Author Archives: Bruce

Re-Discovering James and the Giant Peach

I have a three-year-old.  I’ve raised three daughters – and written about reading aloud with them here.  I’ve looked forward to writing about reading aloud anew – from the trenches – with my three-year-old son.  And the moment has finally arrived.

My wife and I didn’t push it.  Our young son is a boy – and full of all the energy and rough-house instincts we’ve seen in lots of other little boys.  As he’s grown we’ve read (and continue to read) the full slate of picture books – from board books like Good Night, Gorilla to all the old favorites: Ferdinand; Bread and Jam for Frances; Little Bear; Robert McCloskey…  The full corpus of Kevin Henkes.  And William Steig.  Babar.  Even Star Wars.

A question often asked of me is, When do you start reading chapter books?  And my best answer is: When they’re ready.  Could be 2.  Could be 3.  Could be 4. Might not be until 5 or 6.
But you have to try.  Not religiously. Not pushing it.  Little different than graduating from bottles and sippy cups.  Or tying your shoes.  Ideally you follow their lead.

Of course we have lots of books around.  (They’re not all down at the office.)  Even if we haven’t read a kid’s chapter book out loud in a few years.  They’re still on the shelf.  Calling.
My wife tried Charlotte’s Web.  Couldn’t get past the complexity of the Zuckerman’s Farm characters.  She tried Because of Winn-Dixie.  Interesting when the dog is the protagonist.  Not so much when Opal is meeting her adult friends in town.

Probably it was too early.  We put ‘em down.  Their time will come.

And then – early in the New Year – we struck gold with an unexpected source.  Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.  Unexpected?  Yes.

Here’s the backstory:  Of course I love Roald Dahl.  (I still remember when my elementary school librarian read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and Charlottes’s Web – and that’s going back to 1973!)  As a parent and educator I especially love some of the later gems like The BFG and The Witches.  Perhaps that’s my taste.  But that’s why they’re OSOB selections.

But I was never a big fan of James and the Giant Peach.  Why?  I’m not entirely sure.  Many, many people love it.  It’s Dahl’s first book for children.  But I have found it hard to read aloud.  Despite my paeans and tips on how to create voices and differentiate characters – I have always found the voices in James and the Giant Peach to be difficult.  Not the Aunts.  They’re easy.  They’re cartoons.  But the bugs in the Peach are not easy.  They’re all adults.  But they’re all a little arch, a little fey, a little British.  One character like that is easy to communicate to a child as a foil.  But a peach full of six of them?  I’ve always found them a challenge.

Having said that, I still know that the book contains some Dahl’s most famous and effective descriptions.  I have long used a sample from James and the Giant Peach in my reading tips.  To   illustrate my tip on vocabulary – specifically my suggestion that the reader seek out and highlight or emphasize (subtly or grandly) descriptive words – I read Chapter 9 – when James seeks out on a dewy moonlit night – and arrives at the full grown Peach all alone.  And discovers the entrance.
[You can listen to that tip – and that description – here.]

But the book remains popular.  And the film adaptation – despite adding some material – and some original songs – is faithful in tone, faithful to the characters – a worthy animated pleasure.
In response to popular demand, I resolved to add James to Read to Them’s Recommended Title list.  And was pleasantly surprised to discover what a joy it was to read Roald Dahl’s original prose.  His sentences were elegant.  His word choices brisk and pointed and memorable.  His dialogue with the reader arch and brisk, witty and edgily moralistic.  Not only did the book not feel dated or 50 years old – it felt really like catching up with an old friend.

What does the ocean look like to James?  “A long thin streak of blackish-blue, like a line of ink, along the rim of the sky.”

Dahl excels at describing movement – the sound and images that pulse vibrantly and teem with life and heighten the vicarious reader’s curiosity:

“James stared into the bag, and sure enough there was a faint rustling sound coming up from inside of it, and then he noticed that all the thousands of little green things were slowly, very very slowly stirring about and moving over each other as though they were alive.”

Dahl observes and calls attention and brings to life just the very details that a child would attend to.  I am similarly reminded of the mysterious dreams captured in jars in The BFG – which pulse and change colour ephemerally.

The reader is dying to go inside the Peach – but what does it feel like on the outside?  “It felt soft and warm and furry, like the skin of a baby mouse.”  Want to know what it feels like?  James does too and Dahl’s prose is positively tactile: “He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin.”  Can you feel it, too?

What’s it like to be the calm, resourceful one amid a bunch of oversized querulous insects? “Their eyes waited upon him, tense, anxious, pathetically hopeful.”

And Dahl does drama – without indulging or wasting words, paper, or time: “There was a squelch.  The needle went in deep.  And suddenly there was the Giant Peach, caught and spiked upon the every pinnacle of the Empire State Building.”  Unforgettable.

Beautiful, no?  But does that mean it could work with a 3-1/2-year-old?

Maybe I brought my newfound sense of discovery and pleasure to it.  Maybe I read it more patiently.  Maybe I found ways to appreciate and love the creatures in the Peach – the silly Centipede whom James seems to relate to; the lovely Spider who shelters and comforts James; the elegant Old Green-Grasshopper – the acme of avuncular.

All books have those moments you are looking forward to – funny moments, scary moments, grand triumphant moments, tension-filled moments resolved by imagination and courage and resourcefulness.

For James and the Giant Peach these are those early moments:

What will your child do when James’ parents are killed in the first paragraph?  Does the ridiculous spectre of “an escaped rhinocerous” somehow mitigate or distract from the catastrophe of orphanhood?  Or does it instantly trigger a kindred sympathy in the reader/listener?

How will he respond to the unrelenting and unrelieved awfulness of the Aunts?  It made him sit up and resent them – on behalf of James – with all his being.  It made him alert.

What about when James loses the bag of magic crystals?  Can nothing ever go right for him?
One obviously looks forward with delight for the opportunity to describe the appearance and growth of the Peach.  Read for maximize empathic effect.

And then James gets to that Peach – and he gets inside of it – and we discover a whole new world – a whole new sensibility – with voices and eccentricities – and can you differentiate the characters – and can he keep them all straight.  It is an awful lot.  It is a new book.

And then the Peach leaves – and the Aunts get their comeuppance.  And macabre as it is for Dahl to kill them off summarily – it remains satisfying to every child.  The Peach rolls over the dastardly Aunts and smushes them.  Yes!  Such triumph and satisfaction is good for 50 pages of good will.

And that’s only the first third of the book!  The ocean – and the sharks – and the seagulls – and the Cloudmen – and New York City all await.

So how did he take it?  For the first time – he bought in.  He was enthralled.  His interest – his concern – his curiosity – were not only engaged.  They were sustained.

First of all – he related to James.  He wanted only the best for him.  And nothing bad.  He even relished James’ vengeance.

He also cared about James’ friendships.  His affinity for the Centipede – who he laughed with.  The gentle, loving support of Miss Spider

And he admired James’ resourcefulness.  His can-do response to the problem of the sharks.
He bought in also to the notion of not knowing what could happen next.  A man shows up w/ a bag of crystals?  A Giant Peach grows out of nowhere?  A room full of new characters.  Who are they all?  One of them is funny?  Some of them are really nice.  James escapes!  The Peach rolls into the ocean.  Sharks?  Seagulls!

