The Power of the Right Book To Let Our Kids Know We See Them

by Nic Stone

Photo credit: Maskot, Maskot Collection/Getty Images

I started really reading aloud to my older kid — he’ll be six in late June — when he was two years old. It was a disaster because he wouldn’t sit still (obviously), but I persisted. By two and a half, he was recognizing words and getting a grasp of phonics. He would lay his flash cards in a circle on the floor and “read” them. By three, he could genuinely read the easiest level of BOB books and was better about sitting to listen, so we got into Matilda. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. James and the Giant Peach. A Wrinkle in Time.

Did he retain any of it? Probably not. But that wasn’t the point. The point was mommy/son bonding, establishing a bedtime routine, language acquisition, and instilling a love of stories.

The point was early literacy.

Here’s the thing, though: despite the fact that I worked my ass off to ensure books would be a part of my kid’s surroundings, consciousness, and experience from a very young age, it wasn’t until he was almost four and I was pregnant with another kid that he realized books were a place he could see himself.

This, I think, is what unlocked a whole new world and made him want to read.

Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats was the magical book. A very intuitive teacher at his very Jewish — and therefore very white — preschool could see that baby boy was feeling some type of way about the expansion of Mommy’s midsection. I remember his little eyebrows used to tug together whenever I mentioned having to go to the doctor to make sure his baby brother was doing okay in my belly. Little dude was shook.

And Emily, his teacher, noticed. So she pulled him aside one day and read Peter’s Chair. When I arrived to pick him up that afternoon, she told me how his whole face lit up when he saw Peter. How his expressions shifted as she read through this classic story about a little black boy who watches his whole world change as his parents prepare to welcome a new baby — they take all Peter’s stuff and start painting it pink, and Peter, like my son, really wasn’t into the whole thing.

So we bought the book. And he asked for it constantly. And when he started reading independently, it’s the book he reached for. Now he reaches for other books as well. Without being told to.

Little dude is really and truly into reading.

It could be said that I’m looking too far into the behavior of an almost 6-year-old, but I really do think — KNOW — there’s something vital about seeing oneself reflected in books. Books are important (duh). Literacy is literally the foundation for any form of success. Gotta be able to read and write if you wanna get anywhere in life.

So back to books. To encourage literacy, we give kids books. And they read them. But can you imagine somebody saying, “Now here are the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEED TO READ,” and then you read them … and you’re not in them?

I don’t have statistics to support my theory, but this is what I can tell you as an author and as a mom: discovering one’s presence in books like my son did is what makes kids feel like they EXIST. It validates their place and their value in the world. Because you know what? They know other people are reading books about them, too. They know they’re being seen. Every day I hear from kids who tell me: “Ms. Stone, your book was the first one I ever finished. I could really relate!”

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is the follow-up question:

“So, like, what else should I read?”

Every. Single. Time.

It only takes one book to make a kid a reader. And readers, statistically, do better. In every area of life.

So let’s commit to helping kids find their personal Peter’s Chair. As parents, as educators, as aunties and uncles, as grown-ups in general, there’s no better way to empower the babies. To get that foundation of literacy in place so they’ll have something firm to jump off of as they leap toward success.

Because one day when we are all old as dirt and back in diapers, our fates will be in their hands. Let’s make sure their highest priority is paying us back for the rich, full lives they’ve accomplished after we handed them the right book.