Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading Aloud: A Shared Adventure

When I first launched Twenty by Jenny back in April, I mentioned that some of my favorite memories of growing up involved my brother and me sitting on either side of my mother as she read aloud to us. She often read books that would have been difficult for me to read by myself at the age of seven or eight, and my brother wasn’t reading yet. But as long as there were plenty of photos or illustrations, we both had a way into the story or subject.

Similarly, when I was teaching third grade and I read aloud to the students, I always tried to select books that were slightly more challenging than what they might choose on their own. In reading class, naturally, we read together books that most of the children could comprehend and read aloud themselves with relative confidence. But when I read to them, I wanted to pick books that would expand their vocabulary and take them to new places, both literally and figuratively.

Reading aloud was a big part of our holiday celebrations. In a tradition that began with my father’s family, everyone who came to celebrate with us at both Thanksgiving and on Christmas Eve had something to read. We family members all had established readings. My father always read “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and his brother Chris always read “When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin” at Thanksgiving. For Christmas, my mother always read “Dear Virginia,” and her mother would read “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas” with all of us cousins flanking her on the couch so we could see the pictures--Heather, the youngest, sat on Gramma’s lap. Immediately, even first-time guests felt a part of the celebration (shy guests could choose a four-line poem with a punch line).

All of this to say that the holidays are a perfect time to read a good book together aloud. (If you’re feeling hesitant, here are a few tips.) Harry Potter reminded us how wonderful it is to dive into another world with the entire family along for the journey. A break from school and some time off from work creates another opportunity to enjoy a book together as a family, and Yummy and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon are two books that the entire family can enjoy. Each has self-contained shorter sections, too, which allow you to dip in and out or read the whole book—depending on whether it’s a bedtime ritual or an afternoon-long adventure (in the case of MountainYummy you could still finish up rather quickly). If you will be spending the holidays with older children, ages 12-up, then The Book Thief is an excellent read-aloud choice. Remember: You are never too old to be read to.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Raising Word Connoisseurs

I’ve just returned from a two-day silent retreat on the Hudson River. I try to do this once or twice a year. Every time I go, I’m amazed by how few words we really require. I was thinking, too, about very young children who do not yet have language, but who still manage to communicate effectively. They reach for a bottle, push away a spoonful of peas, and hold up their arms when they want to be held.

What a sense of accomplishment they must feel when they can name things—a bottle, a blanket. And then to be able to call out for Mama, Papa, Grandma and their big brother or sister—and to point to themselves and say their own names! The world is theirs for the asking! All that time they were wordless, they were extremely watchful. Once they begin to speak words, it can feel like a current of electricity has been unleashed. They’re sharing all they’ve gleaned in those months of silent observation.

Sandra Boynton’s books milk that early knowledge and churn it into humor like butter. She sets up scenes very familiar to toddlers: a barnyard in Moo, Baa, La La La!, a set of clothes in Blue Hat, Green Hat. Then she takes what a child knows and upends the facts in a nonsensical way. While cows “moo” and sheep “baa,” three pigs sing and dance! In a recent blog, I mentioned a discussion with Leonard Marcus in which he described just how early children begin to develop a sense of humor, and how much of a child’s early attempts at humor are playing with what they know in order to make a joke themselves.

All of us have experienced the pleasure of a peek-a-boo game, even before a child has words—they take pleasure in knowing someone is there but pretending to hide. When my niece Maggie was just over one year old, she delighted in the punchline of Sandra Boynton’s book: I would talk to Maggie on the phone, and she wouldn’t say much, but when I asked her, “What do three pigs singing say?” she’d answer, “La! La! La!” During my most recent visit (Maggie’s now two), she was drawing something at a small plastic desk in the living room. I asked her, “Maggie, are you drawing at your easel?” She repeated, “EA-sel” and started laughing. She loved the word. Throughout the day, she’d spontaneously say, “EA-sel” and start laughing. I noticed she picked out other words she’d hear in conversation and collect those, too, like a word connoisseur.

So let’s hear it for humor! Humorous books encourage a playfulness around a child’s early ideas about language and concepts. Once children are engaged this way, the possibilities for expanding their base of knowledge seems limitless. If I had my way, they’d all be word connoisseurs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A World Both Like and Unlike Our Own

The best fantasy stories take us to a place that, at face value, seems completely unlike our own, and then create just enough parallels to allow us to pause and reflect on the world we live in. Kristin Cashore’s books, Graceling (published last fall) and Fire (published this fall) do just that.

We are heading into the holidays, so let’s emphasize the escape and adventure qualities of the reading experience. A rugged and mountainous landscape policed by monsters. A beautiful heroine who wants to use her talents (to read minds and change them) in the service of a greater cause. An on-again-off-again romance and the possibility of something more lasting. But, for more analytical teens, there’s also a view of what it means to strike out on their own, the responsibility that comes with that, and the realization that you must make your own choices and live with the outcome.

Think of 1984 or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books or Watership Down. Or, more recently, Feed, So Yesterday, The Giver, and The House of the Scorpion. All fantasies, all with universal themes that allow us to examine our present society and individual situations with a new perspective from a safe distance. Okay, so this is a favorite riff of mine, that ultimately literature teaches us about ourselves. But I have watched young people describe their “aha!” moment, and even liken a situation they recognize in their own lives to one that a character from a favorite book has experienced. It is a gift to be able to try on someone else’s life without having to live through it ourselves. Maybe those characters take a wrong path so we don’t have to. Maybe they figure out a solution we hadn’t thought of. Or maybe they just allow us to escape our own anxieties for awhile and travel somewhere else.

Yes. Maybe they just let us truly enjoy a vacation from our daily lives.