I think he clearly grasped the unconscious notion that the pleasure you retain – as a reader – in something that has already happened – “What happened to the Aunts?” “They got smushed by the Peach” – can carry your interest and patience and expectation and fortitude for the next thing.  It might be sweet – it might be funny – it might be scary – it might be colorful or active.  But there will be a next thing.  It will be entertaining.  It will be interesting.  And it will be worth it.  That’s how books work.

I think that there is nothing like seeing a child sit up, attentive, listening, mouth open, conjuring in their mind what is happening from the words read on the page – expecting, hoping, wishing, dreading, remembering.

It is different than a child in your arms safely turning familiar if endlessly entertaining rich illustrated pages.  Not different better.  But different.  A little bit of it is growing up.  A little bit of it us unsafe.  He doesn’t know what will happen next.  That little trepidation is being a reader.  It is life.

So he made it through – and it was worth it.  For him.  For me.  For his mother.  A collected series of moments and memories.  A milestone.

Will he remember it?  In my experience, children under four do not retain well the details of experiences like these.  He’ll remember something – but whether it’s the rhinocerous or the sharks or the Empire State Building I don’t know.  He will remember Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – I am sure of that.

What makes it worth it?  Oh, so many things.  That kind of sitting still concentrated attention span is priceless.  The ability to conjure the action – the characters – to flesh out the story in their mind – also priceless.  And now we have a shared story – characters, moments, fears, resolution.  Maybe even some memorable lines, too.  (The Centipede prides himself on being a pest!)

But we’ve also established a premise – a foundation to build on.  Yes we still have picture books – our own and the Library’s.  And yes someday he’ll read on his own.  But in between – we have this lovely, special, imaginative, shared habit to fall back on.

We’ve since read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  And Fantastic Mr. Fox.  And The BFG.  And have just re-opened Charlotte’s Web.  And he’s the one who asks.  “Mama, can we read Charlotte’s Web tonite?”

He’s got the habit.  When he was ready.  Thank you, Roald Dahl.  Thank you for 50 years.  And I suspect, my son’s children will be thanking you someday, too.


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Serendipitous Magic in Vermont

A late postcard from the holidays.

My family travelled up to Vermont after Christmas to visit family – my wife’s sister’s family – including their three grown-up children – all home from college and entrepreneurial heaven.

On the way up – 13 hours – we listened to a little HP 3 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and Patrick Stewart’s peerless, 90-minute, one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol.  (My wife and I even fit in 30 pages of Zadie Smith’s NW.)

But that’s not what this post is about.

Up in Vermont the cousins – of various ages (ranging from 3 to 25!) – did their thing.  Skating.  Sledding.  Movies.  Lots of tea and reading on the couch by the Christmas tree.

We talked of matters sundry – including Read to Them’s fortunes – and my nephew’s entrepreneurial venture in California.

We talked of issues relating to all of this.  I even remember someone at some point bemoaning homes in which the TV is always on.  Not this house.  But in other houses we all know.  We lamented what it is like for children growing up in such homes – how much harder it is to find private space to think independently, to focus on a conversation or text, to – in an educational sense – to acquire language.  Such children likely have to learn means of tuning out the “narrative” or chatter of the TV – or else they get sucked in by it.  But it demands a choice – to succumb or to actively opt out.  Even then there is a cost – a cost to respecting and appreciating the beginning, middle, end qualities of a narrative – even if it’s the one on TV.  I think children who grow up w/ the TV always on become inured to narrative.  They grow to perceive stories as dispensable – not to be treasured – that one can tune in the middle – or tune out when something else – meal, phone call, friend – comes along.

My sister-in-law is a reading fool – like me – and in her house Santa Claus had bestowed copies of the Best Essays of 2012 series in several stockings.  (Best Essays; Best Science Writing; Best Short Stories.)  Everyone had been dabbling in these collections over the post-Christmas week – and sharing and marking favorite selections or finds.  (It’s a lot easier to imbibe a 20-page essay – with everyone else around – than it is to make headway on your novel.)

And lo and behold one of my nephews came along and suggested we read one aloud!  Gulp. That’s right.  He hoped or imagined that six adults and five adolescent teen-agers would all agree to be in the room at the same time, sit still, and focus on a non-fiction essay for 30 or 40 minutes.  Sans cell phones or computers.

Amazing – no?  Revolutionary?!  It’s one thing to hold your child captive for a chapter a night in your favorite children’s novel.  That’s “easy.”  But 10-12 adultish personalities?  In the 21st century?  Not reading the Bible.  Ain’t going to happen – is it?
But it did.

We read the story about Dr. Dan – the small-town pharmacist in modern Montana – originally published in the New Yorker.  And everyone was rapt.  We actually got interrupted halfway thru – I forget why – and when we were done – my nephew got everyone – everyone! – back together again to finish the essay.  Can you believe it?

What I recall most was the marvellous, furious hush of having ten stimulated (and stimulating) minds pause to devote their attention – their curiosity, their sense of humour, their desire to be informed and entertained, their desire to be asked to think in new ways – to someone else’s narrative and assorted parenthetical observations.  It was unexpected, serendipitous magic.

Of course we talked about the essay – and others – several times over the remaining days.

And then we did it again!  My niece had written a sensitive, ambitious children’s story for a college course – and my intrepid nephew (her brother) asked again if we might not all pause and hold still and attend and listen to her story.  And everyone said yes.  And we all listened.  And were rapt.  For 40 charmed minutes.

Once again the effect was strange and unexpected.  And different.  This was a mysterious allegorical story about a girl who enters a bee-hive.  Magic and science both – and lots of carefully dolloped out description.  In a room of tough critics, the spell was cast.  Once again it was magic to fall under that spell – to listen and succumb and wonder and speculate and appreciate and evaluate.

We were all sad when it was over.  We all recognized how lucky we were.  We all realized how hard it would be to re-create such moments – each in our own lives.  It shouldn’t be so difficult – but of course it is.

Driving home – and in the weeks since – I cannot let go of that marvellous unexpected and sadly all too rare feeling.  It was serendipity.  So easily claimed when we read picture books or chapter books with our children.  So much harder to claim with adults or our adult children.  But not impossible.  And also qualitatively different.  The experience is different when the minds are different.  And when the experience is so conspicuously oh so rare and treasured.

I encourage you – please – to look for the opportunity to stake and claim such time.  And share your own experience of reading aloud – with anyone.  Share your serendipity.

[Write to to share your reading aloud experience.]

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Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One

Yes, you can dare to read a high quality, 500-page contemporary novel with your middle school child.  You can.  You can read to them.  They can read to you.  Most importantly – you can share it together.

I might recommend any number of novels.  The range of books you can read or share w/ a middle school child is considerably broader than that for an e.s. child.  But Bryce Courtenay died last week (November 2o12) and I’d like to call attention to – and recommend and plug – his 1989 novel, The Power of One.  This is a novel that will surprise you and enrich you.  It takes you to another place – South Africa – and is filled w/ choice characters and playful, colorful details.  It is also a moving and unforgettable coming of age story.  Best of all – it is a book targeted to an adolescent’s sensibility.  The protagonist is a young boy growing up through elementary and high school – becoming himself in his unique context.

