Bonds and Books: An Interview with Megan Dowd Lambert About Building Connections Through Family Reading
Okay, so right now I need you to take a look around. If you are reading this post in March then I’m going to do something that I have never asked you to do before: I want you to look at the ads. That’s right. This book has ads, usually by the publishers (though on slow months it just tends to be for other LJ/SLJ products) and I don’t tend to notice them much. But this month I was delighted to find that the posts were for none other than Megan Dowd Lambert and her latest book BOOK BONDING: BUILDING CONNECTIONS THROUGH FAMILY READING. If you’re unfamiliar with Ms. Lambert and her books, do not fear. There’s always time to find and read and enjoy them. This one is particularly interesting, as this publisher description makes clear:
“A collection of essays about family, reading, and bonding with others through books. Written by company president Megan St. Marie under the name Megan Dowd Lambert, this is the perfect book for teachers, librarians, parents, and other caregivers to read as they pass down their love of books to the children in their lives.
This poignant, funny, and touching essay collection invites readers to consider how they bond with children, other family, friends, and students through shared reading.
Divided into 4 sections organized around themes of parenting, adoption, race, and healing, this 21-essay collection with its joyous and colorful illustrations is perfect gift for parents, grandparents, librarians, educators, and anyone who spends time with children or reading together with others.
The author’s experience as an educator and as a parent in a blended family that includes seven children of various racial backgrounds (four of whom came home through adoption) adds depth and breadth to her expertise about how people read and respond to books.”
Plus, you know you’re doing something right when Roger Sutton writes your Foreword. Megan was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had about it today:
Betsy Bird: Megan! So great to talk to you again. And I’m delighted to hear about your new book BOOK BONDING: BUILDING CONNECTIONS THROUGH FAMILY READING. Some of us might already be familiar with previous works of yours that discuss the Whole Book Approach. Could you talk to me a little bit about how this book originated and its relationship to your previous work?
Megan Dowd Lambert: Thanks so much for reaching out about BOOK BONDING, Betsy! This new book has its origins in a reading journal I started keeping about two decades ago when my first two children (now 25 and 19) were little. I would jot down things they said about books and reading, with an eye toward writing something, someday, about family reading. At the time, I was working in the education department at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, where I developed the Whole Book Approach storytime model you mention. I kept track of storytime attendees’ responses to books we read together, too. Based on my notes from home and work, I started pitching pieces to the Horn Book, and once a few were picked up, I developed a proposal for a book tentatively called STORYTIME STORIES. Editor Allyn Johnston (now at Beach Lane Books) responded enthusiastically, but she gave me a good critique along the lines of, “You don’t have one book here; you have two. One is about reading with children in schools and libraries, and the other is about family reading.” She was right!
I was more than a little heartbroken when Allyn’s career shifted soon after that correspondence, and she couldn’t sign my book, let alone the two she recommended I write; but I will always be grateful for her advice and guidance. With it, I crafted a new vision for a first book that would introduce the Whole Book Approach (with a primary audience of teachers and librarians), and a second book that would reflect on reading with my children and would target parents, grandparents, and other caregivers. After Charlesbridge editor Yolanda Scott saw me give a presentation on the Whole Book Approach at Simmons University (where I completed my MA in Children’s Literature and taught in some capacity for 17 years), we started talking about the Whole Book Approach book, which published in 2015 as READING PICTURE BOOKS WITH CHILDREN: HOW TO SHAKE UP STORYTIME AND GET KIDS TALKING ABOUT WHAT THEY SEE. Meanwhile, I continued publishing pieces at the Horn Book, and eventually on other sites like Reading White, EmbraceRace, Mombian, and on my own website. I approached Yolanda and Roger Sutton, editor emeritus of the Horn Book, about pulling some of these pieces into a collection, and BOOK BONDING was born. It was a long labor, though! I signed the contract for this book in 2017, Roger retired in 2021, and the book is coming out in 2023. On the plus side, this meant I had time to write more pieces as my family grew to include the seven children I have today, who will be aged 5–26 when BOOK BONDING officially comes out.
BB: In his Foreword to your book, Roger Sutton, notes that, “Megan reads with her children as a way for parent and child alike to imagine the world as it could be.” He makes a careful distinction between that, and reading books to children with the sole purpose of “teaching a lesson”. Could you speak a bit to this distinction and what it means for you?
MDL: There just might be some lessons learned while talking about books with kids, but I think what Roger’s getting at is that I really try hard not to engage in top-down conversations in which I tell children what to think about a book. Instead, I try to guide discussion with open-ended questions and with active, deep listening. Ultimately, what I’m most interested in when it comes to reading with children is seeing what they think about the books they read.
Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely core values of curiosity, humility, compassion, inclusion, and generosity that I want to embody and model for my children, in our reading lives and otherwise. Since all books are the product of human imagination, expression, and context, they necessarily communicate lessons and messages about such values, and about power, aesthetics, history, culture—the list goes on! That’s where things get especially interesting and exciting for me in book conversations with children. They see all kinds of stuff I miss—ideological, aesthetic, and otherwise. I love, love, love hearing kids talk about books because I’ve learned a ton from their insights and questions, perhaps particularly in the vein of imagining the world as it could be.
It’s all too easy for me to feel a pull of despair at the state of the world children are inheriting, but despair shares ground with apathy as both impulses lead to inaction. So…what to do? How can we try to make our world fairer, safer, greener, better for our children and for next generations? Can storytime and family reading change the world? I think so…at least in our own small corners, and maybe beyond. Poet and picture book author Lucille Clifton said, “We cannot create what we can’t imagine.” I think of this line a lot in the context of reading with children because books can absolutely help us all imagine the world as it could be—whether they offer aspirational content, or content we resist and use as a counterpoint to our dreams.
But, I don’t want to pass the buck, or to say to children, in effect, “Well, we adults really screwed things, up, so get inspired by books and change the world, kids!” That’s a big burden for small shoulders to bear. And so, words from Walter Dean Myers’ acceptance speech for the 1989 Coretta Scott King Award for Fallen Angels also guide my thinking about reading with children:“Let us celebrate the children, and bring them peace.” I think that illustrator Mia Saine beautifully captures the essence of this sentiment in their warm cover art and playful interior illustrations for BOOK BONDING, and I am so grateful for the vision they brought to this project.
BB: The phrase “book bonding” appears early in your book. Could you explain a little about what it means and why it’s so important to you?
MDL: When I was selecting pieces, I kept coming back to the common thread of how reading with my children has helped me get to know them as the particular people they are throughout their stages of growth and development. That deeper knowledge of my children, born of our book conversations, strengthens our bonds. When I look at the books we’ve read together on our shelves, they hold not only words and pictures, but memories of our shared reading and conversations.
In writing about those conversations, I always want to push beyond a kids-say-the-darndest-things sort of tone. Funny moments and cute little quips have emerged during our shared reading, but in this book I tried to highlight the moments of insight, critique, and wonder that fill our reading lives. Those times when my kids make me say, “I’ve never thought of it that way!” or “You helped me understand this differently,” or “How the heck did you come up with that?” never fail to make me feel closer to them because they show their minds and hearts in action—perhaps in ways I hadn’t seen or appreciated before.
I am convinced that the book bonding my kids and I have shared can happen in any context, familial or otherwise, whenever people use books to engage with one another in a reciprocal, open way. Sometimes when I read with my kids, it’s like I can almost feel my ears getting bigger, opening up to listen to every bit of what they’re saying about characters, art, stories, and ultimately, about their hopes, fears, thoughts, feelings, and their very selves. I’ve learned so much while book bonding with my children, sometimes through our disagreements, and I hope this book is both a tangible expression of my love and a means of helping their light shine out on the world. My oldest son, Rory, wrote the Afterword, and I can hardly begin to say how much that means to me.
BB: The book contains twenty-one pieces that you’ve written over the years for a variety of different places, now collected and revised. How did you go about deciding what to include? What needed revision? Ideas and understandings constantly change over time. What changes have you made over the years, and what ideas have stayed evergreen since you last wrote them?
