Woodpeckers and the Wonderful World of Books

I woke up this morning to the sight of two spectacular downy woodpeckers fully engaged in their calling. These two were industriously pecking into the soft wood of the Australian willow that was trimmed down to clear the way for the recent addition of several solar-voltaic panels. I argued to save the tree, but alas, my arguments paled against the new solar project.

The tenacious pecking of these woodpeckers brings to mind the fast-paced culture in which our students exist today. Such an image stands in stark contrast with the quiet bookworm, who is most content when lounging on a beanbag with a nose in a novel. Sadly, in the frenetic world of Facebook, Internet, and video games, it seems that reading has taken on an entirely new dimension for many young people. Like other activities, it seems that reading has also become fast-paced and instant, with no time left for mulling over and processing the information on the page. What happened to reading for pleasure and letting the words splash and roll over you?

With this question in mind, I asked my students to reflect in their thought journals on various reasons why they like reading. These were some of their reflections:

  • “Reading gets me out of this world when I’m not happy.”
  • “When I read, I often learn about different periods of time and what they were like.”
  • “When I read, I learn more words and how to use them when speaking and spell them when writing.”
  • “To stretch my imagination.”
  • “To learn about other worlds.”

It seems to me from these responses that students recognize the power of a book to take its reader into other worlds without flying, and to other ages without the aid of a time machine. Beyond that, my students have come to realize that a good book has the ability to make you laugh uproariously one moment and then cry soon afterwards. With so many other leisure options at hand, they may not be as inclined to pick up a book as in times past. Yet when we give our students an opportunity to read, the magic of literature soon overtakes their imaginations.

Let’s reflect a moment: If a larger percentage of our youth are reading less often—or, like the woodpecker, tenaciously reading only one type of material—what happens to “going into other worlds” and learning about words and the intricacies of language? How does one process the words if they move so quickly in front of one’s eyes? How do we motivate our students to actually pick up books and relax with them?

One method of reading a book is to extract all the details in a story. The Battle of the Books, a reading program used in Christian schools and elsewhere is designed to do just that, as it aims to make students inquisitive and familiar with various types of literature. Classic books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Witch of Blackberry Pond are included in the selection used for the “battle.” My personal favourite in the fantasy genre is Inkheart; I couldn’t put it down, and when I was done, I had to read the entire series. When I read junior fiction, I look for more than a “story well told”; I look for stories that have characters who show courage and the value of friendship. In City of Ember, for example, characters Doon and Lina are courageous, show intelligence, and evidence good judgment—all qualities worth highlighting in a Christian classroom.

Another program used in many of our schools is the Accelerated Reading Program, which is an excellent way to motivate students toward reading comprehension. As well, many schools participate in the Red Maple or White Birch programs. Our school implemented the Special Reading Friends Program several years ago, where community members and grandparents come to the school once a week to read with a group of younger children. Amazing bonds develop from these experiences. All these types of in-school activities, as well as read-a-thons, are excellent for promoting reading!

One of my favorite junior fiction authors is still Madeleine L’Engle. She can magically transport you to another world and back, and her style is both accessible and nuanced. What an awesome God we have that he uses people like J.R.R. Tolkien, Avi, Tolstoy, and many other writers to capture young minds and help them explore the world in a different way. Consider the learning that takes place in our own lives each time we read God’s Word; as we engage in the text, the words become alive to us. In the same way, our challenge as Christian educators is to make literature, God’s Word included, alive for our youth. If we read with them, to them, and alongside them, this will happen. If our hope is to create critical minds capable of facing a technological society, we must model our objectives. We need to laugh and cry through our books with our classes.

Upon more careful scrutiny of the habits of woodpeckers, I see that they are perhaps not as inherently distracted as they at first seemed. Rather than inattentive, they are inquisitive and creative, as they flit from one spot to another to check out their options among the many branches. Our students, like the woodpeckers, are anxious to extend their “wings” and broaden their horizons. As educators, our goal must be to help them to develop their own unique flight patterns in the world of reading.


Some Suggested Newbery Medal Books Through the Decades (1920–2010)

  1. 1923—The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
  2. 1930—Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, by Rachel Field
  3. 1933—Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Lewis
  4. 1940—Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty
  5. 1946—Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski
  6. 1949—King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry
  7. 1959—The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
  8. 1963—A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  9. 1972—Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien
  10. 1981—Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
  11. 1991 (honor book)—The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi
  12. 1992—Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  13. 1999—Holes, by Louis Sachar
  14. 2002—A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park
  15. 2003—Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi