My house is full of books. Library books, and books we own. Technical books, and fiction. Biographies, mysteries, histories, and a heavy dose of speculative fiction. My daughters grew up with ready access to all the greats: P.D. Eastman, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and more. But with all these books, perhaps the children’s book dearest to my heart is the Golden Press Guide to Familiar American Birds.
Twenty-plus years ago, when my oldest child was just learning her first words, this field guide was our first picture book. My parents, knowing my wife and I like to feed the birds in our back yard, gave us this book as a gift. And I would spend evenings after work with my daughter in my lap, labeling pictures in the field guide for her.
I didn’t think of it as “teaching” at the time. It was simply a father, sharing time with his daughter, talking about something we enjoyed as a family. But like all children, she learned to model what her parents did. While most children learned “bird”, she learned “cardinal” and “robin”, “eagle” and “duck”, “blue jay” and “sparrow” and “grossbeak”. As time progressed, our reading patterns changed, and she would race to label the pictures before I did.
She learned our patterns of speech, too. We were labeling everything we saw for her, so she did the same. And when she mislabeled something in her eagerness, my wife, ever the preschool teacher, would guide her to the right word. “Actually,” she’d say, “it’s a _______.” And life went on.
Until the day my daughter turned away from the book to look at the birds outside our window. It was perhaps a full year later, and my little girl had graduated from single words to full sentences. And when her mother said “Look out the window at the birdie,” my precocious little girl replied “Actually, Mommy, it’s a junco.”
Naturally my wife rushed to the field guide to look it up. Page 116 has a drawing of a junco on it, which she dutifully compared to the bird at our feeder. She matched the gray back, the white belly, the shape of its beak, the markings on its tail.
My little girl had it right.