(Yes, it was made into a film starring Stephen Dorff and Morgan Freeman – but I urge you to skip it.  Not because all film adaptations pale in comparison w/ a great novel.  There are some fine adaptations – but The Power of One is comparatively limp on film.  If you see it – wait until you’ve read it.)
Most Americans – when they think of South Africa – will assume a story w/ native black Africans at its center – struggling in some way to endure or overcome white supremacist South Africans.  But The Power of One is different – or slier – than that.

The protagonist is a young English boy – known as Peekay.  While American readers will naturally sympathize w/ the various black South Africans – Peekay presents an interesting case.  Among the white people in South Africa he is himself a minority.  The dominant white Afrikaaner society is composed of the descendants of Dutch and German immigrants.  They look askance at the few English who remain in South Africa.  When Peekay goes to boarding school he is picked on unmercifully by the white Afrikaaner bullies at his school.  Peekay’s persecution is surely different than that of South African blacks – but we root for him as an exemplar and guide – as the victim striving for personhood.

Peekay’s adventures take him into some strange, but colorful realms – from his boarding school, to a railway journey, to a boxing match, to a South African prison, to the mountains of South Africa, and eventually to the mines of Rhodesia.  Along the way Peekay not only learns to box – to assert and defend himself – but he meets an assortment of colorful allies – from Grandpa Chook (a chicken) to Hoppy (the welterweight railroad porter) to Giel Peet (a wily black prisoner) to Doc (a German naturalist and linguist who also teaches Peekay to play piano) to Rasputin (a Russian miner who drinks scotch and whittles coconut balls).

The Power of One is perhaps an unexpected book to share with your adolescent middle schooler.  But I urge you to consider it.  I remember the experience of reading it for the first time – I was in college – and how rewarding it was to discuss w/ my siblings back in high school and middle school.  (Yes – we all read it at the same time.)  Even better – I remember sharing it w/ my two adolescent daughters – I will guess they were in 9th and 7th grades at the time.  Yes – we read it as a family.  And my wife has as much regard for it as I do.  I know my girls were enlarged by the experience.  It’s not the sort of book they would have picked up on their own.  And now Peekay and all the characters in his story are shared reference points – part of our shared vocabulary.

Courtenay wrote 21 novels – but The Power of One was far and away the special favorite of readers in both the United States and Australia.  See for yourself what the fuss is about.  (Check out the blurbs on the back of the book or on if you don’t want to take my word for it.)

Sharing a book with your middle school child is a way to share a cultural experience – something that will entertain and stimulate both of you.  It does not specifically partake of your world or theirs.  Good literature operates in a nether world – in between – where it is safe for both of you to be surprised, engaged, enthralled, curious, provoked, unsure.  That is what literature is for – and we all know it can be harder to find or locate that space – or even that time – w/ your adolescent child.

The Power of One is a perfect book w/ which to try.  Because it is alien – because it is different – because it is unexpected – because it is funny and moving and inspiring – because it is about a time and a place and a people few of us know much about – is is exactly what literature is for – a journey of the mind and soul and spirit and imagination – a journey you can share together.

Give it a try.  Meet Peekay – and discover the power of reading together from The Power of One.


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Watch a Child’s Face

(or: Why you must read picture books…)

This was penned mid-summer, while watching my wife read a picture book to our 2-and-a-half-year-old son.

(We have three grown daughters – grown, as in teenagers, that is – so bringing the picture books off of the shelf is allowing something of a renaissance for us – and allows this writer to look anew – both vicariously and as a participant – at the charms and wonder of reading aloud to young children.)

Watch a child’s face.
Just watch it while he is read aloud a new book.  Or a familiar book.
Watch her face try to make sense of the pictures – the details – the colors – the characters – the narrative – the details that fit – the ones that aren’t explained – the ones that catch her eye.
Watch him try to follow the words of the story – the pace – the dialogue – who is saying what – what they might say next.
Watch her follow the narrative – trying to match what she sees in the pictures w/ what she’s heard – trying to fill in the gaps, the missing pieces, the unexplained or un-described.

Watch him try to assimilate all these forms of stimulation.  (It’s what we might otherwise – in our digital world – call multi-tasking.)

Now pay attention to what the parent/reader contributes – what is added to the mix – and watch some more.
Watch the child pause his/her own examination, analysis, collecting of information, collating and parsing of details – and listen or attend to what his/her mother/father/sibling/babysitter adds to the narrative.  “Can you find the bunny?”  “What do you think will happen next?”  “Why is the child sad?”  “The mouse looks…?”  The child must decipher these third party observations or queries and assess them; now watch as she pauses to respond – pauses her analysis – collating – monitoring/anticipating the narrative.

These questions – these stimuli – interact w/ each other – and now the child’s mind has even more going on: his/her own agenda; the author’s agenda; and his interlocutor’s (parent’s) agenda.

Isn’t that in fact we (each/all) do when we read an article or literature?  We, too, interact w/ the author’s agenda.  We monitor our own reactions and associations.  We think of the manifold things our text makes us think of – things we want to share – things we remember – questions we want to explore – or answer.

Now watch the child’s face – watch his eyes – “see” the work firing off in his forehead as he watches, as his eyes flit around, as he listens, as he associates, as he assimilates, as he “recognizes” (consciously or not) that he is monitoring three channels.
Watch his brain grow – his vocabulary increase – his cognitive abilities connect and expand.

Watch a child’s face as she listens to a new story – and realize why we all must read to our children – why all children must be read to – why this simple analog act – which operates on so many levels – is so valuable and constructive.  So much more than seemingly interactive technologies – in reality so “inter-active” despite its (false) seeming passiveness.

Watch a child’s face…

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Managing Media

A guest link from Scott Simon in the Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal

The Joy of Reading ‘Pinocchio’—On Paper

He’s a puppet-boy in a book my daughters run to find each morning, not digits in a download.

We blundered into the bookstore between the pizza place and the gelato spot while vacationing in Santa Rosa, Calif., one last little exploration before we put our daughters (and ourselves) to bed after a busy day.

Our children, who are 8 and 4, have grown up seeing bookstores burst with games, toys, coffee frappes, cards, crayons, banana muffins and, incidentally, books.

I understand. If I ran a bookstore these days, I’d sell radial tires to stay in business.

But Treehorn Books in Santa Rosa has no diversions. Mounds of used books—musty, musky books, well-thumbed and worn, teetering and tottering Tower-of-Pisa style—are the sole enterprise.

My wife and I thought we might browse briefly before our daughters clamored for the gelato next door. But they opened books respectfully, as if popping the top of a secret, ran their fingers over old illustrations gently, and asked if we knew the stories.

Among the books we brought back to our room was “Pinocchio,” a 1978 Illustrated Junior Library edition of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic, with illustrations by Fritz Kredel. The book’s inside cover is signed (in cursive—already dating it), “Dorothy Santos.”

