Category Archives: Reading Tips

The Harry Potter Discs

Every year my family likes to create a ‘family present.’ Something everyone – kids and parents – can contribute to. Something low cost to produce – that can be shared and shipped to the ever-burgeoning list of family and friends.

One year we made a calendar based on kids’ art. One year we made a mix-tape of everyone’s favorite songs – a little bit of personality from each of us. One year we sent an elaborate set of Christmas haiku (printed, pasted, and mounted).

Four years ago my teen-age daughters came to me and said, “Let’s record the first Harry Potter book – and send that to the people we love.” OK. 16 chapters. Everyone recorded 3 chapters. Burned onto a set of CDs. (Not that expensive. A little time consuming.) In the mail. Voila. Merry Christmas.

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It’s become a family tradition. Last year we recorded the 4th Harry Potter book – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 40 chapters. Would have required over 20 discs per recipient. Now that is expensive. And time consuming! So we ordered a bunch of cheap flash drives from Alibaba and loaded and sent the digital files. $5 a present. And most people listen on cell phones or iPods or computers now anyway.

Each year, as my daughters insisted we do another (longer) Harry Potter book (they get longer, as you probably know), I wondered about the prudence of the ‘gift.’ How overbearing is it to share with someone else – with or without children – multiple tracks of you and your children reading a children’s chapter book out loud? Can’t they read it themselves? Who nominated my family to be worthwhile readers? Does a present like this include some kind of guilt-inducing obligation? After all, not everyone is going to want to listen to each book, or all the chapters, even if they do have children?

Obviously any gift ought to come without obligation. When you give a book to someone (and I give ‘em a lot), you can’t be asking them every 6 weeks, “So, have you read it, have you read it, have you read it yet???” It’s up to them. Take it or leave it. A gift is a gesture, a spirited offering. Sharing. No more.

But the response of our recipients has put my anxieties to rest.

In some cases, even parentless friends have told us they like having the opportunity to hear my kids’ voices – as they grow up. (Three books to go!) So sharing a chapter book that your family has read turns out to be an intimate way of sharing your family with those who know them and care about them. Yes, a lot more involved than posting family vacay pictures on Facebook. It creates a more intimate, long-lasting memory, too. My kids voices are in our friends’ – even our single, childless friends’ – heads.

Naturally we’ve heard from parents with children. Not just cousins. Some of them haven’t quite gotten to Harry Potter yet. Some of them are in the middle of the series. And some of them include children who’ve already read HP and appear to relish the opportunity to listen to the stories again. To go back to the well and re-create that magical, listening, world-envisioning environment.

I don’t have to tell you that listening to a book – in the privacy of your bedroom, on a family car trip, via headphones – is a qualitatively different experience than ‘seeing the movie.’ A richer experience. Seeing the movie is thrilling but passive. Listening to the story puts J.K. Rowling back in charge. And the pace of a chapter read aloud allows the listener to imagine, to create word pictures, to look forward to their favorite parts (funny or scary), to anticipate, and to free associate. When you’re enveloped in that imaginative cloud, you don’t want to be interrupted. Even when you get to a rest stop, you can’t wait to start the next chapter.

We’re hearing from parents of these children how much they like to listen. How absorbed they get. How much they look forward to the next books discs/files. How many nights have been absorbed listening. (Just like we did when we were kids!) How they look forward to certain long car trips because they get to listen to the next book! And how strangely connected they feel to my daughters even if they don’t see them that often – or in some cases even know them that well.

We’ve heard from adults who do know my girls how nice it is to have a way to be connected. Something they can control and imbibe in bits. It doesn’t have to be Harry Potter. And yet Harry Potter is also the vehicle that brings out that level of high standard sharing showmanship in my kids.

Some close friends also relish hearing my girls’s voices grow up in successive readings. My voice doesn’t change – but my youngest daughter was 10 when we started reading Harry Potter onto the CDs. She’ll be 17 when we’re done. (Gulp.) And her voice has already changed a lot.

I’m not writing or sharing this to suggest you need to go out and record and share your favorite children’s chapter book with the people you love. I am writing it to share our family’s labor(s) of love. To share how enriching and inspiring it was for my family to read, and re-read, and live and experience and share Harry Potter growing up. To observe and remind us all that even as children grow up – they don’t want to lose stuff with the nostalgic stuff of their roots. Reading together as a family obviously creates rich, unforgettable memories. Those stories and characters – that time spent together – leaves an indelible warm fuzzy feeling for your family. In our case, even as they grew and matured, my girls didn’t want to give that feeling up. They wanted to re-access it. And to share it. What more can reading together as a family build and bring? Merry Christmas indeed.

So my fears have been put to rest. I confess that Harry Potter has been a huge part of our family bonding. We read all the books out loud with our girls – which means we read each book more than once. And yes the middle books were long and larded. But never was it a chore. We relished the chance to read again. And in fact look forward with relish to reading them yet again with our 5 year-old.

I can’t say enough about what it means to delve and imbibe and wallow in something that will clearly be shared across generations. To make it part of our spirit of Christmas giving. And to share what feels like so much of our family through a book. It feels so rewarding and right to receive feedback from our friends and family telling us that their children anticipate and re-listen to the chapters – asking for more. It feels like the true spirit of Christmas.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling.

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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.

Sugar

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 readtothem.org.)

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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

1.13.2009

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A Lesson from The Hobbit

I recently found this brief anecdote – in document form – from 2003.  But the lesson is still valuable in any year…

3 lessons from reading The Hobbit last night:

1) Take pleasure in the words.

2) The qualitative experience is more important than efficiency.

3) They appreciate things you don’t.

– Last night I’m reading The Hobbit to my daughters.  It’s not my favorite book.  It’s already past 8:30.  I’m just starting a new chapter.  Tolkein’s chapters are rarely fast.  There’s no way I’m going to be done by 9:00 p.m.  I roll my eyes and try to marshall my patience.  I have at least 4 things I want/need to do after the kids go to bed.  But right now I have to get through Tolkein’s prose.

– I start in hurried.  But I feel guilty quickly.  This is not why I’m reading.  And this is not why they’re listening.  This is certainly not why they picked this book.  I take a deep breath and remember my own advice: Take Pleasure in the Words.  I begin to seek out the colorful adjectives, the active verbs, the Middle-Earth pronouns, the dramatic or humourous juxtapositions that make the prose come alive.  I’m reading slower; I’m never gonna be done with the chapter by 9:00; but I can already see it in their faces.  This is why they’re listening.  They want to be turned on the by the juxtapositions, the hanging drama lurking in individual phrases and half sentences.

– I remember another lesson:  The quality of the experience is more important than it’s efficient execution.  There are lots of times when you feel like you need to rush to finish.  But this should not be one of them.  So what if we don’t finish the chapter?  Or so what if I have to read past 9:00?  One of ‘em has to give.  I want to enjoy the experience – my half hour with my kids.  Quiet, contemplative, stimulating, shared.  This is the way to do it.

– Still, the chapter is a slow one.  Gandalf is taking Bilbo and the dwarves to see some half-bear creature called Beorn.  He instructs them to come up to the cave two by two in 5-minute intervals.  Right away I can see that we’re in for a reprise of the first chapter – re-introducing the 12 dwarves – who I can’t keep straight anyway – let alone do all their voices.  I brace myself, and prepare to speed up.  But I can see also this is meant to be a humorous chapter.  The bear-guy feigns surprise every time two new dwarves show up.  It’s the same joke 6 times.  But I can see that while the joke is old to me it works and builds and is funnier each time for my children.  I need to do it justice, I need to sell Tolkein’s joke because it was meant for them.  And isn’t one of the things I’m after the vicarious experience of seeing ther joy, seeing them laugh, bringing them a stimulating experience???

– I slow down again, sell the chapter, and enjoy my half hour with them.  We didn’t finish the chapter.  But I was reminded of valuable lessons.  And they are all the more eager to finish the chapter tonight…

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The Liberating Power of the Twang

The Liberating Power of the Twang

Some books don’t seem to lend themselves as well to being read aloud.  No matter how great they are, for whatever reason, they are harder to present orally.

One such book is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the touchstone of American fiction.  Central to the book is Huck’s voice.  The novel is presented in the first person and reading it you quickly inhabit Huck’s mind and world view.  Huck is both naive and street smart at the same time.  He is plucky and alert and still able to be duped or fooled.  The prewar Mississippi River is a very foreign place and Huck is our guide.  Much of it is familiar to him and it becomes familiar to us through his guidance.  Much of it is alien and foreign to him – dangerous even – and we feel that through his own discoveries.

Reading to oneself, it is easier to fall into Huck’s method of storytelling.  He disarms us with Twain’s notorious first sentences:  “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.  That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

Huck’s storytelling style is pell-mell – the events and sentences and twists and turns and occasional moralizing or interpreting come one after the other with little pause.  There is a cascading sense of curiosity and discovery as the anecdotes and stories and circumstances and characters who people the Mississippi follow one after another.  Huck’s occasional pauses to interpret or philosophize are welcome but usually brief.  Huck Finn is an unending ride – a tour of Americana.

