Category Archives: Literacy

The Secret of the Invisible Toolbox: A Loving Letter from Your Child’s Future Teacher

Excerpt from the Introduction to The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

“Dear New Parent,

Congratulations! Your precious little one is here. There is no feeling in the world more wonderful than holding your tiny newborn for the first time. Your heart expands with warmth and love and protection in a way you never could have imagined until now. As you begin a journey with this miraculous new life you have created that will take both of you far into the future, into places known and unknown, you will do everything in your power to ensure your baby’s path is as full of hope and promise as it can be. 

As well-meaning parents, we all want our children to thrive. Regular pediatrician visits, vaccinations, sleep routines, proper nutrition, feeding, bathing, cuddling—we do all of these things because we want what is best for them. But there is one more thing that is essential, and it’s one that is as important to our growing child as all the things we do to take care of our baby’s physical needs. This necessary thing is one that you may already know—or perhaps may have forgotten or haven’t fully understood. As someone who has been in your shoes as a parent and taught children just like yours in elementary school for decades, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this essential thing over the years.

Flash forward five years, and imagine with me what your child will look like on their first day of kindergarten. At this moment, that day may seem a long way off, but believe me, it will be here before you know it. Can you see your child in the brand-new school clothes that you’ve bought for this special day, down to the sneakers with laces so white because they too have never been worn? Under a fresh haircut there may be a big grin or perhaps a look of apprehension. Your child knows it’s a big day, just as you do. On their back is a crisp new backpack and in one hand a lunchbox filled with favorite things. All of this equipment is recently acquired, full of promise and expectation for the future–and probably decorated with a favorite superhero or three. Who will that be, you wonder? The picture is almost, but not quite, complete. There is more. And here is the secret. 

In your little child’s other hand they carry something else. It’s a toolbox, but it’s invisible. Unseen though it is, it will be carried to school on the first day of kindergarten and every day after that all through your child’s academic career. Whether or not it contains the most essential tools will have an enormous impact on those years and far into the future…”

Pre-order now for April 14, 2020 publication

Family Read-Alouds: Comfort in a Time of Uncertainty

Social distancing is an opportunity to cultivate a family routine that benefits everyone

With children home from school and multiple disruptions in the daily routines that keep us grounded, families may be more in need than ever of new ways of being together that bring comfort. Reading together as a family can fill that need.

How to get started?

Sooner or later, you will need to develop a schedule for your family. Whether your work keeps you home or takes you away, your children will do best if they are provided with some structure that includes keeping up with school work, time for independent reading, and play.

Schedule a time in the day when your family gathers to share a read-aloud together and stick to it. This can be an enormously comforting way to wind down the day as you bond over a great story. Regardless of when you come together, what’s most important is that you create a ritual that everyone can look forward to and count on.

What to read?

Family read-alouds are the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the books they might not pick up on their own: the classics. (See resources below.)

What are the classics, and why are they such a great choice?

As I tell my students, the classics are stories that are so outstanding that they have stood the test of time, and appeal to readers regardless of their time in history.

They make excellent read-alouds for families because of their cross-generational appeal. Classic stories have complexity and universal themes, and lend themselves to rich discussions.

Reading the classics enriches us and enlarges us intellectually—and spiritually too. As screenwriter William Nicholson wrote in his biopic of C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

The daily comfort of connecting with characters in a gripping story, surrounded by the people you care most about, may just be the perfect port in this storm.

Recommended Read-Alouds

Check out these resources.

“It may be small, but it’s mighty…”

When I met my newborn book for the first time, it wasn’t love at first sight. I held the tiny tome* in my hand, eyeing it critically, wondering what people would think. Couldn’t she write a book with more pages? Would they think it lacked substance?

A smallish gift book was what I’d planned all along, a volume so not intimidating and so visually appealing that even the most reluctant parent reader would consider picking it up. But when my agent and I met with my editor and the company’s CEO last month via Zoom and learned that Mango had reversed their earlier decision and now planned to print The Invisible Toolbox in soft cover instead of hard, my heart dropped. I was not only disappointed; I was worried. Would a softcover gift book have the same appeal as hardcover?

Mango’s marketing department was concerned that titles comparable to mine were priced at a rate with which a hardcover book wouldn’t be able to compete. Like a wounded parent, I protested: But my book is unique! There isn’t anything out there quite like it. They weren’t moved. And so the decision was made. It was out of my hands.

“I wasn’t sure I could sell it. But then I couldn’t resist.”


When Federal Express left a carton of complimentary author copies on my doorstep this week, I called my agent. “It’s so little.”

