"Read me a story, please!"

So I read this depressing article in The New York Times the other day (pointed out to me by my friends, Mary and Mark), and when I told the urchins about it, it got them depressed too. The article points out that parents are increasingly pushing their very young children toward chapter books, and away from the true picture book or storybook. It seems that more and more parents feel that picture books are "too babyish" for their precocious youngsters. Some parents worry that their wee one will have fallen too far behind in that all-important push to get into college, if the sweet lad isn't reading Dickens or Shakespeare by the time he enters school.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating about the Dickens and Shakespeare (maybe not). But I do know parents who feel that the most insipid "chapter book" will somehow be a better reading experience for their children than the most lushly illustrated and creatively written picture book. I don't get it. And even worse, soon children will only rarely know the joys of storybooks; this makes me sad.

You know these books -- the ones with few words, or sometimes no words at all. For most people I know, these are the books that evoke the truest emotional response; many of my friends can recite whole chunks of their favorite (or their kids' favorite) storybooks. Raise your hand if you can recite Goodnight, Moon -- all together, now: "In the great green room there was a telephone, and a red balloon . . . ." One of my most vivid movie memories is at the end of the Tom Clancy film Patriot Games; Harrison Ford's character has just saved the planet, but now he settles in beside his daughter's hospital bed for a truly important job -- and begins to read: "The sun did not shine; it was too wet to play . . . ." Fabulous dad -- now there's a real hero!

The urchins and I have started an ongoing conversation about the books we loved to look at when we were little; each urchin has a particular favorite, but we also have realized that there are certain picture books that have become part of our family history: we refer back to The Runaway Bunny, Quick as a Cricket, A Fish Out of Water, and the monumentally wonderful Make Way For Ducklings on a regular basis.

One little phrase from one of our favorite stories evokes layers of meaning: we remember the story; we remember the feel of the beautiful book in our hands; and the memory also evokes images of snuggling up on the sofa or sprawling on mom and dad's bed while the story is read.

We are a family of readers -- you might have guessed that by now. And in our conversations about reading we have all agreed -- the joy of picking up a book and reading it all by yourself for the very first time cannot be over-stated. And the sound of a beloved voice, reading to you as you gaze at beautiful, intricate, funny, colorful pictures, or as you drift off to sleep with those images in your head, must be what heaven will be like.

Our picture books and storybooks are the books that made us fall in love with reading. I've illustrated my musing with some of my family's favorites -- I would love to know about your favorites, too!

And ooh! While we're talking about delicious books, here's a fantastic Halloween book about a witch who is not as scary as she thinks she is -- but she sure knows how to make some wickedly delicious blueberry pancakes! After you read the book you can make the pancakes -- the recipe is included in the story.

tangent: Old Black Witch was a book I loved so much as a kid that I kept it like a precious treasure for my own children. Of course soon after I placed it on their bookshelf, my old friend of a book got chewed to shreds by our dog, Toby AKA the Hound From Hell, may he rest in peace. Thank God for Amazon-dot-com!