And then there is Huck’s voice – a voice from 19th century America, Missouri to be precise.  A largely uneducated voice and hence full of slang.  And nonstandard English.  This is a celebrated part of the book – intended by Twain to be so – and one of the many sources of its influences.  But it presents certain challenges to an oral reading.

Daunting challenges  Huck’s voice is full of charm as you decipher his locutions.  But try to present his unfamiliar lingo and it becomes more difficult.  Adjusting to the pace of his stories can be even harder.  Good reading is usually stately and graceful, respecting and attending to punctuation, drawing out the language and whatever verbal riches lurk.  No one wants to read at a breakneck pace and yet many of Huck’s tales demand it.

But I may have found a solution.  One which applies to other works as well.  Let’s discuss the liberating power of the twang.

A year ago, I read my family Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Newbery winning book about a boy and a dog in rural West Virginia.  The narrator, 11-year-old Marty Preston, doesn’t drop a lot of ‘-ing’s, but he does say ‘ain’t’ and uses ‘don’t’ for doesn’t and employs a handful of other verbal mannerisms we associate with a rural environment.  It was hard – impossible – for me not to read Marty without a bit of an accent.  Call it Southern, call it rural, call it Western – it doesn’t really matter – I am guessing you know what I mean.  Nearly everyone can do a ‘hick’ accent.  To some it comes naturally.  Others may need to borrow from a film or TV show.  (The world abounds with them.)  Understand – I mean no disrespect when I call it a ‘hick’ accent.  I use the term colloquially.  It’s just an accent that drawls and is not scrupulous about things like ‘ing’s.  When you fall under it’s sway, it becomes easier to say “ain’t” (if it normally is difficult).  And lots of other moments in a character’s speech become liberated.  Emphasis.  Enthusiasm.  You’re just generally looser when you start using it. You don’t need to become Gomer Pyle to give such a character his voice.

Marty Preston is a reflective little boy, so he doesn’t need to be oversold.  Indeed his reflections impart a quiet dignity.  (And how many taciturn cowboys haven’t presented dignity with their ‘hick’ accents.)  But I found that reading Shiloh that way opened up the book.  The accent gave Marty’s voice life.  It gave the book momentum.  It freed me and my listeners.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s prose is strong enough that dressing it up with Gomer Pyle is unnecessary.  But a little twang – what I would now like to call the liberating power of the twang – released Marty and Shiloh for me.  It allows you to read Shiloh with a kid’s enthusiasm, and as long as you don’t overdo it Marty can still present the quiet dignity he possesses.

I brought that Twang to Huck Finn.  Heck, it could have come from anywhere.  When you read The Indian and the Cupboard, you’ve got to do something to dress up the cowboy, Boone.  He is a tobacco-spitting Texan and outsize all the way, nearly stepping out of a tall tale.  It doesn’t really matter who you draw your twang from.  When I faced Huck Finn again the lilt and freedom of Marty Preston helped me out.  Huck is a hick, too.  He’s one we respect.  We know he will share himself and his conscience.  But he’s barefoot and dirty and can’t wait to get some peace and privacy to smoke his corncob pipe.  He needs some twang to tell his stories.  The first sentences tell you so.

How much twang is up to you.  But adding it frees up the prose of Huck Finn considerable.  It allows you to adopt a different persona, one perhaps looser and freer than your own. It is liberating. So run with it.  When Huck is telling a story, imagine him slapping his knee and sell it.  When Huck is talking with the Tom’s gang – or dealing with the raftsmen on the Mississippi River (e.g. the Child of Calamity – a true character from a tall tale) – bring in Boone and ham it up.  (Imagine him slapping his cowboy hat on his knee and stomping the floor with his boot.)  Be demonstrative.  Huck will seem dignified in comparison.

Adding the twang makes it easier to read faster – Huck’s pell-mell stories – without being embarrassed or self-conscious or losing your listener.  Instead it will bring your listener closer with anticipation.  It will suggest the trust that Twain’s prose and storytelling style demand and merit.

And it will really come in handy when you get to – and spend considerable time with – the Duke and the Dauphin.  Occasional readers tire of these characters – they are so over the top and so conspicuously transparent.  They don’t understand why Twain extends the joke so long.  (Twain has other fish to fry – things to reveal about identity and dissimilitude on the American frontier that we needn’t get into here.)  Twain intends more than short term jokes with the Duke and the Dauphin.  The story about the funeral (and potential inheritance) they stumble into has long-term play.  But adding the theatrical touch – Huck’s twang – makes it all a little easier to take a deep breath and dive into the silly antics of the Duke and the Dauphin and their mock aristocracy.

