My daughter is in her final weeks of nursery school. The English equivalent of kindergarten (called Reception) begins at age four, and she will have been four for just sixteen days when the new school year begins in September. It’s hard to imagine that this sweet world of half days, circle time, and Montessori “work” is almost behind her forever. She’s probably more ready to go on to her new school than I am to see her go.
Last week, Anne’s head teacher asked some of the parents to give short talks to the children about what we do at work. When she asked me, my heart swelled with pride. I was remembering how I felt when my parents came to career day at school, oh, 30 years ago. But my Dad was a veterinarian and he had a secret weapon for keeping the kids’ attention: baskets of kittens. I’m a writer and what I do is so solitary, so quiet, that from the outside it must be like watching paint dry. (Or, if I’m honest, watching someone snack her way through the day in front of a laptop, wearing yoga pants and occasionally taking a break to do something super exciting like fold laundry or order groceries online.) So I decided to talk to the kids about how we make books, and what books have meant to me, and ask them what they like to read. The head teacher had just two pieces of advice for me: speak loudly and slooooowly. I was pretty nervous, though. Three-year-olds are a tough crowd.
I took Anne’s Paddington Bear book to break the ice, and talked to the kids about how Paddington may seem very English to us, but originally he came from “darkest Peru.” He’s an immigrant, like many of their parents, including me. I come from “darkest Florida” and when I was their age, hearing the Paddington story was probably one of the first times I encountered the idea that where you’re born is not necessarily where you have to live forever. You get to choose. You can be a stowaway!
We talked a little bit about how books can be like friends—with some friends you are loud and excitable. With others you whisper your secrets. And some friends take you on adventures and give you new ideas. That last kind is my favorite kind of book. The head teacher kept order in the room by stopping me in the middle for a dance break. We all jumped up and down and sang a song. Then she asked the kids to raise their hands and one by one, she called them up to “tell Anne’s mummy what your favourite book is.” Every hand was in the air.
Some of the kids ran to the front of the room. Some hopped like rabbits. Some danced. And then they whispered, shouted, sang the names of the books they loved. They were unimaginably cute and their answers were great: Winnie the Pooh, books about dinosaurs, trains, princesses and fairies. Most of the kids had full titles for me—they loved these books. And if their books are anything like Anne’s, they have been ripped, taped and loved into a state of emergency. My favorite books didn’t survive my childhood intact, either. It has been a while since I loved a book that much.
When I was an editor at Penguin, we used to bemoan the fact that so few adults buy books and cite depressing statistics about how few read at all—even one book per year. Seeing the enthusiasm of the pre-school set, I had to wonder where it all goes wrong. Publishing friends, teachers, fellow book-lovers: these kids are ours to lose. I hope we keep them.