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Putting it together

abcAfter ALA, we had a couple of days to visit with our kids and grandchildren up in sunny Marin. One afternoon, Miles (just turned six) and I were walking back from the playground when a friendly neighbor lady approached and pressed an envelope into Miles’s hands. “Oh, I know what this is,” he said, “it’s a thank-you note.” (His mom Julie later confirmed to me that thank-you notes for birthday presents were huge among the parents of the Corte Madera primary set.)

We took the note into the dining room to set about decoding it. The salutation was tough as it was written in a child’s unpracticed hand, but D-e-a-r M-i-l-e-s a-n-d C-h-l-o-e (his younger sister) was fairly easily dispatched. The message proper, written by an adult, was tougher, but Julie and I coached him through the words, identifying the letters and sounding out the phonemes. Letter by letter, sound by sound, word by word, we worked through it.  We could see the little gears working as Miles turned the letters into sounds into words into a sentence: T-h-a-n-k y-o-u f-o-r t-h-e j-e-w-e-l-r-y b-o-x. While you might think mission accomplished, there was one more step to take. “Thank you for the jewelry box. Why would somebody write THAT?” Miles asked rhetorically, but even as he did so we could see comprehension dawn, if not with the same glorious light as Helen Keller’s w-a-t-e-r, then with a similar revelatory connection between language and meaning and experience. I hadn’t known you could actually watch that happen, and it was marvelous.

Miles had the last word. Examining the closing of the note, again written in the child’s hand, he sounded out the sender’s name–A-n-n-a–and, jabbing his finger at the final letter, said “that’s a crap a,” and authoritatively flicked the note across the table. A critic is born!

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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