Youngsters often come in our library bookstore, and I go out of my way to encourage these young readers who might need an extra push to engage with the printed word. When it comes to books, the smallest affirmation from a grown-up can make all the difference to the kid.
One time In the fourth grade, while waiting to catch the bus home in the afternoon, I stood alone — reading, of course — and came across a word I didn't recognize. I had no hesitation in approaching the nearest adult, this time a lunchroom lady still in her sensible shoes, white dress and hairnet, also waiting for her ride. I pointed out the passage to her and extended my grubby finger to the word I didn't know. She briefly glanced at the page — not at all reading for context as I had been taught to do — and without missing a beat, replied, "Solemn." No other comment or explanation or definition, but her flat, unsmiling voice intoned the word like Solomon himself proclaiming holy writ.
I was astonished. I knew what the word meant when I heard it, but I just didn't recognize it in print, nor knew that was how it was to be pronounced with that confusing "m" and silent "n" side by side. She had spoken the word "solemn" in an imposing, stately way — solemnly, if you will — and that brief interaction is still memorable to me 50+ years on. I wondered later if her arch and slightly disdainful delivery was intentional to assist my expanding vocabulary. Or maybe she was simply tired and bored and deeply uninterested in this 4th-grader at the end of her day that had been filled with steam tables, overcooked green beans and cafeteria chaos.
Whatever her mindset, I was a boy impressed by language and its undiscovered territories.
One never knows when the slightest interaction and encouragement with a young reader and words can pay huge dividends for that child. Bookstores, especially used bookstores with their inexpensive and abundant offerings, are sanctuaries and treasure troves for children.
Whether you're predisposed to love books and their mysteries — and thus willing to ask a stranger about an unfamiliar word, or willing to sit in a cardboard box to read — or you're still tiptoeing gingerly at the edges of unsure literacy, a warm and friendly bookstore welcomes all comers.
Ben Wiley, a Creative Loafing film reviewer, also advocates for paper and print. Dead trees, if you will. He volunteers at a local library bookstore and enjoys engaging with readers and their books. This BookStories feature highlights some of these Ben, Book & Beyond encounters. Contact him here.