He pushes the book back into my hands.
"Again, Ms. Sylvan, AGAIN!"
We've read this one four times already today.
"We've read this one so many times! Would you like to pick a different one this time?"
"NO! THIS ONE! AGAIN!" This time, not one, but a chorus of voices implore me: Again. This one. Nothing else will do.
If you work with young children, you've likely encountered this scenario before. The scenario where your students want the same book over and over and over again, despite the fact that you've collected an impressive library just filled with classics. And they're all right there on the shelf, just begging to be read. Despite the fact that the themes of the book don't relate to anything else you're doing today. We've spent weeks in the dead of winter reading Pumpkin Circle on repeat, rehashing the life cycle of everyone's favorite autumn crop long after the last leaf has fallen onto frost-hardened ground. We've snuggled under green, leafy trees in muggy June heat to read Llama, Llama, Holiday Drama, which often segues into play surrounding "gift wrapping" and "decorating Christmas trees" (again, in June). Favorite after favorite gets the repeat-read treatment until the pages fall from the binding and need to be repaired in our "book hospital," no matter the fact that the shelves are simply overflowing with other choices. Favorite stories rekindle favorite play schemes, as well, further derailing adult agendas day after day.
My husband recently commented on our children's deep, abiding love for the work of Mercer Mayer. There's a Nightmare in my Closet, There's an Alligator Under My Bed, and There's Something in the Attic are our daughter's current favorites, and they were her brother's favorites for years. Both children have memorized at least one story from this canon. My husband has been reading these stories at bedtime for several nights in a row and confided in me that he just didn't understand their appeal, saying that the basic storyline was the same in all of them and he didn't see anything special about them. I've been reading them on repeat to my daughter and my playschool kids during the day, too, and watching the resulting monster/ alligator/ something-in-the-closet play unfold after each reading. The good guys chase away the monsters or convince them to be nice. and then the cycle begins anew. It does seem like a lot of the same thing, at least on the surface.
But each story, in a slightly different way, tells a heroic tale of a child defeating his or her greatest fear. In the process of taking on their fears - a monster in the attic or closet, an alligator under the bed - the children find that their "nightmares" aren't as scary as they thought. Each time we read, the protagonists remind us that we can be brave, that we can overcome our fears. There is something new to notice in the illustrations (which are delightful in each story), a new way to think about the events, a new detail indicating that the featured monsters are more human, and less scary, than they initially seemed. The protagonists wrestle with the fact that their parents don't see or understand the things that frighten them. Each read brings another opportunity to feel just a little scared alongside the protagonist,and then emerge triumphant at the end.
In her truly wonderful book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood, Emily Plank reminds us that "predictability is empowering," likening a child's repeated requests for the same story or game to an adult's need to drive down the same streets many times in order to feel comfortable in a new town. "This is the culture of childhood," Plank tells us, "and we have to remember that children look at repetitious experiences through a different lens. Repetition is not boring, and, paradoxically, repetition can actually free children to experience novelty. Unlike their adult care providers, children are not bored after the tenth reading of Goodnight Moon. Through each successive reading, their minds are free to attend to something new. Perhaps they notice the sound of the turning pages during the first reading. Then, after the turning pages lose their allure, they notice a link between the pictures on each page and the sound of the words that accompany those pictures. In subsequent readings, they notice the colorful drawings that follow the black-and-white ones, or they wait with anticipation for the cow that jumps over the moon, or the sound of the lady whispering hush, or they notice the mouse that appears in every scene. As adults, we get bored with reading the same books over and over - and rightly so! We have ceased to be awed by the sound of a turning page, and with finely tuned phonemic awareness skills, we are no longer amazed at the magical synchronicity of words and pictures... But understanding the culture of childhood means appreciating the function of repetition in its cultural context."
It is, of course, our jobs as teachers and caregivers to be sure children have access to a variety of different books in their environments, and to take time to share new and wonderful literature with them and to support them as they respond to that literature in their play, their artwork, their writing. But it is also our job to sit back when we can and listen to what they need. When we read a book that they clearly love, that they want to hear on repeat and act out over and over again, saying YES to the request to keep reading that beloved text is a valuable experience for all of us - children and adult. We empower our children, telling them that their ideas matter. We reinforce the notion that reading together is a rich, rewarding experience and that a good story is to be savored, not set aside. We help them to build comfort with the elements of print. We help them grow as readers, and as people who will grow up loving books... again and again.