She laughed. “Remember, I almost didn’t sign you because the book is so small. I wasn’t sure I could sell it. But then I couldn’t resist.” Julia believes in the message and understands what’s at stake. For her, it’s all about saving democracy. Maybe you’ve seen the meme: A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.

Thank you, Julia, for blowing away any lingering wisps of self-doubt. The Invisible Toolbox may be small. And it may even have a softcover. But its message is mighty.

* An oxymoron, I know, but I like the alliteration.

Thank you, Amy Dickinson, for Endorsing THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TIT-FbTwIgPost_PreOrder-1024x768.jpg

Along with the down to earth advice she shares daily in her syndicated column “Ask Amy” ever since replacing Ann Landers in 2003, Amy Dickinson is a best-selling author and regular panelist on NPR’s “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” I couldn’t be more delighted to have her endorsement for The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Amy’s words were so beautifully written that my publisher put them right on the front cover:

“Kim Jocelyn Dickson has given us a gift. In lively and loving language, she opens The Invisible Toolbox and shows us what’s inside: opportunities for connection, inspiration, imagination, conversation, and joyful play. Literacy encompasses so much more than the important ability to read. Parents, teachers, and all who love children will be inspired by the author’s passionate advocacy, and helpful, compassionate instruction.”

When you read the “Ask Amy” column daily, as I do, you come to realize that Amy Dickinson is a book lover. Each year on her mother’s birthday in early December, she steps away from readers’ questions in her column to advocate for literacy through a tradition called “A Book on Every Bed.” Amy attributes her passion for reading to her mother, with whom she shared a lifelong love for and conversation about books.  For Christmas or any holiday or birthday she recommends placing a wrapped book on the foot of the bed of a child so that it’s the first thing they wake up to on that special day. Once your child unwraps it, snuggling up and sharing it together make a lasting memory. 

Amy understands the powerful connection that can happen when a parent shares a book with a child. I couldn’t be more honored that The Invisible Toolbox has the endorsement of this wise woman who also happens to be an enthusiastic champion for books and reading. Thank you, Amy Dickinson!

Available for pre-order now!

Thank you, Jeff Conyers, President of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Dollywood!

Dolly Parton’s organization is doing amazing work promoting literacy. Her foundation has donated over a million books to children from birth to age five throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I couldn’t be prouder that THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX has the endorsement of Jeff Conyers, the president of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Available for pre-order now!

THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, the book! Available April 2020

The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

What if a longtime classroom teacher were able to share with the brand-new parents of her potentially future students the single most important thing they can do to foster their parent-child bond and their child’s future learning potential? THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is Kim Jocelyn Dickson’s answer to that question. Nearly thirty years teaching hundreds of elementary school-aged children has convinced her that the simple act of reading aloud from birth has a far-reaching impact on our children, as well as the culture at large, that few of us fully understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance.

What Every Parent Needs to Know

THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX is the concise, accessible gift book that belongs in the hands of every new and expectant parent. In it, Kim explains that every child begins kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. Some children arrive with empty toolboxes and some arrive with toolboxes overflowing. For those with full toolboxes, the future is brighter; these children are much more likely to thrive in school and beyond. Children who enter school with empty toolboxes are destined to struggle. Their shortfall will be a herculean challenge to bridge, negatively affecting their motivation and ability to learn. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, 75% of children who begin school behind never catch up.

Priceless Tools for Kids and Parents

In THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, parents will learn about the ten priceless tools that will fill their child’s toolbox when they read aloud to their child from birth; and they’ll also learn about the tools they can give themselves to foster these gifts in their children. Practical tips for how and what to read aloud to children through their developmental stages, along with Do’s and Don’ts and recommended resources, round out all the practical tools a parent will need to prepare their child for kindergarten and beyond.

Research and Experience-Based

With THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, Kim has done her homework, weaving her practical anecdotal experience as an educator and parent into the hard research of recent findings in neuroscience. She not only reminds us that the first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school—language skills—and that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, but also teaches and inspires us to build our own toolboxes so that we can help our children build theirs.

The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is due out April 2020 from Mango Media.

Babies, Maternity Wards, and Books—Oh, My!

“..what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.”

by Kim Jocelyn Dickson

As a former third grade teacher, I’d often wished I could roll back time and meet the parents of my struggling readers at the door of their maternity hospital with a stack of picture books. There was nothing sadder to me than an eight year old that had missed out on being read to from the very start.

After years of teaching and observing students, it became clear to me that children who struggled in school lacked the necessary tools that come from being read to that their successful peers possessed. Brain science tells us that the first three years of life are critical in building the neural pathways that are the infrastructure for all future intellectual and emotional growth. In order for a child’s brain to make these connections, parents need to speak, read to, and sing with their babies.

According to the results of the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress—otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card), which tests a cross-section of fourth and eighth graders from public and private schools every two years, nearly two-thirds of fourth and eighth grade students do not read proficiently. That the United States is suffering a crisis of literacy is beyond dispute, but the good news is that our awareness of the problem is growing and people and organizations are finding creative ways to address it.

When I recently learned that the thing I’d wished for was actually happening in my former hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, through a program called Born to Read, I was intrigued and had to learn more. A few emails and a phone call later with Library Director Kristen Sorth, and I was convinced that what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.

In 2015 Ms. Sorth and her team of librarians and volunteers from the St. Louis County Library system, along with the support of a handful of local maternity hospitals, began reaching out to new parents with a gift that sends the message that babies and books belong together. Just two years later every single maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County were on board.

What inspired you to bring Born to Read to St. Louis County?

We brought this program to St. Louis County to help give families a head start. Studies show that when children start behind, they stay behind. The goal of Born to Read is to foster a love of reading starting at birth and to emphasize the importance of reading to children of even the youngest age.

That your program has grown to include every maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County—11 in all—since you began in 2015 is a tribute to your success. What, exactly, do the parents of each newborn in St. Louis County receive from the library?

 Each gift bag includes a board book, baby’s first library card, early literacy information, a baseball Cardinals’ beanie, and a voucher for two Cardinals’ tickets, a toothbrush, and another board book.

What do you hope each new parent gains from this gift?

 We developed the Born to Read program to reach families at the earliest possible moment. We want to convey the importance of reading and to make it easy for parents to introduce books into their daily routine.

Was gaining the support of the medical community challenging in any way? Is their support at all difficult to maintain?

 The hospitals think it’s a wonderful program. The nurses love giving the bags to the families and encouraging them to read to their children. They know the materials in the bags are purposeful, and they hear great feedback from the families. Ensuring that the hospitals are stocked with enough bags so they never run out can sometimes be a challenge since the nurses and hospital staff are incredibly busy and can’t always let us know right away when they are low. Our weekly visits help to keep them stocked.

Once the initial gift is given, do you follow up with parents later on?

 Parents and babies are invited to the library for a first birthday celebration. The Born to Read parties include story time, sensory play with bubbles and, of course, cake. Parents are also given another free book to take home. These parties are a great first introduction to parents, showing them the variety of resources available at the library.

We also stay in touch with parents via a monthly Early Literacy e–Newsletter, which provides early literacy tips, library event information, and other library resources.

Is Born to Read having an impact on the community? If so, how?

Every child born in St. Louis County now receives a library card, thanks to the Born to Read program. We’re helping create a new generation of readers. To date, we’ve distributed almost 40,000 bags.

With the involvement of every area hospital and clinic you must need a lot of help. How do you accomplish the creation and distribution of all those gift bags?

Our Youth Services staff has done a fabulous job of maintaining the program. Every 6-8 weeks they have a Born to Read work day, where staff form an assembly line to stuff bags and package them for delivery. Each Friday we have a dedicated staff member who delivers bags to area hospitals and clinics. The program has been very popular among local volunteer groups as well. We have corporate and business groups that help stuff bags each month.

How is Born to Read funded?

 The St. Louis County Library Foundation helps raise funds for the program. We also have strong corporate support–-the St. Louis Cardinals and Delta Dental have been key supporters of the Born to Read program.

What is the program’s biggest success?

Born to Read has provided a unique opportunity for the Library to reach new parents at the very beginning. Before they even leave the hospital, parents learn about the importance of reading to their baby. We make it easy for them to utilize library resources by providing them with a library card, and the book voucher gives them an incentive for visiting their local branch.

Does the St. Louis County Library provide any other means of educating new parents about the importance of reading to their child from birth?

St. Louis County Library has a variety of early literacy resources for families at every stage of development. Born to Read is the entry point for many families; after that they can sign up for the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten or attend weekly story time at a nearby branch. Later we offer Kindergarten Prep workshops and resources such as FLIP Kits (Family Literacy Involvement Program) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) programming.

With the enormous success you’ve experienced in linking society’s primary stronghold of literacy—the library—with the medical community in order to reach new parents with this crucial message, do you expect to eventually see other communities follow your lead?

The Born to Read program has already been duplicated by St. Louis Public Library. Together, we’re reaching families and promoting early literacy across the St. Louis region.

If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to become a volunteer with the Born to Read program, please contact the Youth Services Department at 314-994-3300.

