Monday, November 6, 2017

The Power of the Picture Book: Jason Lewis

What Baseball Cards Taught Me

A couple weeks ago, I was book-talking a book to my fifth graders and our conversation took a detour to collecting things. I told them that when I was their age I collected rocks, coins, Garbage Pail Kid cards and baseball cards. My baseball card collection was my pride and joy. At 10, that would have been the one item that I would have taken with me if my house was on fire or if I was going to a deserted island. After my students shared some of the things they collect, I told them that I sadly don’t collect anything anymore.

        One student raised her hand and said, “Mr. Lewis, we’ve only been in your classroom for a few days, but it looks like you still collect something. It looks like you collect picture books!” When she said this, I knew she was right.

        When my friend, Kurt Stroh asked me to contribute to his “Power of the Picture Book” blog series, I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation my students and I had about collecting things. Questions kept popping into my head: Did my baseball card collecting as a ten-year-old thirty years ago prepare me for collecting picture books? Why do I collect picture books? Will my picture book collection one day sit in my attic alongside my baseball cards? Here’s my attempt at answering those questions.

        Did my baseball card collecting as a ten-year-old thirty years ago prepare me for collecting picture books? The short answer…yes! When I started thinking about collecting baseball cards and picture books, the similarities really struck me. As a ten-year-old, I would make sure that I carefully put most of my baseball cards in shiny sleeve protectors for easy display. Today many of my picture books are handled with great care and also sit on racks throughout my classroom for easy display. As a baseball card collector I was always on the lookout for cards of value. As I think about it now, wouldn’t that be the same as searching out and buying award winning picture books? Thirty years ago, one of my favorite things to do with my baseball cards was trade them with my brothers and friends. We’d sit for hours going through our prized collections trying to come up with the perfect trade. I always wanted those rookie cards. You never knew if that baseball player was going to be the next Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski. Although it isn’t as cutthroat as it was at the age of 10, I frequently share my picture books with friends, colleagues and students. I’m just as excited when I get a debut author or illustrator’s picture book in my hands. I can’t help but to think if these authors will become the next Newbery or Caldecott award winner.  There were several different baseball card companies when I was collecting. Each company seemed to try to out-do the other company with their special edition cards that I needed to own. Today there are numerous publishing companies with many, amazing authors and illustrators.

I remember sitting there with an unopened pack of baseball cards in my hand with the excitement of the unexpected. The unopened pack might include “that” card that I needed/wanted. It’s the same with a new picture book. The story/illustrations might be just the story that my students and I need. Opening a pack of baseball cards also came with that hard, pink, powdery piece of gum that I might have chewed for all of thirty seconds but needed to have. It was like a small present from the baseball card company for buying their cards. Isn’t this the same as the “undies” that many picture books have hiding under their book jackets today? They are small presents to the reader before you even open up the book.

While you bought baseball cards for the picture on the front, you were also rewarded with their stats on the back. Before the internet, the back of a baseball card was important. Where else would you find the statistics of your favorite baseball players? Similarly, you’re buying a picture book for the story, but many come with incredible back matter. With the internet and a plethora of information on a topic, the back matter helps focus the reader and gives them a place to start. Once my baseball card collection grew, I would organize and reorganize my collection continuously. Sometimes it was by team, my favorite cards or players, by card company, value, etc. As I collect more and more picture books, I’m always organizing and reorganizing them based on how I use them in the classroom whether it is by genre, theme, or author/illustrator.

Finally, there were card shows where baseball card collectors would go to sell and buy cards, and there were local stores where I could go to find the card I was looking for. This reminds me of the many Nerdcamps popping up all over the country, and conferences like ALA and NCTE where publishers, authors, and illustrators go to publicize their books. Reflecting on my card collecting days, I now realize that collecting baseball cards really did prepare me for collecting picture books.

        Why do I collect picture books? Again, the short answer…they’re amazing! Where else can you go to find beautiful words and illustrations all wrapped up in a small package? I collect picture books because of the themes and lessons they teach as mentor texts in reading and writing, and for the doors they open, allowing my students to see into someone else’s world. I collect picture books to help my students understand history and to allow them the chance to better understand the world around them. I collect picture books to introduce my students to people throughout history and to people today who are changing the world. I collect picture books to teach my students language and word choice and to appreciate art and beautiful illustrations in a variety of mediums. I collect picture books because I always want to have the right book on hand for whatever occasion arises. I collect picture books to entertain my students. It’s been awhile since most of my fifth graders have had a picture book read to them daily. The smiles, anticipation, and excitement that I see on my student’s faces when I ask them to meet me at the rug for a picture book will ensure that my picture book buying days are far from over.

Will my picture book collection one day sit in my attic alongside my baseball cards?
This is a good question. My baseball cards were such a huge part of my life when I was my student’s age. If I thought, back then, that my collection would be sitting in an attic collecting dust for decades, I would have thought it was a joke. While I don’t collect baseball cards anymore, baseball has remained a big part of my life. Both of my boys play baseball, my oldest year-round. I am constantly at baseball fields and batting cages after school, on the weekends, and throughout the summer. Then there is always a game to watch on tv. Although I won’t be teaching thirty years into the future, I can’t see my picture book collection sitting in an attic (there would be no room!). They’ll be passed on to my children, my students, and colleagues where they will continue to inspire, teach, and motivate young minds for many years to come. Maybe I’ll keep just a few!

Jason Lewis (@jasontes5th) is a 5th grade teacher at Tyngsboro Elementary School in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. Jason’s participation in the Nerdy Book Club has positively impacted the way he teaches and has introduced him to outstanding people he calls friends. When not reading, talking about books, or buying and organizing his growing picture book collection, Jason can be found at the baseball field or basketball court with his boys or trying to tire out his one-year-old chocolate lab.

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