I confess to using books therapeutically. When my kids were little and the day had gone wonky and none of us were at our best, a pile of picture books was a sure-fire way to reset us all. It was partly the snuggles, but mostly the shared experience of reading the stories we loved. As they’ve grown, I’ve been known to read them happy books when they are sad (and sometimes sad books, just to help us lean into it) and silly books when anger and tears have had their way with us. I’ve picked “topical” books when it seemed that approaching an issue at a “slant” might be the way to go. And I’ve picked up books and insisted we read when I didn’t know what else to do.
Recently, I heard Andrew Clements talk about his writing life and his books at the Festival of Faith & Writing. I reread Frindle, my favorite of his books, on the plane on the way to the conference. Predictably, it made me cry, just as the flight attendant came by with pretzels and juice. I was a little afraid Mr. Clements himself would make me cry just by, you know, being up there on stage; but he talked about his childhood and his early married years and finding his way as a writer…. And it was delightful! He was exactly as you expected Andrew Clements to be while presenting to a group of teachers, writers, librarians, and readers (mostly adults, some kids).
And then, at the end he rifled through some papers, saying he wasn’t sure if he’d talk about this next thing…. But he did. Or rather he read it. He’d been presenting for an hour extemporaneously, but now his eyes were glued to the page and he read us prepared remarks. He wasn’t even a full sentence in before we understood why he was reading and not telling the story “off-the-cuff.”
Not long after the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Clements was contacted with a request he both could not refuse and could not imagine. While the world watched and prayed, the school and community worked hard to piece together life for the kids, teachers and staff, and their families. Someone floated the idea of an all-school read — something for all ages, something they might enjoy together, something besides the tragedy to help re-define them.
They needed a book that took place in a school. A book that both children and adults who were riddled with shock and terror and grief could focus on. A book that was maybe a little funny — in spots, at least. A book that did not contain the names of any of the victims of the violence that had torn apart their school community. They needed a book that could bring hope and light to their lives again.
They chose Frindle. They asked Clements to come and so he and his wife went. He told us how he was led through the police check points in the parking lot and at the school doors…. How he was escorted into the school gathering by the library worker who had shielded eighteen kids in a closet in the library during the shooting…. How they explained the importance of not making any loud noises or sudden movements….
And then he read Frindle to those kids and teachers. He said he and his wife agreed it was one of the holiest spaces and times they’d ever experienced.
There wasn’t, of course, a dry eye in the auditorium. Those of us in the audience could hardly breathe while he read this account. I can’t imagine the strength it must have taken for this beloved author to read his work to those children and their teachers. Such an honor, such a privilege.
Books can be so therapeutic — and the reading of them together even more so. I think the idea of an all-school read at Sandy Hook Elementary was brilliant, the choice of book and author inspired. Read your way into some holiness with a kid (or a whole group of them) today if you can. Whenever and wherever we can gather over books…holy time and space is found.