We opened Dorothy Santos’s old book that night. We have been stretching out and savoring it, chapter by chapter, every day since.

Pinocchio, of course, is a puppet that wants to be a boy, carved by a kindly, lonely man who craves the love of a child. Pinocchio, almost refreshingly, is the kind of boy who would be bad for any of the Disney Princesses. He wants to get rich quick through tricks instead of work. He rejects those who truly love him to dally with those who want only to use him.

Nowadays, the Blue Fairy might tell Pinocchio, “You are wood, and you are good! Get some self-esteem!” But the 1883 Pinocchio blames only himself for being a silly, churlish and disobedient “blockhead.” And yet, how can you not love the way a little boy’s spirit fights to get out of a piece of wood?

The other morning, our daughters woke up clamoring to hear Pinocchio before breakfast. I’m not one of those who vows to always cling to the printed page. Before we left for California, I topped off my iPad with a dozen new titles. I accost strangers on airplanes to show them how dandy it is to load thousands of pages (including this newspaper) onto something the size of a shirt cardboard.

But part of the connection our daughters make with Pinocchio seems to be that he’s a little puppet-boy in a book they hold, hide and run to find in the morning, not digits in a download.

My wife says that she can sense a buzz of conversation whenever she enters a room with books, with books of different colors and sizes seeming to speak to and recommend each other.

Online sites recommend a lot, too. If you buy Philip Levine’s haunting 1992 collection of poems, “What Work Is” (timely not just because the author is now poet laureate of the U.S. but because of lines like, “somewhere ahead / a man is waiting who will say / “No, we’re not hiring today”) you’ll see buy buttons for Mr. Levine’s other books and those of other poets and writers whose themes or mere titles some software judges to be similar.

But part of the beauty of books on shelves is that they seem to talk across the aisles: Histories talk to poetry, which call to thrillers, which shout over to sports, which roar at the dramas.

One of the books on a stack that called to me in that store was a collection by John Updike, “Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism,” which features a 2000 essay in which Updike, who died of cancer in 2009, presciently accepts the imminence of hand-held reading devices but laments the loss of books as physical things:

“Books waiting to be read, as tempting as grapes unharvested and musky, years to be blown off in a second of sudden plucking. . . . One’s collection comes to symbolize the contents of one’s mind, reminders of moments, of stages in a pilgrimage. . . . Books preserve, daintily, the redolence of their first reading—the beach, that apartment, that attack of croup, that flight to Indonesia.”

I am sure that soon there will be nifty new animated e-Pinocchios who can sing like Andrea Bocelli and move like Mikhail Baryshnikov. I’m sure I’ll get those for my daughters, too.

But I’m glad to have this summer memory of exploring a mound of old books, finding Pinocchio, and bringing him home. Among all the bosh and piffle I have gotten our daughters this summer—twinkling plastic princess crowns, fade-away flower tattoos, and purple bathtub fizzies—the old books we have bought seem to touch them with the idea that other children have held and loved those stories, too.

We read Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” next.

Mr. Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, is the author of “Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other” (Random House, 2010).

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Vocabulary Acquisition in Real Time!

First of all – a disclaimer.  My recent posts have principally concerned reading to older children – high elementary school, middle school, even high school.  Mainly because my own daughters have been growing up and my most recent experiences have been with them.  This blog receives input from moments of current inspiration and that’s where the spontaneous anecdotes and apercus have come from.

But all that has changed.  I have an infant in the house – now 20 months old (as of this writing) – and thus I happily, joyfully get to do it all over again – starting with those infamous board books and working our way quietly and patiently up to chapter books.

As I don’t have to tell you, it’s been delightful to introduce my son to books – to see what he responds to, becomes enthusiastic about, wants to hear again – and what words and phrases, images and scenes, he remembers, repeats, and learns.  To see him begin to respond emotionally to moments and characters – to identify with them, to laugh with them, to fear with them.  Who doesn’t know the joy of seeing your child light up at the zoo-keeper’s wife’s eyes on that otherwise all black page in Goodnight Gorilla?  My own son wants to skip the page when the scary bulldog with the big teeth chases the toy clown in Quentin Blake’s textless Clown.

Reading to an infant is all about noticing and proceeding through stages.  You never can tell how long a favorite book will last as a favorite (for us it was Caps for Sale and Go Dog Go and Green Eggs and Ham) to be replaced by the current obsession (baseball books, truck books) or how long the next stage will last.  But those stages also mark progress.  Can his attention span handle a book you can complete from beginning to end?  When can you add books with more text (or read the whole text)?  What kind of edgy material can he handle?  And best of all – what language acquisition to you see resulting from your reading?  Is that where he picks up colors?  How many obvious and eccentric nouns and objects does he acquire just from your books?

Recently, we’ve had one of those unexpected developments that I don’t remember from before – but now that I’m paying attention it’s clear as day.

One thing we know about reading to small children – they like to read their favorite books again and again.  Admittedly, this can be tiresome for their adult readers.  I have reflected on why they like this – and I think it is more than the mere truism that children like routine.  Yes, they like routine.  They also like novelty.  (Even when they don’t know it.)  But I think it’s something else, too.  Children are like little scientists who want to confirm their understanding of the world.  They want to check and make sure that what they “know” is still true.  They want to test and confirm the unconscious premises they are learning about their world – and make sure they are still true each day.  That is why they ask questions they already “know” the answers to.  And that, I think, is why they want to hear some stories again and again.  It makes them feel safe and sure – and confident – to be in command of a story – to know what’s going to happen and be right.  (Life, of course, isn’t like that – the cruel truth they will learn soon enough.)

Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale was the first picture book I ever read to my new son.  We read it in the public library in Evanston, Illinois when he was 14 months old. I had to paraphrase the sentences and narrate the action – but he was taken (as I believe all children are) by the monkeys going “Tsk, tsk, tsk” to the peddler.  I don’t know how many times he’s read (listened to) Caps for Sale since then but I do know that it is still in the rotation.  8 months later, he still picks it out and asks for it.

But in a recent reading, I noticed that what he gets out of the book – what he follows and enjoys and anticipates – is different than before.  Like most kids, he gets the most fun out of the monkeys, imitating and repeating their finger and fist shaking and foot stomping.  But he likes to act out what the peddler is doing, too.  So when the peddler gets sleepy for his nap – my son anticipates it with a big yawn.  When the peddler wakes up – he likes to stretch with the peddler.  (Don’t all little kids relish that big stretch when they wake up?  Don’t all parents?)

This time through, he added something more.  The story is clearly familiar to him.  He knows how to anticipate what will happen next.  He knows when you come to the picture of the sun (“The peddler slept for a very long time”) on the next page the peddler will wake up and he will get to stretch.  But after learning about caps and trees – and monkeys – and about different colors (and aren’t those blue/green caps confusing – what do you call them??) – there is still more to be mined verbally from a simple picture book like Caps for Sale.

We can’t help but teach them and show them about the nouns and objects and characters and perhaps the feelings of characters in our picture books.  And they can’t help but learn them.  If we’re energetic and they are attentive – we use picture books to teach about descriptive things like colors.  It comes naturally.  You can’t help it.  But sometimes there’s even more.

