In Michigan, we wait for what seems like a lifetime for summer to arrive each year, only to have it fly by in a handful of nights spent counting the stars. This summer is no exception. With August now fast approaching, many of us are considering one last trip north to sit on a shore or camp beside a fire, or both. Such trips make up a treasured compilation of memories for many children and families. For some adults, the mere smell of roasting marshmallows is enough to transport them back to a time some twenty years before.
For many of the children that we serve in our school-based programs, there won’t be a last vacation this summer. There was never a first. Travel is expensive and so difficult for families who struggle to make even the most basic ends meet. But that shouldn’t mean that children living in poverty can’t be transported to faraway places. So long as there are books to read, any child able to read them can escape the everyday.
When I was a child, my family of seven vacationed by visiting extended family who happened to live a drivable distance from our home. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t see the world, at least in my imagination. Thanks to books, I lived for a time on a desert island with a boy named Alec and a magnificent black stallion. If I close my eyes, I can still recall the feeling of riding that horse, arms outstretched and wind in my hair. I remember loving that feeling so much that I read all twenty books in the Black Stallion series. Obsessed with horses, I even took a brief sojourn to Chincoteague to meet a pony named Misty.
As a teenager, my interests shifted and I found other, more inward journeys to take. I read Robert Frost, who taught me to think about youth as a glorious dawn that eventually, inevitably, falls to day. He told me about paths, consequences, and choices that I had yet to make. Most importantly, though, Robert Frost took me into the woods, so “lovely, dark and deep,” and taught me about promises, and longing, and sadness. With one poem, he gave all the difficult things that I’d felt growing up a beautifully fitting place to be.
As a college student and young adult, I went everywhere in books. I travelled south with William Faulkner and to Indonesia with Li-Young Lee. I crossed oceans and fought battles with both gods and men. Thanks to mythology, I traversed both time and dimension. I wept when Achilles fell, smelling the smoke from the ships as they burned. I waited with Penelope, searching the waves, even though I had never been to the sea. I learned to inhabit my own skin thanks to Maya Angelou and felt emotionally abraded, roughened and renewed by Toni Morrison. I read work by both women while planted at a study carrel, sometimes sitting uncomfortably still, entirely rapt and often in tears.
In many ways, I am the person that I am because of what I’ve read. And the earliest books that I encountered left the deepest, most intimate marks on my character. I have heard much the same from my literate family and friends. The trips that we take in books stay with us, like the smell of the ocean or smoke from a bonfire. And yet there are so many children who are not read to and cannot read.
When children are denied literacy they are, in a way, being denied a passport. They can’t visit desert islands or stand on distant shores. Many of them won’t ever walk in the woods or stop to watch the snow with miles still to go. And while those miles may be metaphorical, the loss for never having travelled them will be all too real.
SLD Read’s Language Links program serves children in poverty throughout the school year. There is no cost to the child or the family. Our next tutor training class begins in September. We hope that you will consider volunteering. We need your help to give these kids literacy and hope. Please call our office to find out how you can help us give kids the world: 616-361-1182 in Grand Rapids, 269-345-2661 in Kalamazoo, and 231-592-9605 in Big Rapids.
Links to authors mentioned above: