There are 7 million copies of Brown Bear, Brown Bear in print. Written by Bill Martin and illustrated by Eric Carle it was first published in 1967 and is listed as #21 on the 2013 Good Reads list of best children’s books. The popularity of the simple story led to the creation of other best sellers- Polar Bear, Polar Bear, -Baby Bear Baby Bear- and Panda Bear, Panda Bear. Those are just four of the more than 300 books written by children’s author Bill Martin who died in 2004.
I met Bill Martin in 1980 when he did a workshop for teachers at a North Dakota university. Together with some of my Manitoba colleagues I went to several days of sessions where Bill Martin and the classroom teachers who worked with him transformed the way I taught reading. They introduced me to the idea of using good children’s literature instead of readers to teach children to read. I also became sold on the value of a curriculum rich with music and poetry in developing children’s language and reading skills. Bill Martin said children needed to have ‘language inside themselves’ before they could learn to read. A former reading curriuclum development executive for Holt Rhinehart, Martin was just beginning these workshops when I met him but I’ve learned that later they became known as Pathways to Literacy Conferences and trained more than 50,000 teachers at sites across the United States.
Called the ‘soul of modern reading instruction’ by Ken Goodman, a former president of the International Reading Association, Martin promoted the idea that children’s literature belonged in the classroom and lots of it and that teaching children to love books was as important as teaching them how to read them. I remember at the conference learning that children should be encouraged to develop literature preferences and have a favorite author and be given an opportunity to choose what they wanted to read. The workshop I attended was also where I heard about the idea of Sustained Silent Reading- giving children time every day to read to themselves and just enjoy books. The importance of teachers reading aloud to children many times each day was emphasized. The conference also taught us about the key role played by parents who should be reading to children and the value of children taking books home from school daily to read to their parents.
All these practices were great news for the children’s book industry. Instead of just having thirty copies of a ‘reader’ -one for each child- a classroom now needed hundreds of books. More books were needed so all the children could take books home every night and even more books so children could have a real choice in what they read. Teachers reading aloud books popularized them and kids begged their parents to buy them copies. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the practices Martin, who had his doctrate in education from Northwestern University in Chicago, started in the 1980s really revolutionized the children’s book industry by making schools and classrooms booming markets for children’s books. So thanks Bill Martin. A Bill Martin Junior Symposium is still held each year at Texas A&M University.
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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?