Author’s note: Born to Read is an American Library Association (ALA) trademarked program that encourages the connection between libraries and health providers. The St. Louis County Library’s program is exceptional in both its implementation and scope.

 

When Your Child Doesn’t Like to Read

“I just can’t get her to read!”

I often hear protests like this from parents when I suggest that their child read more for fun. Because it’s an important lifelong habit that I want my students to cultivate and because I know reading more will have a huge impact on their success in school, I encourage parents to become proactive whenever their children don’t read outside what’s required for class.

Once a child hits the middle or upper elementary school years and is still not reading for pleasure, it’s tempting for a parent to throw up their hands and decide that reading just isn’t their child’s ‘thing.’ Or, understanding how important it is for their child’s academic growth, a parent may take the opposite tack and get into a power struggle, treating reading as if it’s some kind of medicine that has to be swallowed and endured: “I said, go to your room and read!”

Neither approach is helpful.

My belief about most children who don’t like to read is that they simply haven’t found their books yet. The good news is there are things we can do as parents to help them find those books and experience the worlds that will open up to them.

Now that summer has arrived, it’s the perfect time to help your child find their way to books they will enjoy and build an important lifelong habit. Here are some tips:

Limit the use of screens. This tip is first because it’s crucial. Not putting a phone or iPad into the hands of your elementary age school child is the best strategy, but if that ship has already sailed you must sets limits. Ready access to screens for a child is like allowing them to indulge in a steady diet of fast food. The easy access and temporary satisfaction that comes from sugar and fat will diminish the appetite for healthier choices and greater variety; in the same way, the addictive instant gratification of screens will kill the motivation to read. Reading requires deeper sustained concentration than anything your child can do on a screen. It’s work that the brain is wired to do, yet must be trained to do.

Do a quick check about your own attitude toward and practice of reading. The truth is children watch and emulate us. Creating a culture of reading in your home will have a huge impact on your child. Has it been a long time since you’ve read a magazine or a newspaper? What about that novel you’ve heard about and been meaning to get to? It’s important for your child to see you read.

Read aloud to your child. Parents sometimes believe this practice is no longer important once a child can read on their own. Not true! Reading aloud to your child is one of the most powerful ways to help them discover and experience the joys of reading. First, you can choose books together that you both enjoy, books your child might not be able to read on their own yet, and second, the time that the two of you spend connecting over a story or novel is golden. The preadolescent still craves the kind of closeness that comes with cuddling up together at the end of a day. Reading together regularly provides a double bonus: Not only will you nurture your child’s appreciation for literature, you’ll nurture your relationship. You’ll be glad you put time and energy into this before adolescence hits.

Visit your public library regularly. Establishing a routine of stopping in every two to three weeks is important. Your library provides the opportunity for you both to browse to your heart’s content. Consult with the children’s librarian there. Discuss your child’s interests with them so they can help direct you to books your child might enjoy. Pointing kids and their parents in the direction of great books is what they love doing. Don’t be shy about asking for help. During summer months, libraries often offer programs to support kids and their reading. Take advantage of them.

If you’re fortunate to have a local bookstore, visit the children’s section. Children’s book authors often provide readings and programs for free. If your finances permit, allow your child to choose a book to own occasionally. Help them build their personal library.

Talk to the parents of kids who love to read—or the kids, themselves—for recommendations. These are the kids who have found their way to books and series that appeal to your child’s age group. They’re an excellent resource. Librarians aren’t the only people who love to talk about great books. Kids who love to read do, too!

Make sure books are readily available in your home. (See above.)

Start a parent/child book club. Sharing and discussing books with friends multiplies the pleasure. Gather together a couple of your child’s friends and their parents to select a book and then meet to discuss. An adult can lead to begin with, but eventually let the kids take over in planning and running the meeting. Don’t forget the treats. (As a teacher, I’d love to have my incoming students do this with their parents and would be thrilled if they chose to read and discuss books from our summer reading list.)

Extend summer bedtime a little for fun reading. A dad I know wanted his fifth grader to read more, so he bought his son a headlamp and told him he could use it to stay up a bit later and read. This little trick, along with a great series (Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians), ignited a passion for reading that continued long beyond the series’ end. If the novelty of a headlamp isn’t quite the inducement your child needs, try to think of something else that might make the pleasure of staying up later with a book special. A reading fort made of blankets and a flashlight, perhaps?

If regular reading at home isn’t a practice that’s been part of your lives, take heart. It’s not too late to make a change. It may not happen overnight, but if you are persistent in pursuing the joy of sharing books and building new habits, you can trust that the impact on your child will reach far into the future.

The Critical First Five Years

As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.

Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.

By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.