The twang can’t solve everything.  And it’s certainly not for everything.  And I am not suggesting here for a minute that one need become attentive to or expert in the variety of Western or Southern or rural or agricultural accents.  That is the province of the professional.  But I am suggesting that adding that twang, dropping those ‘ing’s, letting the drawl flow – that all of that will loosen you up and loosen up a book’s prose.  It’s like a shot of verbal whiskey, steeling you for the challenge and loosening your tongue.  Take a slug and let loose the liberating power of the twang!  Once you get off the Mississippi, a whole world of Americana awaits you.

— LBCjr

10.1.08

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Score One for Good Literature

A guest entry from a correspondent in northern California:

(My son) Kyle is a big Star Wars fan and recently got (for his birthday) the novelization of the recent animated Star Wars movie.   First off, the movie itself was beyond awful (of course, the kids enjoyed it, but it was truly terrible).  You can imagine what this implies for the quality of the book.  It’s a painful reading experience for me, but — under the premise that any reading interest of Kyle’s should be encouraged — I’ll grudgingly read the book with him in our pre-bedtime read aloud sessions.  I remember my Mom used to defend me from teachers who thought it was unproductive that my only reading interest in second grade were titles like “Great NFL quarterbacks” or “Great NFL Upsets.”  Still, it’s painful vocalizing the insipid dialogue.

I find the Star Wars (or Pokemon, another favorite of Kyle’s) type reading so painful that I’m constantly trying to steer him elsewhere.  I had picked up an abridged version of Treasure Island on a recent trip to Barnes and Noble.  I bribed Kyle into letting me read it to him by telling him I’d read two chapters of Star Wars for every one chapter of Treasure Island (if nothing else, the kid will learn the meaning of exchange rates).     After I finished 3 chapters, Kyle was begging me to keep reading and voluntarily gave up the exchange rate deal in order to get more Treasure Island.  It was great — he was physically curled up in a tense, expectant ball waiting to see whether the pirates would discover Jim and kill him like they had some others from among the “good guys.”  Lots of guns, blood, and other various encounters with dangerous pirates.  It’s a rewarding feeling to watch a child fall prey to the grip of a truly great story.

Interestingly, a determinant of Kyle’s interest in a book is whether or not it has illustrations.  The TI copy I purchased has a few, but not enough to catch Kyle’s eye.  I need to be mindful of this as I choose other “quality” books for him.  I don’t want to denigrate his own reading choices like Star Wars b/c I want to practice reading, regardless of the content.  Still, for read aloud time, it’s a heck of a lot more fun for me with a quality story in my hands.

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Aim Low

Aim Low

My own daughters are getting older now. Entering high school. I can recall wistfully the moment not long ago when we realized we had purchased “the last picture book.” So sometimes my musings can tend toward the high minded, what to do with your older children, as in my recent Aim High column. But there is a flip side.

I am here now to remember the simple pleasures and joys of reading picture books out loud. To children of any age. Reading picture books to children who cannot yet read is the start and the heart of reading aloud. It is when children learn that books contain a world of vibrant mystery and imagination, continually new, continually stimulating. Each book different, each book offering a different pleasure or stimulus. It is when adults learn the techniques of gauging and adapting to their children’s attention spans and varying restlessness. It is also when adults learn the reading techniques that not only hold but increase their children’s interest level, making the experience so rewarding that the child will be the one clamoring for more.

Young children crave the familiar. They rarely tire of repetition. They want to hear and see the same books over and over again. Sometime even the same book over and over again. It’s a security thing. They constantly want reassurance that the world is the way they have come to understand and interpret it to be. Change is unsettling and so young children crave security.

I have even known graduating younger children to want to hear – or read themselves – the same chapter book over again. (Heck, maybe you have a favorite book you return to. I know I do. Even as we become adults and learn to manage change, it doesn’t mean we don’t want a little reassurance and security, too.)

But sometimes, that repetition and sameness can be wearing, trying, even boring. Reading Go, Dog. Go! for the umpteenth time, so that you practically have it memorized – “Go around again!” – that can become monotonous. The obvious solution is to keep things fresh by staying alert, making regular trips to the library or bookstore. Sometimes children will resist this, but not often. Each book is a brand new world, each page might yield a new surprise or picture, each story may have a new magic moment. Children learn this as you have learned it. That is what coming to appreciate books is all about.

There are some things you do to make reading picture books more interesting, more stimulating – just in case it threatens to get old. Happily, these are things I recommend doing anyway as they are techniques that maximize the experience of ‘listening to’ picture books, too.

