Ed Spicer Has a Lot of Books
I just returned from a conference tour that took me to Hartford, Connecticut, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and then back east to Boston – 3,000 miles driven in 10 days. While in Michigan, I had the pleasure of spending two nights at the home of Ed Spicer and Ann Perrigo in the nearby town of Allegan.
Ann is the director of the town library, and Ed is well known in the world of children’s literature. He reviews for multiple publications and has been a member of prestigious award committees, including the Caldecott jury, which recognizes outstanding illustration in books for children. He teaches first grade for the Allegan Public Schools and runs a popular book club at the high school. His insightful author interviews are widely viewed online. Ed and Ann seem to know everyone in the industry—authors, editors, publicists, scholars, and other teachers and librarians.
Their lives revolve around books. Books are everywhere in the house. On the walls are beautiful illustrations from picture books, some of which are gifts from the artists and others, wins from auctions to benefit the American Library Association and other literary causes. A large bookcase on one wall of Ed’s office overlooking the Kalamazoo River holds each winner of the Newbery Medal since its establishment in 1922 to honor the best writing in children’s books. Another bookcase features the winners of the Printz Award, which recognizes outstanding books for teens. The winners of the Coretta Scott King Award, for outstanding writing and illustration by African-American book creators, occupy another bookcase. I also saw a collection of winners of the Pura Belpré Award, honoring Latino writers and illustrators. Some of these books are, of course, very old. All of them testify to the importance of the book and reading in an age of digital media.
Ed teaches first grade because he loves reading and the written word. While many children show up to first grade already knowing how to read, this is in many ways the most critical year for building the foundation of a reading life – and a writing life as well. Ed delighted in showing me his students’ writing, and he pointed out aspects of their compositions that were developmentally appropriate for their age and gender – things like phonetic spelling, the distance between letters and words, and the more advanced fine motor skills of girls as compared to boys. “You can look at the handwriting and pretty much tell who’s a girl and boy,” he said. He said he requires students to write in pen rather than pencil because he wants to see where they have corrected their mistakes or changed their minds by crossing things out.
Several times during my visit, Ed talked about a student whose words and actions reflected exposure to inappropriate media – specifically, R-rated movies and suggestive TV shows. Listening to Ed, I considered that while books may contain more mature content, there are mediating factors: the solitary and contained nature of the reading experience (not on a large color screen with sound blasting in the living room), the print size and challenge of decoding the words, the process of comprehending the meaning of words and sentences and of thinking about the story as a whole, the fact that we make our own pictures with the words rather than having them given to us. Even though picture books contain visual images, they reflect the imagination and interpretation of the artist, who creates complex layers of meaning that readers uncover each time they open the book. What you see is not what you get; there is always more to see.
Books belong to a different world than that of TV and video games, one that moves more slowly, that builds on our past experience and asks us to imagine and to dream. Visiting Ed and Ann in their small Michigan town, in their book-filled house overlooking the river, is to journey into that world.