As I sat reading this time, he focused on new words – new concepts! – in the story.  The peddler sought to keep his 17 caps straight on his head.  “Straight” my son repeated.  The peddler walked slowly to keep the caps balanced.  “Slowly” my son repeated.  The peddler sat down to nap by the tree – very carefully.  “Carefully” my son repeated.  Lo and behold – my son was picking up adverbs!

Did I have anything to do with it?  I don’t really think so.  Did I do anything to re-iterate or emphasize or clarify the concepts of straightness or slowliness or carefulness?  Definitely not.  It is a truism that young children’s minds are sponges – hungry and capable of absorbing new information – especially verbal information.  This is what reading aloud can do for them.  Their own hungry minds can reach out on their own and pick up all the elements of language they will need in school and life.  And we don’t have to do anything but pick good books, read with enthusiasm, and be patient when they want to confirm their hypotheses.

What I was witnessed was my son’s acquisition of adverbs – right in front of my nose – live in real time! Without explanation.  Without didactic instruction.  Merely from his (unconscious) extrapolation from context.  That is the power of reading aloud.  If we only stop to pay attention and enable its natural course.

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Panera Bibly Study

On a recent Saturday morning I had a curious, unexpected experience – I witnessed something delightful and intriguing. It has stayed with me and I feel the need to share it with you – let you ponder it a little.

My daughter had some early testing for high school so I was up before the rest of my family. I got a craving for pain au chocolat (a chocolate croissant) and decided to drop by a Panera Bread that recently opened up in a student neighborhood near my home. I got my pastry and a cup of coffee and sat down to read the paper before getting home to my family.

The Panera was not busy or crowded at 8 a.m on a Saturday morning. But I quickly noticed that several of the booths were peopled by pairs of young men reading the Bible together. They were all youngish – in their 20s. They all seemed a little scarred, marked. Not dirty, not threatening. Most were wearing varieties of baggy canvas jackets with capacious pockets. (I confess, at first blush, they looked like ex-cons.) But most significantly each booth – there were half a dozen – contained one man reading to another from a very small, portable, paperback Bible. They were each reading quietly and earnestly. And they were each being listened to intently.

As near as I could tell there was no group leader. They were not sitting in a group. They were distinctly in pairs. I supposed it could have been a small Bible study group. Perhaps it was a dozen men doing some prep work before an AA meeting. It most struck me as perhaps a meeting of parolees. I did not intrude on them to ask.

But the sight, the image, the very attentive dialogue I could see happening at each table – not dogmatic, not a harangue, not one-sided, not loud – has stayed with me. And sparked several thoughts.

It is true that once upon a time – for over 300 years – the Bible was the one thing shared by families as a source of common, shared reading, moral instruction, and discussion. The Bible was a source of common culture. I often make this observation in presenting to groups about reading aloud because families reading children novels aloud are merely an extension of that long lost tradition. Some families certainly still read Bible verses and stories together. But it is no longer a ubiquitous aspect of common culture.

And in truth the very notion of a common culture is waning. Today we are fragmented into our own generational, vocational, and extra-curricular niche interests. Common culture today can now be found in mass media events like the Super Bowl or American Idol or an occasional film like Avatar. Rarely any more is it a book. A series like Harry Potter – that somehow manages to reel in more than one generation- is the rare exception. But gang-buster best-sellers like Cold Mountain or the Da Vanci Code are no longer really sources of common culture – not like a film like the Godfather or a book like Erich Segal’s Love Story was in the 1970s.

The Bible is still surely a source of common culture – but it ain’t like it used to be. I am certain that if we did a Biblical reference identification test among our fellow Americans (or Canadians), we as a population would not do very well – much less well then if we had compared results from a century ago. I recall that when I wrote a screenplay about Pontius Pilate a decade ago, I polled friends and colleagues and acquaintances just to see who knew who Pontius Pilate was. Even among largely college educated adults the results were dispiriting. Harry Potter and the latest American Idol winner are sure to do better on such a test than Pontius Pilate or Cold Mountain.

But the men in the Panera Bread booths were engaging in an act of common culture. Individually (or in pairs) they were fervently consuming a shared text, and just as intently exploring and sharing it with their discussion and dialogue. It was a small example – or it seemed that way to me – of the value and power of a common text – and of sharing it by reading aloud. I doubt very much whether the men involved would have appreciated or mined their text as well had they not shared it that way. Had they not listened to another read it – and bounced their impressions off of each other. That, I am sure, is the power and value of reading aloud. Of creating and re-inforcing a shared artifact of common culture. We encourage families to do it. But anybody can. Married or courting couples can do it. Circles of friends can do it. Book clubs can do it. Teachers and classes can do it. And of course families can do it. In fact, as with the Bible, it starts with the family.

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Daring to Challenge

Several years ago I was preparing to speak before my children’s elementary school. It was the first time I was asked to speak at the full PTA meeting (the one where half the parents are just there to see their children perform during the entertainment portion of the evening). I had so much to say. This was my first chance to explain the One School, One Book program to my local home audience, to discourse on all the reasons we should be reading aloud, and encouraging and enabling those families not yet doing so.

The day I was to speak happened to be the day before Halloween and the New York Times ran this editorial, by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). I was faced w/ a dilemma. The editorial said something powerful and subtle that is one of the hardest things to explain to parents and teachers and principals. It said something that some people just get naturally – and others need to be convinced – and others can’t be convinced. He said that letting children encounter and experience “scary things” is not only OK, not only salutary, it’s even necessary. Not an easy thing to say – and he said it well.

I chose to read the entire editorial at the PTA meeting. That’s how valuable and important I found – and continue to find – the sensitive way he expressed this difficult concept.

There are lots of reasons to read at all, and lots of reasons to read aloud. And I needn’t explore the full catalogue here. What I want to offer here is a gloss on Handler’s insight – on why it’s not only OK, but salutary, even necessary to challenge our children when we read aloud to them.

Challenging doesn’t mean scaring them. And it doesn’t mean inundating them w/ information. It does mean offering them new worlds and new experiences, new authors and new styles. Many children want the old familiar at the dinner table and the old familiar when they pick up a book. It’s fine if they want to re-read safe, comfortable, familiar books. But when you read aloud together, that’s an opportunity for you and he/she to explore something new – something fresh – something daring.

[Not that you have to. I, too, love to re-read my favorite adult books – the topic of another essay, perhaps. And there is joy, too, in re-reading a favorite book w/ your children – from Little House on the Prairie to Lord of the Rings. That’s just not the element I want highlight here.]

I found another example of this phenomenon, also worth sharing, in A.O. Scott’s recent essay on children’s films, especially Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox (both, of course, based on children’s books). I haven’t seen either film yet – but his track record is strong enough (though sophisticated, Scott understands and appreciates children’s films) – that I am confident that even if I end up having misgivings about either film (possible) his insights are still valuable.

