, I volunteered with “at risk” children in an early childhood intervention program, where I met a three year old boy who I will call Jay. I was told that Jay had an intellectual disability, and severe behavior problems. One day, I brought him over to the bookshelf and asked him to pick out a book.
After careful deliberation, he picked out two: Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You! and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight, by Jane Yolen.
Yolen’s book asks silly questions about how a dinosaur acts when Papa turns out the light: “Does a dinosaur slam his tail and pout?” The Seuss book, of course, discusses Mr. Brown’s ability to moo, buzz, plop, klop, and Cock a Doodle Do. When I finished, I picked up other books, but he would have none of it. He wanted the same books again. By the time I’d read the books four times, he knew to answer the questions in Yolen’s book: “Nooooo” (until the final “Yes!”). And he knew when to make the sounds with Mr. Brown, especially, “Cock a Doodle Do!”
Each day I volunteered thereafter, Jay ran up to me and said: “Cock a Doodle Do!” That meant it was time to read the books. Soon, Jay knew every word as I pointed to it. He said them along with me. He did not have an intellectual disability. He was reading.
Last winter, I had a rare opportunity to tell an author how she had made a difference. Jane Yolen was our graduation speaker, and I told her the story of Jay, and how much delight he had gotten from her book. As writers, we rarely know the impact we make. Still, rest assured that we can change the world in our own way, especially when we write for children. One book at a time. One person at a time.