Read this! Cultivates literacy

The Dunn family.

What makes children love to read, a nearly impossible feat in this age when exciting games leap out of smartphones, while earbuds feed music from rap stars? Many of today’s children might not recognize a book if it dropped from a recent Perseid meteor shower.

And yet the love of reading is highly achievable, says Deb Dunn of Chilmark, literacy coordinator at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, and soon-to-be author of an exciting column in this paper called “Read This!” which will help parents cultivate literacy at home.

“Every child can be a reader and a writer,” she maintains.

Deb and I met for coffee on an August Monday at the Plane View Restaurant. For me that meant a (nearly) door-to-door transport on the Number 7 VTA bus, for Deb a car ride from her house up-Island by a route that cunningly avoided all the down-Island mish-mash.

I already knew that natural-born readers, in spite of all the high-tech hoopla, will always be born into the world, just as redheads and butterfly geeks make a small but steady appearance. In my bookstore (Sun Porch Books in Oak Bluffs, 2002–2008), I beheld a regular crew of tots hurtling toward the children’s section.

“He’s passionate about reading!” one of the parents always exclaimed. Of course! That’s why there’ll always be bookstores of one sort or another, and hang the e-book screens that so far have failed to penetrate more than 30 percent of the publishing market.

Deb works primarily with grades kindergarten through six, her stated goal to help reading-resistant students get down to the serious business of sounding out words. “I use rhythm, songs, and chants to help them learn to speed brain and visual processes.”

She sees kids individually and in small groups, and also tries to engage parents in the process (a goal she plans to address in her column). “There are ways to grow vocabulary right from the start. As you carry your infant around with you, you can narrate your day, as in, “I’m buying these blueberries — look they’re almost purple; don’t they smell sweet?” And, hey! check out the Abstract Expressionist painting over there. (Blame the reporter for that last bit, but you get the point.)

Deb continued, “I can’t stress enough the importance of reading to kids at home. I tell parents to be sure they’ve got plenty of books in the house — the library is a great resource, as well as book sales and the book section of thrift shops. Also, for baby gifts, ask for a book instead of yet another onesie!”

Deb, a lifelong passionate reader herself, began reading to her son, Elijah, now 11, in utero. She grew up in New Jersey, attended Clark University in Worcester, and received her master’s degree in education at Lesley University in Cambridge. She went on to teach special education in New Hampshire, and ran an Outward Bound–style brand of outdoor education in the mountains.

She met future husband, Jim Feiner, from afar. The first time they spoke on the phone, she heard bongo drums in the background, and enjoyed this boho element from a man who practiced real estate on Martha’s Vineyard. Their first date took place on Thanksgiving. After that, the two of them traveled back and forth to be together. When Jim invited her to spend a more significant time on the Island, Deb countered, “I’ll just come for the summer.”

We know how summers get stretched out to infinity here. Now she, Jim, and Elijah live in Chilmark. Deb has found that her son’s love of reading flourishes in a domestic sphere that downplays all the techno bells and whistles. A TV cable is nowhere apparent, and at the age of nine, Elijah’s digital games were limited to two on his dad’s computer. Deb has weighed his natural leanings toward non-tech activities — Legos, baseball, joke-telling, and his library of books numbering over 500 — with his natural need to be accepted. Deb recognizes the challenge in a world where third and fourth graders carry cell phones.

“Read This!” will run monthly in the MV Times, starting on September 25, and will include helpful tips for parents to foster a love of reading in their children.