The biggest key – other than the obvious one of adapting to your child’s interests – is to make reading picture books interactive. I am not saying this is something you “have” to do, and certainly not something you need to do every time. (Sometimes children just want to be safe and quiet and cuddly. What can be nicer for a parent – knowing how fleeting that time in their life is?) But it is something very much worth doing. It maximizes the interest children can find and make in picture books. It teaches them how to find points of interest in future books – on their own. It acculturates them to be alert and observant and thorough. And it keeps them on their toes. It makes reading more than passive. It makes it stimulating.

Tip #1 is to ask your children to find things in the pictures. Sometimes this can interrupt the narrative or flow or momentum of a story, so it may not be ideal the first time through a story. (Unless you judiciously keep it to a handful of items.) But especially when you’re plowing through familiar fare, start pointing. Ask questions. Get your child to guide you through the text.

“Can you find the monkey?” “What color is the balloon?” “How many ducklings are there?” (“Five? Are you sure? I think I can find seven…”) “I see four different kinds of cars in the city. Can you find all four?”

These kinds of questions bring the entire world of a story’s illustrations into play. Your child may already appreciate the details of a story’s world. Asking questions lets them take control, become the guide, and become proud of mastering its knowledge. It teaches them to be both observant and thorough. Along the way, depending on their age, it’s a fine way to rehearse childhood knowledge, from colors and counting, to specialist info like the difference between taxis and dump trucks, or hippos and rhinos. Children are hungry for knowledge and even the simplest books are an endless source.

Asking questions will also make the act of reading more stimulating for you, too. It may require a tad more energy. But it provides you a new way to bond and paves the way for interrogative interactions. It also shows your child you care about both the book and the experience. (Just in case your sighs and monotone might have crept in after the fifteenth reading.)

Tip #2 is to sell the prose. This is easier when the prose is better, but important nonetheless. It is probably more important when reading chapter books. (Finding vocabulary and phrases worth selling, subtly or emphatically.) But it is can be easier when reading picture books. Some picture books have so little prose, you can treat each sentence like some special haiku, even if – or especially if – it’s merely there to introduce the next illustration. Some books are more plot driven and when this is so, it’s hard not to read in a pell-mell style, overwhelmed by the need to find out what happens next. But I think it’s worth finding ways – or moments – to be patient. Not to frustrate your child. But to teach them the pleasure of anticipation. (After all, the story will be over much too soon, anyway.)

Involving your child in the prose is easier when reading Dr. Seuss (or any other book that rhymes easily, well, and somewhat predictably.) Dr. Seuss writes in verse, but it is verse with an easy, loping rhythm. When I begin to recognize the rhyme scheme, I will often stop just before the phrase which completes a couplet or rhyme – and let my child finish the line. This is easiest when they already know they story, but it is still plenty easy – and worthwhile – when they don’t. (You can start with just expecting the last word of a rhyme, but it won’t be long until your child can deliver a phrase entire, and even the whole line.) It’s a minor way of asking, ‘What happens next?,’ except that it requires their brains to interact with the language, to sense how the parts fit together. There is nothing better for a child’s brain when listening to text, even if it’s only Dr. Seuss. Making this kind of observation and anticipation second nature is what will enable your child to unconsciously attend to the components of a grammatically correct sentence when they get to school. It is truly the best way to prepare for the SATs. Not that you’re worrying about that when your child is four. But it’s the most helpful thing you can do.

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Be Prepared

Be Prepared

How to Make the Time.  That’s Tip #2 from my list of ten reading tips.  In order to read aloud consistently, and especially to be able to start and finish chapter books, you have to make the time.  You have to preserve the time, commit to the time, exploit the time.

But you also have to be ready, to be alert and spontaneous – extemporaneous – to take advantage of idle moments with little to do together but read aloud.  To that end, I recommend bringing a book with you wherever you go.  Whatever book you are presently reading with your child or children, or even whatever book you hope to read next.  Just throw it in your pocket book or knapsack or into the car whenever you’re heading out to do errands or on an outing.  You never know when you’re going to get held up and have some downtime.  And downtime, even when it’s unexpected – some would say especially when it’s unexpected – is an ideal time to read aloud.  An ideal opportunity to snatch a few chapters.

You may get a flat tire and have an hour to kill before the tow truck gets there.  You may be at the doctor’s office (or any waiting room) and have an unknown period of time to wait.  You may be in traffic.  You just never know when you’re going to be granted an extra 20 minutes you didn’t count on.  And when it comes, don’t curse it.  Grasp it.  Exploit it.  Bless it.