MDL: Soon after I signed the contract for BOOK BONDING, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, which is a compilation of essays he wrote for The Atlantic during the Obama administration, including his landmark piece, “The Case for Reparations.” I had read that essay and the others in the collection before, but having them all in one volume, with introductory reflections Coates wrote for each piece, made me appreciate them in new ways. The format of introducing each of my essays was 100% inspired by Coates’s book. Each reflection comments on when I wrote each piece, and where each first appeared. They also acknowledge that I’ve changed some content for BOOK BONDING—usually editing to reduce word count (with huge thanks to editor Karen Boss, who helped immensely in this regard), and sometimes adding content to update old pieces that were out of date, or omitting content I no longer stand by.
For example, I had to update the very first piece I ever published at the Horn Book, “Reading about Families in My Family,” (2008) in which I lament the lack of books with queer content for children, because, happily, there are many more such titles available now. I also excluded a piece I wrote for the Horn Book in which I discussed how my older kids and I read LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, in favor of including a later piece I wrote for Reading While White in which I documented my changing thinking about reading Wilder’s series—even to prompt critical discussions about settler colonialism, as was my earlier intent. The exclusion of that first piece isn’t an effort to hide or deny the fact that my thinking has changed, but to avoid perpetuating, encouraging, or endorsing my earlier point of view. On we grow, as the saying goes….
BB: You’re releasing this book amidst a wave of newly inspired book bans across the country. Where does your book fit in to this debate and how do you feel it might benefit readers who face such challenges?
MDL: There seems to be a lot of fear behind the book bans, which overwhelmingly target books by and/or about BIPOC and queer people of all races. Those fears, in turn, seem rooted in a desire to maintain the status quo, and they often present as anger against changemakers (authors, illustrators, and others) whose work could invite us to talk about race and racism, encounter representations of queer people, challenge binary gender norms, and examine history from non-dominant perspectives.
Mine is a multiracial, foster-adoptive, blended, queer family. There is simply no way I can truly bond with my kids if we don’t talk about the many intersecting and divergent aspects of our identities. Books have helped us have those conversations. And so, my essays in BOOK BONDING address themes including parenting, adoption, race, and healing. I hope my book can play a small part in encouraging people to resist those fear-based bans and to engage in brave, rich, loving discussions with kids about these themes and others in books.
Even if people aren’t actively banning books or openly espousing racism or homophobia, maybe they are operating from a place of anxiety or avoidance when it comes to talking about race, gender, and sexuality. Books can help! In my experience, they do so by providing a meeting place of sorts for intergenerational conversations about all sorts of things as stories and art prompt critical thinking, reflection, growth, delight, and yes, bonding.
BB: Finally, how would you love to see this book used with families and parents?
MDL: There are lots and lots of parenting books out there, including those that offer tips for raising readers. This isn’t one of those books. Outside of my ongoing work in children’s literature, I now own and run a small publishing company, Modern Memoirs, which helps people self-publish their memoirs and family histories. Though it doesn’t have a chronological narrative structure, this book has really ended up feeling like a family-reading memoir of sorts. So first and foremost, I hope it’s a just good read. I hope it will make readers laugh. I hope it will move them. I hope it will make them think. I hope readers will talk back to it. I hope my book can provide a window into our family’s experience of book bonding, which is grounded in listening to and learning from and about each other.
And since this book is all about connecting with others through reading, I’d love for it to find a home in book groups and parenting groups. I hope it will give readers the same sorts of aha moments I had during the conversations that inspired it, maybe helping them see things in a new light, or sparking debates and conversation.
I also hope that readers will see something of their own reading lives reflected. My precise, complex family structure isn’t one that many people will relate to, but I hope parents and other caregivers will see themselves in the day-to-day effort to bond with their children through books.
Beautifully told and rendered. Big thanks to Megan for joining me today. BOOK BONDING is on shelves everywhere April 18th so be sure to pre-order your copy today.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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