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Even ‘people of the screen’ need to read

Have you ever heard of the Sugar-Plum Tree?
‘Tis a marvel of great renown!

It blooms on the shore of the Lollipop sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town…

Whenever someone talks about teaching children to read, an old rhyme comes to mind.
I still have the Childcraft book that my mother read from each night when she put me to bed. Volume 1 was full of wonderful children’s poems, but I always asked for “The Sugar-Plum Tree.”
Mom read the poem to me so often that I can recite many of its lines, and they chime in my head at times like this.
“This” being the “Give Five Read Five” campaign to send each elementary-school child home with five books to read over the summer. Public schools have been collecting donated books for a few weeks now, and so has the Post. Readers have filled a barrel with books.
I doubt that “The Sugar-Plum Tree” is in any of them, but somewhere in those thousands of pages may be the story or rhyme that will spark a young imagination and launch a lifelong long of reading.
Now that I’m an adult with Google at my fingertips, I know that my favorite childhood poem came from the pen of Eugene Fields, a 19th century writer.
But as a child who loved sweets, all I knew was that I’d like to have my own sugar-plum tree.

The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.
The “fruit” was candy, knocked to the ground by a gingerbread dog chasing a chocolate cat — silly stuff, I know, and not altogether constructive. If Eugene Fields were alive today, he’d be admonished for not waxing poetic about real fruit instead.
But one poem leads to another. And looking at the words as Mom read them to me may have had an impact. Between that and playing school with my two older sisters, I picked up reading pretty fast.
Dad never could understand that “playing school” stuff. He’d tell us we had the rest of our lives to go to school and should go outside and play.
Whether we played inside or outside, in those very early years my days ended with Mom tucking me into bed and reading about the sugar-plus tree.

There are marshmallows, gumdrops, and peppermint canes,
With stripings of scarlet or gold,
And you carry away of the treasure that rains
As much as your apron can hold!

We were blessed. We had a set of Childcraft books, the World Book Encyclopedia and two parents to make sure we put them to good use (and brushed our teeth and went to Sunday school).
What might it be like for a child to begin school without knowing any letters or words? What if their parents don’t read to them or keep reading material around the house?
The children would start school behind their classmates, spend the school year trying to catch up and then slide back during the summer when they have no school — and no books.
It’s been said we are evolving from “people of the book” to “people of the screen.” Using the devices of the digital age may be reshaping young brains, and it definitely is shortening attention spans.
All the more reason to put books in the hands of children who need to strengthen their reading skills. The faster the world spins, the more out-of-step today’s children will be as adults if they struggle to comprehend the written word. Screens have words, too.
Some 29 percent of Rowan’s children live below the poverty level, according to the most recent Kids Count report. More than 60 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Those children often lag as much as two and a half years behind their peers in reading skills by the fifth grade, and “summer loss” is a big part of the problem.
Parents, business leaders and community members can help prevent that loss by donating at least five books to their local elementary school.
Some children might toss the books aside on the last day of school and not look at them all summer. But a favorite character or silly story — or a sugar-plum tree — could draw them in when rain muddies the playground or TV turns boring.
In their own space, in their own time, children might turn to a book — simply because they want to and they have the opportunity.
And no batteries or electricity will be required.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.
Give Five Read Five asks people to donate five new or gently used books for children in grades K-5. Books may be dropped off at any public elementary school or the Salisbury Post, 131 W. Innes St.

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