A recent example:

I am a baseball fan.  We have a AAA baseball team in our town and my family – my wife and three daughters – like to go to the games.  When I go to the game, I am a pretty intense fan.  I like to keep score.  But I always bring a book to the game, too.  Not because I might get bored or because baseball is slow.  But because it’s a baseball game and you never know.  You never know when there is going to be downtime, some kind of delay.  I rarely read my book at the game.  (Except when we get there really early for batting practice.)  But I always have it just in case.

When I go with my family I bring a book, too – our family book.  Whatever we happen to be reading.  Have we ever read the book at the game?  I don’t think we have.  There’s just too much to enjoy – the tableaux of the stadium and the game itself.  Until this summer.

We went to a game in July, all set to see the visiting Pawtucket Red Sox.  My daughters came eager to see some of the Red Sox players they know who were currently playing down with the farm team.  We enjoyed batting practice.  One of my daughters managed to get an autograph.  But then an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in.  I actually went out to the car to get our rain gear.  From the parking lot I could see a real bad dark thunderstorm coming in from the west.  I knew this would be a ferocious one, but hopefully brief.

When I returned to our seats, although it was only sprinkling lightly, I suggested we repair to the upper seats well under cover.  I had heard on the radio that the game wouldn’t start until the storm passed through.  So I knew we had at least another half hour – probably more – until the game might start.   My family happily left our seats and we climbed the stadium steps all the way to the top row.  Way high up.  Safe from the rain.

And I took out our book.  We were far from the field, far from the players, essentially removed.  With little else to do.  It helped that our current book happened to be a baseball book, Keeping Score, the newest book by Linda Sue Park, winner of the Newbery Award for A Single Shard.  Nobody objected.  In fact everyone was eager.  And so we read three chapters up there in the top row waiting for the storm to break and pass.

When the storm came, we had a terrific view.  It was indeed ferocious.  We could see our city getting pummeled.  We could see the sheets of rain, windblown and swirling.  We could see light objects torn and whipped in the wind.  But we were safe and dry and content.

As it turns out the game was canceled.  But the day was not a total loss.  We came home and finished our book within the week.

But retain an image of the curious family, up in the top row of the stadium, reading their book, all ears attentive, while the wind brings the rain and the air fills with the tang of thunder.  It was an idyllic, unforgettable, one-time moment for us.  But it serves as a useful reminder:  You never know when you’re going to be given an unexpected opportunity.  So be prepared.

*

[Note: In case you’re interested, Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score is about a young girl, Maggie-O, who lives in Brooklyn in the 1950s.  She roots for Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers and listens to the games on the radio at the firehouse.  One of the firefighters, Jim, teachers her how to keep score (something every baseball fan should know) and it becomes her particular pleasure, something that helps her connect more deeply and fundamentally to the game.  Later, Jim is sent to fight in the Korean War, and Maggie-O maintains a correspondence, through baseball naturally, while he is there.  The novel was perfect for my family.  Despite my earnest efforts to teach my girls how to keep score, it was only Maggie-O and  Linda Sue Park who made them want to.]

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Aim High

Reading aloud to your children starts when your children are small, before they can read to themselves.  It starts with toddlers learning that those spines on the shelf contain a world of color and variety and surprise, pages filled with animals and imaginative places – a limitless world of mountains and rainbows and forests and ice cream cones and creatures galore.

At some point, though, you and your child make the mysterious transition from reading picture books to reading chapter books.  When this happens, narrative begins to matter more, the illustrations less.  But good literature still has other “illustrative” pleasures – the skill and tone of the author; the unique way he/she paints with words; the felicitous or memorable phrases or moments conjured in the mind; the creation of characters and snatches of dialogue that hit home emotionally and stay with you (and your listener) long after a book is closed.

All of this comes from good literature, of any length, aimed at any reading level.  It can come from William Steig’s little 170 pp. gem, Dominic, or from behemoths like the final installments of the Harry Potter series.  The rewards are varied – from Steig’s choice vocabulary to J.K. Rowling’s indelible moments, both humorous and scary.  But they come from painting with words, from the skill and artistry of the author’s prose, and from his/her effectiveness at sparking a child’s imagination to conjure and envision those words and worlds and moments.

These pleasures and rewards are of course available in all literature, including or especially literature written for or aimed at (or primarily consumed by) adults.  And I am here suggest that you can share some of these works, too, with your children – as a family.  You don’t have to confine yourself to the children’s section of the library or bookstore – as rich as it may be.  Sometime you may want a different source of variety and you shouldn’t be afraid to try to branch out to a higher level of the shelf.  It will be good for your children – horizon-expanding – and salutary for you as the adult reader.