As Scott says, parents do worry about (and judge each other on) what films their children see. That’s the duty and responsibility of being parents. And as Scott also says, where there is happiness, there is also discomfort. That’s life. Scott asks if Fantastic Mr. Fox is too scary or confusing? I don’t actually know, but I do know these are the right questions to ask. And I believe that we shouldn’t be afraid to let our children sometimes help us answer them – we can do so by gauging their reaction to edgier films/books like these. But in order to do so, we have to be willing to push the envelope a little here and there. Sometimes a book or film works thru some strange alchemy we don’t understand. If we try to identify or delineate its constituent parts, it doesn’t add up. But it is the strength of the artist or creator to understand something we don’t. This is how art – and literature – work. We just have to be brave enough to let it.

Finally, David Brooks contributed a recent op/ed piece (also in the Times) that has a lot to say about the broad way we help educate ourselves – specifically the auxiliary education we create – that ends up being a secondary education for our children as well. I am sure each of us can think of other interests in our lives that seep into our children’s understanding of the world – interests similar to but other than Bruce Springsteen – interests that constitute the auxiliary education of which he speaks.

I remark on it here because reading aloud is one of those things we do to create that auxiliary education. It is the time spent sharing culture together – books, movies, music, but also shared activities like cooking or sports or hunting or craft-making – that inform that auxiliary education. It can be the way we talk about things in the books we read together. But even more it is the habit of doing so – the inconspicuous things that a child doesn’t notice but that take effort and patience and perseverance – like just making the time to read together – that are the heart of this process. In many ways it is the example we set – what children see us do and consume – that informs that education. (“My Dad listens to Bruce Springsteen. Or Johnny Cash. Or U2. Or Bob Dylan. My mother reads Oprah’s magazine, O – or Oprah’s book club selections – or never reads at all, except to me. My father likes to work in the basement. My mother is always cooking in a hurry.” Etc.)

These are the components of that auxiliary education. How valuable it is to recognize this and know that we have this time w/ them to inform it and bolster it and enrich it. We each provide the curriculum for that education, whether we’re trying to or not. Here’s to suggesting we each pay some conscious attention to what goes in – as we do when choosing or not choosing books and movies – and to remember that doing some things and sharing some things together should give us the strength to be brave and bold and daring and insure that that auxiliary education is as rich and stimulating and challenging as it can be. Do not shy from life. Doing so is not only salutary – but necessary.

[I am somewhat embarrassed that each of the pieces cited here are from the New York Times. I can’t really control that. You collect what you encounter, it percolates, and eventually adds up to a blog piece. In this case, these pieces coalesced for me. Pure coincidence that they all come from the Times.

Further, once I do get around to seeing Where the Wild Things Are and Fanastic Mr. Fox, if I have any adjustments to make, I’ll post them here.]

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Pondering Resilience

“Fostering resilience in children requires family environments that are caring and structured, hold high expectations for children’s behavior, and encourage participation in the life of the family.”

Sounds like social science boilerplate, doesn’t it?  What is resilience anyway?

But let’s take a step back from cynicism and think about what this sentence really means.  Because I believe “resilience” is at the heart of volunteer, non-profit altruism.  It’s at the heart, too, of what the scores of literacy programs are really after when they try to improve literacy in the home, especially among poor-income or at risk children, homes prone to social pathology.

Ask anyone connected with a literacy program and they will tell you anecdotes about kids who can’t read.  Kids who come to school unable to read – with handicaps and hurdles that make learning to read harder.  Parents unable to read.  Homes without books.

One of the problems with many well meaning and enthusiastic literacy programs is that they are very good at finding books and making them available.  The problem is that in many of these homes, they don’t know what to do with the books.  Books themselves are not hard to find.  Public libraries still function.  What’s missing in these homes is a culture of literacy, a culture of reading.  No books on the shelves means reading is not a normal activity or option.  Children in such homes do not see reading modeled as a leisure or entertainment activity.  It is just a school thing.  Alien.  Work.  Not fun.  Not family.

Literacy advocates know they face an uphill battle.  You can try to help a child to read at school.  You can expose him to a variety of books.  You can inundate her with encouragement and extra attention.  But when he goes home, the books he brings home are an isolated, private possession.  They are not something shared or respected or appreciated in the home at large.

For such children, learning to read is hard.  It is easy to give up.  And school is harder.  It is easy to give up there, too.  More importantly, the lesson of giving up is re-inforced.  This is where a social science buzzword like resilience crops up.  Resilience is the quality of being able to take a social or socioeconomic punch or challenge, and find a way to bounce back and seek a new solution.  The few children who do emerge from such environments have this magic quality.  Where do they find it?  Are they born with it?  Is it luck?

Maybe.  But the academicese above suggests that it’s more complicated than that.  Children learn qualities of perseverance and problem-solving when they have an environment that challenges and encourages and supports and rewards them.  That environment cannot just come from school.  Teachers and coaches can provide inspiration.  Some extraordinary teachers and coaches can prove uniquely influential.  But for the vast majority of resilient children, you need more.  You need standards and expectations.  You need support and encouragement and reward.  And the institution that provides that best is the family.

Illiterate families represent a generational chain of illiteracy.  How can you break that chain?

Believe it or not, there is a literacy program that actually trains the family.  That teaches a family how to be literate together.  That models high standards and expectations.  That discovers and teaches the joy and rewards and love of a good children’s novel – of stories and books and literacy.

A tall and grandiose claim, I am sure.  But proven and effective.  And beloved.

Such claims are clear and sought after far outside the realms of literacy programs.  Consider these examples:

The Wire

Many people consider HBO’s stark series, The Wire, to be one of the finest (if not the finest) dramas in television history.  It presents the worlds of urban Baltimore – the world of the drug-slingers and corner boys, and the alternate world of the municipal professionals – the police.  (Later seasons also present the worlds of the Baltimore stevedores, City Hall, the schools, and even The Baltimore Sun.)  The show’s strength is presenting three-dimensional characters on both sides of the line of legality.  Cops and detectives you both admire and revile – but with whom you can identify.  And – believe it or not – drug dealing youth with whom you can empathize – as some of them struggle to get out of “the game” (as they call it in the parlance of the street and the show).  This is particularly evident in Season 4, which takes as its centerpiece four 8th-grade boys, and follows their fortunes as they encounter the temptations and limitations and opportunities their neighborhood presents.  The boys are all different.  Three of them are raised by their mothers with no father present.  One has no parents at all – or no effective parents as they are drug addicts who actually steal anything he brings home!  This is a stark world.  And yet each of these personalities has strengths and personal qualities that suggest he might be able to weather this challenging environment.  At one point, the loneliest boy, Dukie (the one with the drug addict parents) is mentored by a compassionate teacher.  Later, Dukie tries to fit in at a local boxing parlor, started up by an ex-drug dealer trying to offer a clean way out for neighborhood youth.  Dukie is not much of a boxer, and he speaks with Cutty (the boxing proprietor) about it.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the show’s 70 odd episodes, Dukie looks out across the city and notes that escaping from the city – from the pathological temptations and restrictions of his environment – seems so hard and far away.  Dukie has never even left his neighborhood (West Baltimore) – let alone the city.  “The world is bigger than (West Baltimore),” advises Cutty.  But, “How do you get from here to the rest of the world?” asks Dukie.   And Cutty has no answers.

