I have had the honor and the privilege to be a World Book Night giver for the past three years. (World Book Night is one night a year when volunteers hand out free books to light or non-readers to spread the love and joy of reading.) The first year, April 2012, started an interesting trend. A mom friend of mine and I met at the food court at our local mall with our children: four of them, all between eight-ish and five-ish. First, I need to explain that our mall is small and relatively sad. We live in Athens, Georgia, and no one I know goes to the mall. We decided to go to the mall because we figured it was a big enough space to contain our children, it had food, and there were enough people who worked there that we could distribute books to if there were no other souls around. Really, this choice was based out of our experience as mothers. We knew that we wanted to be a part of WBN, and our mall was our only hope with young children.
My mom friend and I figured we’d occupy our children with the fruits of the mall food court and hope that they would remain busy and somewhat contained while we passed out our books. We really didn’t know what to expect, and I was a little concerned my boys would end up running through and under the food court tables. I pictured a big burly security guy holding each one of my sons by the scruff of the neck walking toward me announcing that we had to leave—forever. Fortunately, I have an overactive imagination, and that is not what happened.
We purchased dinner for our offspring, set them up, and began handing out books. The most amazing thing happened. Our children started to gravitate to where we were with our books, which isn’t really amazing on some level. You see, where mom is there is also change for the plethora of candy and game machines sprinkled throughout the food court. At one point, I noticed my oldest son, eight at the time, listening in and following me as I gave out Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Next, he held a couple of books in his hand and walked over to a group of people and started to talk about the book. Soon both boys were handing out books. Before I knew it, they had completely taken over the book handing-out. My friend and I marveled at these children of ours, and their desire to hand out free books.
They would run back to our table all smiles and would tell us a snippet of a story:
“I just made someone’s day! She said ‘thank you’ like 500 times!”
“That man didn’t have any books at his house, so I gave him one!”
“Do you see that woman over there? She was really happy that I gave her
something free. And she smelled kind of funny.”
All four of them were so bummed when the last book was given away. They couldn’t believe that it was over so quickly. They loved giving books to people because the response was overwhelmingly positive. First of all, these children had an opportunity to talk to strangers (!). Second, they had something free to pass out, which is infectiously exciting. Third, they had an opportunity to stand in adult shoes and be noticed as serious people. Adult-like people.
The second year, April 2013, we went to the same place, and the same thing happened. This time, we handed out The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. My children were so excited that they took over even sooner than the previous year. They were riding high on the joy of giving out free books to people who didn’t own books of their own or who didn’t read very often. It was amazing. Again, they were so sad when we had no more books left. We left the mall riding high on the wings of sharing our love of reading and passing out free books. The boys made plans for the next year:
“So, next time, we need to wear suits so we look more professional.”
“Nah. I think I am going to dress like a clown. I think that will make people more happy.”
“Hey, I know, we need to make some cupcakes and pass them out with our books!”
Don’t worry. All of these things were forgotten over the subsequent twelve months!
Again this year, my children, ages eleven and eight, have gotten so excited in anticipation for this night. It is turning into a version of Halloween where they get to share their love of reading with all kinds of different people. They get to pass out something that they love to others. Colors, size, shape, nationality, piercings—none of it matters because we are there to offer the gift of reading to anyone open to talking with us.
What I see develop in my children is breathtaking. One night a year they have the opportunity to share something they love to do with people in such a way that they are forever changed. Through this experience they are more comfortable talking to people and carrying on a conversation without me to interpret for them. They are so excited to share what they have, they learn how to be and what to say, so they are clear with what it is they are offering.
This year I chose, The Bridge to Terabithia. We read it ahead of time together, so they wouldn’t rely on me to recount what the story was about. What I noticed was that this time, April 2014, they had internalized the novel and digested it in such a way that they could honestly share the story and to express how it changed them (without giving away the ending!). I’ve never witnessed my children view literature as something alive and breathing like I did that night.
I hope to always be a WBN giver. I have dreams of handing out books with my boys through the awkwardness of adolescence, through their college years, and even when they become adults themselves. I look forward to them returning home on April 23rd each year, or meeting me at the mall to hand out our shared love of reading.
So, I want to say this: thank you WBN for giving me an opportunity to bond with my children, to share my profound love of reading with my children who are then able to share this same love with others. Our bond of loving words and books expands out into our world that is a gift that gives freely and offers a portal into our very hearts, because words have the capacity to bridge awkwardness, difference, silence, and even food courts at small malls in Georgia.