None of us want our children to grow up too fast.  From the time they are 2 to the time they are 17 we are constantly aware of the undulating way in which our children can seem young and carefree and silly, and the way they can be alternately mature and precocious and sophisticated.  But there is an awfully wide area of balance in between.  I know in my house, sometimes my children want to watch a silly movie that I’d just as soon pass on; and sometimes they are ready for more substantial fare that I can’t wait to share with them.

For me, much of the pleasure of reading aloud is the vicarious thrill I get sharing great moments – funny moments, scary moments, famous moments.  I love anticipating how they’ll react when Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father; or how they’ll handle wondering about whether or not to trust Severus Snape; or how they’ll react emotionally when Charlotte dies.  There are innumerable iconic moments like this and though I can’t be there for all of them, part of the joy of being a parent is knowing your children have those moments ahead of them and you can share in their experience.  That is why families in the middle of a good book invariably have one parent who says, “Don’t read until I get home.”  They don’t want to miss anything.  More specifically they don’t want to miss out on any of their children’s reactions, any of the choice things they might say or do or the questions they might ask.

But you don’t just have to read children’s books to have these moments.  You can aim higher, stimulate all of your adult brain receptors, and raise your children’s sights, too.  There are some families that read beyond Harry Potter – they read J.R.R. Tolkein, too, all 1300 pages of the Lord of the Rings saga.  In our own family, we tackled Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer a couple of years ago.  A century ago, Mark Twain might have been standard reading for school age children, but no more.  Now Twain’s work is “classic” and today’s children are not as familiar – not initially comfortable – with an older and more elliptical method of storytelling.  We read it aloud with a thirteen-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a seven-year-old.  I think it was a clear case where it might not have worked if we hadn’t tackled it as a family.  The 13-year-old cottoned on to Twain’s humour right away.  Her laughter made the rest of the story, and particularly Twain’s method of telling the story, infectious for everyone else.  My 7-year-old might not have been able to grasp the story if it had just been me and her trying to tackle Twain.  But in a family setting, moments great and small, from Tom watching the beetle in church, to Tom and Becky lost in the cave in the 4th of July, came alive and worked their magic on one and all.  Experienced together as a family, the humour and pleasures of the book were enhanced, the memories sharper and even more enduring.  (And our youngest even named her new puppy, ‘Sawyer’ as a result.)

Reading aloud with your children is often about showing them things they didn’t know – they can’t know – they will like and enjoy.  It’s about expanding their horizons, teaching them – vicariously – how to appreciate and become alert to more in the world – more people and places and historical situations.  It is to make them not only more sophisticated in the vocabulary they acquire, but less provincial about attitudes – places and times and peoples – different than their own.  That is why it is worth aiming high and occasionally exposing your children – and your family – to more sophisticated fare.

Here are three other titles that I have exposed my family to in the last three years that are perhaps worth sharing:

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay.  A novel about a young English boy growing up in South Africa before W.W.II.  In the first half of the book he endures prep school as a persecuted minority at the hands of the Afrikaner majority.  He thus has a natural affinity and respect for the even more persecuted black population of South Africa.  The tale includes adult allies of the hero, nicknamed Peekay, including a Zulu witch doctor, a train conductor who instructs him in boxing, and a German professor of botany and zoology.  In the last portion of the book, Peekay grows up to work in a diamond mine in Rhodesia.  The book is not aimed at children.  The persecution and cruelty in the book are exactly as harsh and as cruel as you’d expect in a book of the American South.  But with a child narrator – who even befriends a scrawny chicken he names Grandpa Chook – it is all too easy for children with a secret hunger for sophistication to follow Peekay as their guide to another world – another place and time – while still learning some of the universal truths about survival (in this case, finding the power and strength to remain independent and true to yourself) that you’d expect from any long-lasting work of fiction.  These lessons, brought to us from unexpected characters and venues, are exactly what we read literature for.  The graduation from Charlotte’s Web to To Kill a Mocking Bird eventually leads here.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway.  This one was by accident.  I came across a brilliant, unabridged, audio recording of this book read by Campbell Scott, a little known American actor and director.  Scott’s reading is pitch perfect.  It exactly reproduces the way my own mind’s eye imagines Hemingway’s prose – the flat, beguiling simplicity – and the lugubrious, world-weary yet wise way in which Hemingway’s Spanish characters express themselves.  I’ve listened to this recording in the car (yes, you can put audio books on your iPod, too) and it has unexpectedly – yet charmingly – caught the ear of my wife and two oldest daughters.  For Whom the Bell Tolls is a tale of the Spanish Civil War, a romantic story of an American fighting for the Republic against the Fascists, teaming up with a band of guerrillas in the mountains.  The book is long, almost 500 pp., much longer than some of Hemingway’s other well known novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms or The Old Man and the Sea.  Once again, the book is not written for children.  But when you are aiming high you must be alert for what might unexpectedly grab their attention and beguile and teach them in ways you may not have first have anticipated.  My older children became charmed by the atmosphere of the pine needles and the cooking smoke in the mountains of Spain, by the repartee of the band of gypsies and guerrillas trying to survive there.  Like most Americans, they need a primer on the Spanish Civil War, but part of Hemingway’s genius is to reflect the common simplicity of the soldiers fighting for both sides, while offering their struggle as an existential example of how to live.  Hemingway admits the horrors committed by both sides in the conflict – again, why this is not a book written for children – but when children are old enough to know about war and what transpires within, then they are old enough to come to terms with Ernest Hemingway’s prose and lucky enough – if you take them – to have their eyes opened to a timeless account of how common soldiers appreciate the simplest things in life – a bowl of soup, a bird wheeling in the sky, a companion at night – amidst their struggle.