It is the easiest thing in the world for someone not from that environment to imagine that leaving that environment is easy.  There are so many opportunities – from school and jobs to college.  So many well meaning programs and helpmeets.  It is the strength of The Wire to present sympathetic characters who help you realize how hard it really is.  For Dukie, a smart, sensitive boy with loads of potential who has no business in “the game,” anything should be possible.  In reality, he can’t even imagine how to leave his neighborhood.  He is impoverished in so many ways, starting with poverty of the imagination.  He starts out with deficits (family deficits), he is blessed with two mentors, and yet his way out is anything but assured.  I won’t tell you what happens to Dukie, but I call attention to his plight – his eager, ignorant yearning and curiosity – to emphasize what he needs.  All the stuff in that social science sentence – standards, expectations, rewards – and most of all a consistent, nurturing environment to apply and nurture and husband those opportunities.  Neither of his mentors can supply that.  It is the stark truth of The Wire to show how us how severely the qualities of resilience are tested in West Baltimore.  And how important resilience is – if it can be nurtured.  If impoverished families can be taught how to nurture it.


A recent film – a small independent film about baseball of all things – beautifully renders the simple importance of having a support network.  The film is called Sugar, and it presents a young Dominican baseball player (the film’s namesake) who hopes to make it to the major leagues.  When we first meet young Sugar, he is one of dozens of fellow young Dominicans, trying to be signed by a major league baseball team.  He is talented.  He is confident.  He has a loving family.  He gets his big break when is invited to a major league training camp.  Where reality sets in.  The first day, he discovers he is one of dozens of pitchers vying for a professional job.  Back home in the Dominican Republic, he was one of the best of a talented group of players.  Here in the States, he is one of 75 talented pitchers, vying for 50 professional spots on a major league team’s rosters.  As the MLB pitching coach says to them all, “Do the numbers.”  This is the point where anything can happen for young Sugar.  Maybe he’s the best of the lot and will rise to the top no matter what.  Maybe he’s just a run of the mill talent, like everyone else, and success or failure will depend on heart or will or even luck.  Or maybe he really is talented, but success depends on something more.  It is the strength of this film that it does not present a familiar or traditional story arc.  We don’t know whether Sugar will succeed or fail.  (And I’m not going to tell you whether he makes it.)  In a large sense, whether he makes it or not is not even the point of the film.  Rather, the film reminds us (or teaches us) that everyone is different, and that everyone will face a series of challenges or hurdles.  It is how we face those challenges and hurdles that defines us.  Sugar, really, is a film about resilience.

I will tell you that Sugar does get assigned to Class A ball in Iowa.  This is the low minor leagues, but it is a step on the ladder.  For a Dominican baseball player, with no English, to play in Middle America is to start out as a professional as an alien – virtually alone.  There are other young players, many of them Latin American, similarly lonely.  And Sugar even lives in the home of an American host family who regularly husband the careers of young players like Sugar.    I won’t say whether this devout Christian family make the difference for Sugar.  I will say that their presence reminds us that success or failure – or developing that crucial quality of resilience (as the social science mantra instructs us) – can often depend on having support networks – at home, and in alien territory.  Most personalities won’t manage the initial loss of confidence from seeing 75 similarly talented pitchers, or the injury to leg or arm, or the patient, trial-and-error challenge of learning a new pitch, few personalities can manage any of that – alone.  They need support networks to help them along.  Sugar has them.  But they don’t define success or failure either.  They merely enable it.

You might wonder if literature makes a difference for young Sugar.  (Imagine how many ballplayers from the Dominican bring books with them in their duffel bags.)  But I will tell you that a biography of the great Puerto Rican ballplayer, Roberto Clemente, does play a role in offering Sugar support, friendship, inspiration, and even enables him to find a kindred spirit.  But for now let’s acknowledge that a story ostensibly about baseball, while really a story about an alien immigrant succeeding or failing, is also a useful reminder of the environmental circumstances necessary to developing resilience.

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor has recently been confirmed as the first Latino Supreme Court Justice in our nation’s history.  And during the weeks of the nomination and confirmation process, we as a nation got to meet Sonia Sotomayor and learn of her background.  How she grew up in a Bronx housing project.  And managed to emerge as a serious academic student, bent on achieving, and did in fact achieve.  Graduating not only from high school, but from Princeton and then Yale Law School.  She went on to become a U.S. District Court judge and now of course a Supreme Court Justice.  An American success story – an immigrant success story – if we’ve ever heard one.

Sonia Sotomayor had some advantages.  Her mother stressed learning and education.  She bought Sonia a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica when she was in grade school.  (Many homes in America’s disadvantaged communities contain no books.  Just getting books into the homes is a hurdle, but it is not the main hurdle.  Getting families to know what to do w/ the books is the most important hurdle.  Enabling them to use and capitalize on and exploit the books – to profit from them – that’s the main thing.)  But Sonia had many disadvantages, too.  Her father did not speak English when she was born.   She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was seven.  Her father died the next year.  She lived in three different Bronx housing projects growing up.  Her mother moved at least once to try to live somewhere safer.  Sonia grew up during the years of the crack epidemic when crime spiked in New York and the nation at large.

Sonia’s mother must have done plenty of things right.  Her brother, too, became a doctor and teaches at the college level.  But Sonia Sotomayor is a living, breathing, walking example of resilience.  Whatever advantage she gained from her mother’s guidance and encouragement and firmness, Sonia still had to weather the challenges of her environment, the emotional deficit in her family, and the daily, hourly distraction of managing her illness.  How easy might if have been for her to give up or give in?

Sonia Sotomayor is also a living, breathing, walking example of the power of literature to inspire, to provide models and goals, to instill and re-inforce worthy, constructive, resilient qualities.  She has explained how she was inspired in grade school by reading Nancy Drew novels.  You don’t find that kind of will and determination just from reading the Encylopedia Brittanica.

And pondering the notion of resilience for one more moment, just think – do you think it got any easier for Sonia Sotomayor when she was at Princeton, or Yale, or on the bench of the U.S. District Court?  She went to Princeton shortly after it went co-ed, when fewer than 20% of students were women.  How many of them do you think were Latino?  It takes reserves of internal strength, of fortitude and perseverance, of determination and, say it, resilience, to weather the challenges and hurdles of confidence and loneliness in an environment like that.  I am sure it was no different at Yale Law School, especially when affirmative action policies instantly attached a stigma to all minorities at institutions of higher learning.

Sonia Sotomayor has resilience in spades.  How did she get it?  Where does it come from?

I won’t over-sell the point by claiming it comes from books.  Surely it comes from the individual first.  But in most cases it must be nurtured, fostered, re-inforced.  And thus it comes from families.  But families only provide the environment of support.  Sonia Sotomayor had a mother who guided and inspired her with books, and I am sure she built up and amplified her reserves reading Nancy Drew – and the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Developing resilience is a multi-stage phenomenon.

