Time with a toddler can be an exhausting string of activity. When you’re not decoding the cause for the latest tantrum, you’re plucking your child from the arm of the couch before he belly flops onto the cushions.

This past Friday I was watching my own crazed toddler, Emmett, in addition to two other children his age. Needless to say, my morning involved a mug of coffee gone cold and a maze of picking up toys, mopping up milk, and repeatedly reminding them to be gentle. By naptime, I was ready to snooze myself and couldn’t wait for a small window of quietness. Before I lulled them to sleep, however, I bravely tried to tackle story time.

I gathered all three kids, lined them up next to one another, and plopped in front of them with a pile of books. I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar as they squirmed and explored, assuming this was how our whole story time would play out. But when I moved on to Hug – a story of Bobo the monkey sadly watching on as all his jungle friends hug their mommies – things changed.

In this book, “hug” is repeated on each page, and later “Mommy” and “Bobo” are spoken once each when, at the end of the book (spoiler alert), Bobo is happily reunited with Mommy, and, in his excitement, yells “hug” as he instigates a group hug among all his unlikely jungle friends.

Despite the appearance of only one word – “hug” – on each page, you can’t help but narrate an entire tale as you flip through the pages.

“Look, Bobo sees Elephant hugging his mommy and says, “hug.” He feels sad and misses his mommy.”

At one point, while lost in my colorful storytelling, I glanced back up to witness something remarkable – all three toddlers sat stone still, entranced. It mattered not that this was a simple one-word story or that I was making up the tale as I plodded along. What mattered was that I was engaging the kids, inviting them to understand the plot being conveyed by the word AND the pictures.

When we reached the climax of the story and Bobo heard Mommy calling his name, the kids’ faces lit up with joy, and they spontaneously began hugging one another, toppling over as their little bodies tried to hold each other’s weight.

This was a frozen moment of quiet, peace, and pure innocence. I forgot about the pile of toys downstairs, six dirty hands to scrub before lunch, and wet diapers to change after naps. Instead I relished the gentle affection in front of me and marveled at how anyone, even a mom or dad who has very low literacy skills, can tell a story to a child and invoke pure joy.

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