Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Finding Joy In A Black Boy Who Loves To Read

I didn’t mean to offend—I promise you this. It’s just that he’s a sweet boy and incredibly bright and engaging, and really, the book didn’t cost that much.

This is what I’d planned to say to the mother of my daughter’s classmate—a little boy who I’ve come to adore. I’d seen him in her class before, but I talked to him one-on-one for the first time at our school’s Scholastic Book Fair last year. My first conversation with King (I’m using a description of little man instead of his name, to protect the innocent) went a little something like this:

Me: Do you need help finding a book?

King: I’m not going to buy a book.

Me: Well, why not?

King: I don’t like to read.

Me: *I play-clutch my heart and die 2,000 deaths* What?! You don’t like to read? That’s the craziest thing I’ve EVER heard—a kid who doesn’t like to read! Do you know what you’re missing out on? Do you know how many great stories you don’t get to hear because you won’t pick up a book? Have you any idea…

Ten minutes and 40 great-books-I-know-a-kid-your-age-would-just-love suggestions later, King agreed to read with me the back covers of a few offerings to see if they kinda sounded like something he might slip and read if forced. He giggled at the first few pages of “The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid,” and wondered aloud how hard it would be to go a whole day without saying a word, like the kids in Andrew Clement’s “No Talking.” He even thought it would be cool to work on a school newspaper, like the lead character in Walter Dean Meyers’ “Darnell Rock Reporting.” By the time we finished talking and laughing and exploring, he was reasonably convinced that maybe, just maybe, reading wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Small problem, though: His mom, he said, hadn’t given him money to buy a book. “No problem,” I said simply. “Pick out one book, and I’ll buy it for you. All you have to do is promise me that the next time you see me, you’ll tell whether you liked it or not.”

Well let me tell you: Every time I see that little boy now, which is often because I’m always up there at that school, he’s got something to say about yet another book he’s reading. He’s into fantasy and mystery and humor books—loves the magic of the stories and how they make him laugh out loud. This child, a beautiful little 4th grade black boy, is officially in love with the written word.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I met up with King at this year’s Scholastic Book Fair and he told me he wasn’t going to purchase a book.

Me: Well why not? There’s lots of wonderful books here today.

King: My mother didn’t give me money.

Me: Well, you know the drill—go on ahead and pick out something and Ms. Denene will get it for you.

King: I can’t. My mom will get really mad if I let you do that.

He was so stiff when he said it—and he had tears in his eyes. Turns out his mom was pissed that some lady bought her kid something without her permission.

The hell? I was undone when I heard this madness; what in the world kind of mother, I fumed (on the inside, of course), would get mad at her son for accepting the gift of a book? In this day and age, when little black boys who’d much rather play Madden and watch Lil’ Wayne videos outnumber damn near 1,000 to one little black boys who get pleasure from reading?

I really had to fix my face on this one, and, at the same time, say something encouraging to King, who, by this point, was tearily watching his classmates skip out of the fair, book purchases in hand.

Me: “I’ll talk to your mom, okay?” I blurted out.

King: Really? You promise?

Me: Sure.

Yup, that was me and my big mouth in action. I'd just told the boy I was going to step to his mother and make her let me buy him a book.

Later, when I recounted the story to Nick, he was quiet for a moment. “Maybe,” he said simply, “you need to think about how you’d feel if somebody bought books for the girls without your permission after you told them you didn’t have any money to buy them. Pride, babe.”

Yup. As usual, I didn’t think of it that way. I was so focused on the high of getting a boy hooked on books that I hadn’t considered how my actions could have been misinterpreted by his mom—and how she may have thought they made her look in her son’s eyes. And for that, I was deeply sorry.

This is what I told her a few nights ago, when our kids’ class met for an evening activity. I introduced myself and told her how amazing I thought her son was, and asked her if it would be okay if I talked to him about books and, from time to time, slipped him an age-appropriate novel or two just to see what, in a 4th grade black boy’s mind, constitutes a good book. “No pressure,” I insisted. “I won’t go crazy. Just a book or two that we can discuss whenever I see him here at the school.”

“Of course you can give him books,” she said, smiling. “How could I argue with free books?”

Exactly. Who can argue with free books?

Both of us looked at King; his grin was infectious—worth every cent of the cost of his new book, times a million.

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  1. I don't understand either. An opportunity for him to continue his love of reading and she gets mad???

    I admire your courage to face her and let her know how strongly you feel about his love of reading. You did it in a way where even she didn't feel offended. That's so good!