Now return for a moment to that academic paragraph at the top of this piece, the one about how to build resilience.  Developing emotional strength requires families.  Families are the lynchpin.  Many of us, reading about children, or literacy, or social problems quail when the solution becomes ‘families.’  Families are messy and complicated.  So much simpler if we can just focus on the children as individuals.  But that is not the way it works in reality.  Schools cannot do it alone.  Families are the organic solution.

Families build emotional strength in children by doing things together.  Leisure activities, like watching a movie – together.  Work activities, like doing the chores – together.  Play activities, like a game of touch football – together.  That’s right, families that work together, families that play together, those are the families that build qualities like resilience in their children.  And families that read together.

President Obama has repeatedly encouraged American families – especially families at risk – “to turn off the television, put away the video games, and read together.”  It is a noble and worthy goal.  It is a goal, if successful, that can surely foster and build reserves of resilience in some of those homes.  But it is a goal impossible for those families to achieve without know how, without experience, without a program.  No matter how well meaning, you can’t just throw books at these families and tell them to read.  Families, too, need support.

The One School, One Book program will enable these families to succeed by showing them how to read together, by instructing them how to read aloud, and by providing support and encouragement and motivation by reading together – as one community.  One School, One Book aims to show Dukie the other side of Baltimore – and the rest of the world.  It aims to let the Dominican immigrant be inspired by the life of the departed Roberto Clemente when he is all alone and in desperate need of resilience.  It aims to put modern day Nancy Drew exemplars in the hands of all of America’s elementary school youth so they, too, can curry the qualities that allowed Sonia Sotomayor to learn and achieve her way out of the Bronx housing projects all the way to the Supreme Court.

Reading together, as a family, as a school, as a community, can breed far more than literacy gains.  It is one way to breed that elusive quality – resilience.

(Find out more – find out how – at

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Passing on Info

So I’m reading the Iliad with my two oldest daughters.  No, don’t roll your eyes.  That’s not what this post is actually about.  It’s just the premise.  (Why and how we’re reading the Iliad is perhaps an interesting and worthy subject, but I’ll leave it out for now because I’ve been writing too much about reading to older children.)

So I’m reading the Iliad with my two oldest daughters – 7th and 9th graders.  (Real quickly, the 7th grader is reading it for extra credit in her Latin class; the 9th grader is piggybacking because she loves all things Greek; and I am along for the ride because it’s a moment I’ve imagined and dreamed of – but was never confident would actually happen – since I checked Star Wars, Episode IV off the list.)  In case you haven’t been there in a long time (or even never been), it’s a pretty bloody book.  Lots of fighting between Greeks and Trojans – that’s kind of the point – and lots of explicit gore.  I keep reminding my daughters – not that they need it – that in an age not only without television or computer or film but without printing, oral recitation of epic poetry needed to be detailed to fill in all the color and nuance of a scenario.  Those Greek greats weren’t poets for nothing.

So, lots of gory detail.  (Lots of beautiful detail from the natural world, too.)  When soldiers get killed it is very much like a modern action movie.  Homer tells you and shows you exactly where the spear went in and what happens to the body.  (Yes, my girls somehow love this.  Don’t ask.)

But the girls have also learned that the Greek warriors in the Iliad were not exactly gentleman with a fine sense of sportsmanship.  They did a great deal of gloating and challenging and chest beating.  Not unlike modern NFL players exulting and self-promoting over a fine defensive play.  (In fact, the girls agreed with me that when the gods exhort the Greek and Trojan chieftains, and those same chieftains then rally their troops and inspire them to fight harder and longer, it is not unlike a football coach going up and down the bench or sideline trying to motivate his players.  The stakes are different, but the challenge to honor and manhood – the techniques – are the same.)

One other little thing that caught their eye was the emphasis the Greek warriors place on their armor – and their opponents’ armor.  When you cut down an opponent in the Iliad, the thing to do is take their armor.  If you can.  It is a trophy that proves your worth and esteems your value back home.  But a man’s comrades will go to some lengths to prevent you from stripping a fallen comrade’s armor.  So there is a lot of effort – and language – expended on the issue.  (Those who know the Iliad will know that I am understating the case.  Fully three books of the Iliad are principally concerned with the fate of one man’s armor.)

Now I have a nine-year-old, too.  (Finally, I’m getting to the point of this little anecdote.)  And the Iliad is not for her, right?  Too gory, for one.  And the reading level must be beyond her.  Both are true, but don’t count your chickens.  My nine-year-old loves dogs.  And I did read her a chapter from the Odyssey, just to show her what we were up to and how it might interest her – someday – in ways she could not anticipate.  I read her the chapter in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca, and is concealing his identity while being escorted by a shepherd, and no one can recognize him.  And he comes upon his faithful dog, Argos, who has been waiting for his return (along with his wife and son and household) these twenty years.  Argos is the first to recognize him – he wags his tail to express his happiness.  Whereupon he curls up and dies.

It is a poignant and heartfelt (and famous) moment and my daughter will never forget it.  Is she ready for the Odyssey yet, all 24 books in its entirety?  No.  But the next time the subject comes up – to learn something more from that part of Greek history, or to read the Odyssey when it is time – will she approach it with fear and trepidation or with a sense of confidence and curiosity, knowing there are other delights and mysteries therein?  Well, that’s the plan anyway.

But the Iliad is still not for my nine-year-old.  Not yet.  Not for a few more years anyway.  But that didn’t stop her sisters.

Now my nine-year-old turned nine in December, before Christmas.  Like anyone’s child, there are times when she is precocious, nine going on fourteen.  And there are times when she is just a little girl, nine wanting to be six.  Or just being nine.  As parents, we enjoy both tendencies, but we cherish the latter because they are the fleeting ones.  Children only grow up.

Before her birthday, she surprised her parents by asking for a set of Playmobil knights, little two-inch plastic figurines, bedecked with armor and weapons, who would fight it out and ride horses amidst castles and things.  I knew she still liked – occasionally – to play with Legos and Star Wars figurines and even little plastic horses.  But I didn’t know this.  It was such an unexpected, and delightful, request that we said yes and found her a Playmobil castle with knights and all their regalia.

And she has happily set it up (with the help of her 7th grade sister, no less – twelve going on seven, for a fleeting moment) and played with it for a month.  Lots of knights mounting their horses and charging off.  Knights fighting on the ramparts.  (The castle even has some of the weaponry medieval soldiers used to ward off attackers.  Did I say nine-year-olds don’t like gore?)  And of course knights duking it out with their swords and shields and pikes.

And then one day, what do I find as I pass by the stricken battlefield?  My nine-year-old is helping/having a knight strip the armor off a vanquished foe!  She had been playacting a battle – same as any other I had thought – and then I hear her voicing, “Now, we must take the armor off the fallen knight.  Back! I say, Back!  No one dare touch the fallen knight.  We must have the armor for a trophy.”

Need I say more?  Her big sisters had kindly passed the information on from the Iliad and there it was in full relief on the battlefield/bedroom floor.  And I had nothing to do with it.  What more could you want?  Not everything about reading aloud – that is, sharing a story and its style and details and context – is about the reading.  Sometimes, it’s about some part of the experience that gets shared with others.  Sometimes it’s sentimental.  Sometimes its historical.  But either way, it makes my heart glow.

— LBCjr


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