After leaving the convent, she worked as an English teacher for 20 years. During school vacations she traveled the world.
Sit down with her long enough and she will regale you with stories from her travels and her career as a schoolteacher. I’ve listened to her stories for years, but every time I learn something new.
Aunt Shirley taught me valuable lessons as I was growing up, lessons I didn’t appreciate until I was older.
Aunt Shirley cultured me. She treated all the kids to trips to the theater, art museums, and of course books.
Every year for my birthday or Christmas I got some kind of book from Aunt Shirley. Visits to her home in Colorado Springs often meant a treat from her favorite bookshop.
Funny, but I don’t remember many of the titles. What stands out the most is the generous act itself. What I remember most about her growing up is that she invested in me.
So when my sister had my nephew in 1999 and three more kids after him, I wanted to share this experience with them. I decided to carry Aunt Shirley’s torch and be the aunt that bought them books.
One year I bought them all a copy of A Light in the Attic, and another year it was the box set of The Hunger Games trilogy. A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were some other titles.
For my twelve-year-old nephew I bought The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. When I was about his age, I listened to an audio book of The Illustrated Man on a road trip with Aunt Shirley. I didn’t understand the deeper meaning of those stories, but I got the general idea.
I’m taking a chance on my nephew with the Bradbury book, but that’s what you do when you buy a kid a book. You show that you believe in him or her.
You believe that they can understand human nature in a meaningful way.
You believe that they can make sense of themselves and what’s underneath the surface.
You believe that they can question the world around them and read between the lines.
You believe that they possess a rich imagination that can only be fed with stories.
You believe that they can grow.
By giving a kid a book, you see and hear them.
Studies show that children who develop reading habits at a young age perform better in school. And their chances are vastly improved when there are books in the home environment.
But giving the book does more than promote literacy and inflate the SAT score. It gives the child the chance of discovery and shows that you believe in them.
You give them the respect that comes with that book. Your gift tells them that they are clever enough to make sense of the story that book tells.
And that’s what kids need from us. They need to see that we believe in them.
So how do you pick out books for kids? Here are a few things I’ve learned.
1. Give them what they want, not what you want. We all have our childhood favorites (*ahem* The Phantom Tollbooth *ahem*). So naturally we think that every child in the world will read our favorite childhood book, see the light, graduate top of their class, and bring world peace…Maybe.
Keep it in perspective. You read that book twenty (or more) years ago, and since then countless talented authors have written books that are just as wonderful. Not only that but our culture has changed in extraordinary ways. Today’s authors are writing stories that speak to the experience of coming of age in 2013. Take the time to actually think about the child, their interests, and what they’re going through. Find something that truly resonates with them.
2. Ask a librarian. This is what they do best! Most of the time we find answers to our questions on the Interwebs. But there are real live people called Reference Librarians, who help us do research and find books on a particular interest. Don’t be fooled by their quiet demeanor. They would love to help you.
This year I asked my good friend, Jeannine Stickle, to recommend some titles. Jeannine is a children’s librarian and keeps up on all the new titles coming out. Not to mention she has impeccable taste when it comes to books. In every community, there is a Jeannine who would be happy to suggest appropriate titles.
3. Challenge the kid. When we see a littler person, maybe 8- or 11- or 13- years old adults tend to forget that they are more mature than we give them credit for. We tend to think that they can’t handle some of the more heady subject matter.
My sister’s kids and a few cousins I shop for are fast readers, but they’re also very perceptive about the world. So I tend to get books a level higher than I think their age group can handle. If the child that you’re shopping for struggles with reading, then it’s probably not a good idea to get them The Grapes of Wrath. But there’s a good chance he or she is more mature than you think.
If you don’t have kids to buy books for, there are plenty of wonderful charities to which you can donate. There is a national organization called First Book that sends donations to kids, and it’s really easy to donate from their website.
Or you can do a Google search for local book donation sites. When I did a search for this post, it was difficult to find a national organization, because this sort of thing is largely community based. In my home town of Portland, Oregon you can donate to the Children’s Book Bank, which gets books into the homes of low-income children.
No matter what my age, Aunt Shirley always had a way of relating to me at my level. She spoke to me like an adult, and in doing so, she taught me how to speak for myself. Giving books was her way of showing that she believed in me as a person, and so I believed in myself. This Christmas, give a child the gift of a book and the gift of the person that they can be.
** P.S. The book titles link to Indie Bound, a site that connects readers to local bookstores. I am not an affiliate of Indie Bound. However, I have a lot of love for local bookstores. Please Word Savant readers, shop local.