Big Ideas in Little Books: Exploring Humanities Themes in Children’s Literature

Families come together to discuss humanities questions, foster a love of literature with the Prime Time Family Reading program.

Families at the Spokane County Library read A Sick Day for Amos McGee together at a Prime Time session last Fall.

Families at the Walla Walla Public Library read A Sick Day for Amos McGee together at a Prime Time session last Fall. | Photo by Greg Lehman.

If you lost everything, what would you miss most?

That was one question, of many, that families tackled at the Spokane Valley Library last fall. That evening, they had read the picture book A Chair for My Mother, the story of a family who comes together after losing everything in a house fire to save their money for a comfortable armchair. The slim children’s book prompted families to discuss what they valued most and sparked the question: What would you buy if your family was going to save money together?

One family remarked that they’d buy a six-person bike to take rides together, said Spokane Valley Librarian Aileen Luppert.

Another little boy said, “I’d like to save my money to get my sister here from Mexico.”

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A child listens intently at the Spokane County Library’s family reading session last Fall. | Photo by Kirk Hirota.

These families had gathered as part of the Prime Time Family Reading program, held at libraries around the state and sponsored by Humanities Washington. Struggling readers between the ages of six and ten take home books each week and read them with their families. Then the families come together weekly at the library for a meal, storytelling session and thoughtful discussion of the themes presented in the books.

Prime Time conversations go in whatever direction families choose. As Walla Walla Library Storyteller Janice King sees it, the conversation leaders are “the catalyst for the community discussion,” rather than lecturers or dispensers of knowledge.

In Walla Walla, families took their discussion on A Chair for My Mother in a different direction, asking, “Whose responsibility is it to take care of a family if their house burns down?” King remembers, “One boy, I think he was six, got out of his chair and said, ‘It is everybody’s responsibility.’”

“It’s a time of listening and sharing rather than instructing and learning … it puts everyone on equal footing … and I think that that empowers children – and adults as well.”

– Prime Time Storyteller Janice King

This year will be one of massive expansion for Prime Time in our state. This spring, Humanities Washington will launch new family reading sessions in Port Townsend, Kennewick, Spokane County, Mukilteo and Monroe. It will also hold a training workshop this spring and plans to hold additional sessions in the fall. Support from individual donors, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Wockner Foundation and OneFamily Foundation makes this expansion possible. Prime Time began 23 years ago with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, as it set out to address intergenerational illiteracy; in 2012, Humanities Washington decided to bring the curriculum to Washington state.

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Storyteller Janice King models reading aloud at the Walla Walla Public Library, using Fish is Fish. | Photo by Greg Lehman.

“What I like about this program is, in addition to encouraging kids to read for pleasure, the kids have a chance to reflect on these books, how they relate to their lives, and on cultural and ethical themes,” said Ellen Terry, program director for Humanities Washington.

At the Lynnwood Library in 2012, Terry said, “One of the sessions was on Fanny’s Dream, so there was a spirited discussion about dreams, with questions like: What does happily ever after look like? What does it look like in a fairy tale, and what does it look like in real life? What does a happy life look like? And if you have dreams as a child, do they change?”

Conversations don’t just take place in the libraries. One parent at the Shadle Library in Spokane said that after attending Prime Time, when she and her child read at home, “Now we talk more in-depth; (we’re) not just reading the stories, but (also) focusing on the deeper questions in the books.”

Another child, at the Shadle Library session, said, “I like it because my mom usually gets home at six and watches TV, (but) now we read together.”

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Reading together at the Walla Walla Public Library at Prime Time. | Photo by Greg Lehman.

The program’s impacts extend beyond its six-week session, as participants become more comfortable using the library. “I went in (to the Walla Walla Library) the other night to check out some things, and one of the families was there checking out – I am not exaggerating – 15 books,” said King.

That impact is set to make kids into lifelong learners. “You get the sense that if you have a library card, you get to find out what you want to know, not what other people want you to know,” King continued. “You get to say what you want to say, and not what other people want you to say.”

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Prime Time Scholar Tod Marshall wore his cap and gown to the graduation ceremony at the Spokane County Library last fall, helping get kids excited about the honor. | Photo by Aileen Luppert.

Last fall at the Spokane County Library, scholar Tod Marshall made the final evening’s graduation ceremony a special treat. Marshall, who teaches English at Gonzaga University, wore his cap and gown as he handed out diplomas and T-shirts to graduates of the program.

“It’s a time of listening and sharing rather than instructing and learning,” King said. “What I really like about this program is that it puts everyone on equal footing … and I think that that empowers children – and adults as well.”

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