  2. Denene, you are SO amazing! You always have such a positive impact on people. I cannot believe a tear has escaped me. I'm tougher than that!

  3. Denene,
    This is an incredible story. It warms my heart to know that he has developed a genuine love for reading, and all it took was a simple conversation,care, and concern ~ Amazing! Okay, Denene, now we should introduce both King and his mother to boys who d.a.r.e, Inc. This would provide an awesome opportunity for him to meet other young boys and postitive men that Read and enjoy reading. He will also, be given a "New" age appropriate book every month.

    I love to hear stories like this one, keep doing the "Denene - Thing!" It works for you girl!

    For the boys,


    P.S. I love your blog

  4. Give thanks Mama. Love this. For mothers...one of the things I use to do with my daugher Kenya is when she (or I) found an author that she liked. I would buy ALL the books by that author. She loved that. Of course if the author is Walter Dean Myers...your child will be reading for a while. LOL.

    Karen Mason

  5. I absolutely loved this beautiful story. Thank you for being the inspiring spirit and encouraging heart to reach out and truly make a difference. I have no problems denying my children random toys and candy- but books are impossible for me to say no to. I hope to someday touch another child's life the way you have King's, the love of reading is truly one of the greatest gifts any child could receive.

  6. This is a great story and a wonderful lesson for everyone involved! You have mead a great impact on both this young boy and his mother. Kudos to you!

  7. Great and inspirational story! My husband has this saying "If you want to keep a black man down, don't give him a book" It does not seem to make a lot of sense but he is such an advocate of young black males getting the guidance and opportunites of gaining knowledge. I really enjoyed reading this. Have a great day!

  8. What a wonderful story! You've made an amazing impact on this boy's life. I bet he will remember your kindness for the rest of his life.

  9. What a wonderful thing to do. If only we could do that with more kids. This has made my day a little brighter.

  10. You did a beautiful and much needed thing. I just so wish people would give up thier pride when it comes to their kids welfare and well-being.

  11. Baby, that feeling is why I got into teaching!!! Im addicted!!!

  12. Denene,

    Awesome story; wow, when my son was that age, I was afraid he would never fully appreciate reading, let alone develop a love for it (thank God, he turned the corner, and now devours them faster than I ever did at his age **now 16**). What a joy it must have been to be that difference in this young boy’s life. This type of interaction will follow him the rest of his days…and, even touch the lives of his children. A book…and you…how blessed an experience.


  13. Well, I'm glad this story ended well-(Thanks, Nick!) I was on my way to ask her what her deal was! Well done Denene! Another brown baby on the road to excellence! Yay King!

    BTW Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups were the books I used to lure a neighbor's sweet boy to the land of endless possibilities!

  14. You are fab, Ms. Denene! LOVE THAT!

    Developing a love of reading early on is sooo essential. The more you read, the better you write. The better writer you are, it gives you one more avenue to express yourself. If you can express yourself, you will have more self-confidence and can tackle the WORLD!


    Please don't get me started about books. I could go all day. LOL.


  15. That just made me smile on the inside =)

  16. What a sweet story, you are such an inspiration to so many. Of all ages! :)

  17. This is a great story. My son, who is in second grade, also professed to hate reading until he read the first book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. He got so hooked that he knew the release date of the third book and asked me to buy it for him when it came out. Now, he's an avid reader, although he still has to be reminded sometimes to choose a book over SpongeBob. I got some great suggestions for other authors and series to try on him from this piece and the comments. I'm so glad Nick helped you figure out the best way to approach King's mom so that young King can keep growing as a reader. Maybe you should slip his mom a "free book" every now and then, too!

  18. I found your blog through another blog and I am happy I stayed to read through it. I am a Puerto Rican Mommy with a Brown Baby and I love him dearly, well he just turned 9 yrs old two Sundays ago, and he just loves to read. As I read this story, I felt this Mom was me, not because I would get mad at anyone for giving my son any free books, not at all, but for the fact that since I'm a single mom and being disabled with an inoperable brain tumor, my financial situation is extremely TIGHT! so buying the little extras for my son is so hard. I know he loves to read especially the chapter books and he's always asking for them. I try to get them used for christmas and for his birthday and loves it! I never knew a child to get excited over books for gifts, but I am so glad he inherited my love for reading. I cried while read this blog entry, it touched my heart because only a good mom with a heart of gold would do what you did, even if you didn't understand at first, but you made the attempt to confront the childs mother even if she would have sent you to the other side of the world, or told you to mind yours, but a good mother is always a caring individual no matter whose child it is, because the one who ended up winning was the child,because of the gift given from your heart. God Bless You!.


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