I picked up a book of poetry at Reston Regional Library so I would have something to read my granddaughter at bedtime while we were at the beach last week. I found The Children’s Own Longfellow. It’s illustrated with wonderful old, oil paintings. When I was reading it to my granddaughter, I came across a poem my 6th grade teacher in Salt Lake City required us to memorize. “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands; / The smith, a mighty man is he, / With strong and sinewy hands.” It was one of three poems we were required to memorize that year.
My teacher, Mr. Boyce, was a WWII veteran and brought home a French wife. Since he had had to learn French to talk to his wife, he decided we should, too. Every morning, all year, we conjugated French verbs. He really loved poetry. “One ship sails East, / And another West, / By the self-same winds that blow,/ 'Tis the set of the sails / And not the gales, / That tells the way we go.”
Why is poetry important for children? For one thing, it adds complexity of language they cannot get from contemporary spoken language. It exposes them to an expanded vocabulary. Poetry is also at the nexus of cognitive experience and the creation of thought. It is where we go when we want to think new thoughts, to describe new experiences, to explore, playfully, how language works.
Poetry is also the only link we have to a pre-literate past from before we began to transmit our culture with the written word. The Bible, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Iliad and the Odyssey were all memorized and recited before they were finally put down on paper generations after they were first spoken. Those rhythmic cadences are what we have left from our earliest experiences as human beings.
Chanting and rhyming repetition is how children learn and remember language.
Who doesn’t remember, “By the shores of Gitche Gumme, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water, / Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, / Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.”
I found Susan Jeffers’ illustrated Hiawatha at Reston Regional in with the other children’s poetry. Much of that collection has been culled, sold away, or burned. Now that my granddaughter knows from reading this edition of Longfellow that there are many more poems in the original Hiawatha, she wants to hear them all. Luckily, I have a copy of the entire epic poem.
But this little book, the one we read at bedtime last week, I worry about. When I take it back to the library will some wet-behind-the ears library page pull it for disposal because it’s old? Inside the book it says it was published in 1908. Library Director Sam Clay is having library pages pull old books. Under the Beta Plan, a front-line librarian will not see this book again before it goes to the dumpster. Will the kid know that this is a recent printing? Will the kid ever have heard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Will there ever be another child who reads these words from this very book, “Listen my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
I cannot bring myself to take it back to the library. The fate of this one book is important to me. It should be important to you. We need Fairfax County to understand we will not tolerate any more destruction of our library books. Write the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Write the Library Board of Trustees. Tell them to cancel the Beta Plan and revisit the Library Strategic Plan which seeks to replace our print books with eBooks. Do it soon. Every day more books are culled from the shelves and sent to the dumpster at Chantilly waiting for transport to the incinerator.