True Grit, by Charles Portis.  Another felicitous accident – but what friends are for.  True Grit was written in 1968 and quickly made into a famous movie starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.  At the time it was a phenomenon.  Today it is a forgotten classic.  A friend recently shared it with me and what a joyous and serendipitous discovery it turned out to be.  It checks in under 250 pages.  Written in the first person, this story is told by its young protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross.  Mattie aims to avenge the wrongful death of her father in Fort Smith, Arkansas (circa 1875), and to do so she recruits the talents of the notorious federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn.  The book is unexpectedly comic and funny.  I can’t tell you when I’ve laughed out loud as often. Mattie challenges the adults around her – almost all of them tough, western, frontier men – and holds her own and gets her way.  She is also charmingly matter of fact about all that befalls her, especially the thorns and scrapes of her time.  As a result, True Grit reads like Cormac McCarthy, but with humour in droves.  Is it for children?  I am sure the film, which won John Wayne his only Oscar, was seen by countless children in 1969.  Today?  As I laughed my way through Mattie’s quest to track down her father’s killer, I couldn’t help but imagine how much my own daughters would admire and identify with Mattie’s spitfire mettle.  Mattie’s humorous observations (“Men would live like goats if left alone,” she notes, upon entering Rooster’s living quarters) are just as funny to them as they are to us.  And Mattie’s matter of fact tone provides an educational introduction to a foreign time and its mores, from attending a public hanging to sleeping in a barn or sharing a bed in a rooming house.  As it happened, I managed to cajole my oldest daughter to reread it aloud to me (while cooking and doing other household chores – it is summer).  She took to it instantly.  Though not a performer, she very quickly acquired an Arkansas drawl to make Mattie’s “voice” convincing.  Doing so made reading aloud more fun for her, the reader, and more fun for me, the listener.  And it was Portis’ text that led her to it – not my suggestion or inveigling.  True Grit ends with a rousing, exciting, funny, elongated, drawn out climax that thrilled my daughter – and her listening sister – into cascading giggles.  What better way to share “adult” literature?  Along the way, both my daughter’s gained access to Mattie Ross’s ahead-of-her-time independence, properly couched in a Protestant spinster’s sense of rectitude.  What better way to get a sense of the strange and foreign attraction and charm of the past?  And that’s what literature is for.  When you aim high.

[Caveat: I must emphasize that each of these books contains material which might be objectionable for some adults to share with children.  Speaking at schools about children’s literature people can find all kinds of things to use to set limits, from witchcraft to nudity to curse words.  On my own account, I tend to think if the language, for example, is part of its time period, then it comes with protective quotation marks.  Such language is not an endorsement from the author or reader.  But others disagree.  What I say about television applies here, too:  It’s not as important what your policy is as that you have a policy.  I can understand if anyone objects to the nudity or racism in The Power of One; to the sexuality or violence in For Whom the Bell Tolls; or to the violence or language (though common to generations of Saturday Westerns) in True Grit.  It is really up to each parent to police their children’s reading and decide what pace is appropriate to introduce more sophisticated fare.  I repeat only that it is also each parent’s corollary responsibility to be alert for those moments when your child may be ready to aim higher, and to take advantage of them.  Read on and aim high.]

[Second caveat:  Coincidentally, I have since learned that Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a favorite book of both current presidential candidates.  Barack Obama cited it as one of the three most influential books he had read.  And John McCain is known to quote from it regularly.  It’s not every day a book published over fifty years ago can strike a chord like that with two men, influential and opposed.  Yet another reason to take a flier and explore.]

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