What I do know is that I could not stop watching, and trying to understand based on what I learnedd from a picture book when I was a kid. It took most of the class for me to remember the name of the book (not accurately, but well enough to find it again) but I knew the "jaws" of the backhoe looked like a mouth eating plaster because I'd seen that before. I've seen just about everything from a picture-book perspective first. Before I went to the beach, learned about presidents, tried to cook, studied the planets or needed motivation, I'd had a primer and knew the general outline. School and life just filled in the colors.
I don't remember the names of most of the picture books I read growing up, or had read to me by my parents, but there were plenty. Primary grade teachers spend a lot of time with books on their lap, going through them one at a time, holding up the pictures in between pages, so I'm sure I saw some books over and over. I then read a few hundred books a few thousand times to my own kids. But even without the titles or specific details, what's inside the books comes back to me when the situation arises.
Without a lot detail, I knew by age six or seven:
- what was different about living in Texas, or Hawaii, or other countries
- what could be dragged behind a tractor to plow fields
- where dolphins lived, why they came into captivity, how they were trained to do tricks
- the mechanics of a plane, and how a bridge was built (and a pyramid, a cathedral, a city, but these came later. I could only learn as fast as David Macauley could write.)
- how the Pilgrims survived their first winter in Plymouth (actually, I knew this in fine detail. My aunt worked at the Plantation re-creating the experience and was very authentic about it. Thanksgivings we pulled cold carrots from the ground and had cornbread made from course-milled grain. There's a story about a hog's head and a dishwasher that is best kept within the Creane family. But before that I still knew about how the Pilgrims lived).
- How horrible some racist fans were to Jackie Robinson when he desegregated baseball
- Why we couldn't live on any other planet in our solar system, and what the sun provided us (and every other living thing on this planet).
- What animals live in a rain forest, on a savanna, under coral reefs, over polar ice
- How electricity is made and moved.
- What yeast does to make donuts
- The pieces and players of a hospital operating room
- Weather patterns, and extreme events (hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, typhoons, earthquakes)
- How our government works, newspapers print, writers publish, musicians create, artists inspire
- Sex (thank goodness Peter Mayle, who made it seem goofy).
- Careers to consider (I credit Richard Scarrey's Busytown )
- How to fly a hot air balloon
Most picture books teach about emotions and relationships. Socialization's important so that's fine. We all need practice. Some children's book authors use fantasy to make the lessons more exciting (cue Dr. Seuss). The favorites of mine were Maurice Sendak's. I cannot recall any poems in full, but I can recite his entire Nutshell Library. They fuel the imagination while giving us help with the brother teasing us from across the couch. My first adventure books were Curious George, who was as wild and badly behaved as I've ever wanted to be at the zoo.
But the books that taught me about the world behind our apartment, our hallway, our backyard, were the ones that gave me the outlines to understand life as it came at me fast once I was beyond the realm of picture books. In psychology, it's called scaffolding--getting enough general knowledge of something to be able to place new, specific knowledge in context so you can remember and apply it--but in reality, it's called confidence. No one likes to be ignorant when facing a new situation, that's scary and embarrassing. We want to be ready, and curious, and excited.
So when the demo team was working (I realized the demo had gone on the day before, with the wrecking ball. This was the debris removal, completed by an excavating team, which I figured out from the signs on their trucks), I was pressed up against the window, watching and learning. One guy was spraying water on the dust to keep the insulation pieces from floating everywhere. The backhoe guy worked the levers like spider arms, folding the beams of metal into thirds to fit in the dump truck. One guy had to go at the concrete hot tub with a sledge hammer. It was all so cool, and I owe it to Mike and his steam shovel, who gave me a little info bank that's grown with interest over the years.
I ran home for my camera, and asked questions of the crew, so I owe a debt to Curious George too. Without the trouble. This time, anyway.