Author Archives: Bruce

Why the Book is Better than the Movie

The Treasure’s in the Details

I made a couple of TV appearances recently, and it got me thinking about different media and the people who consume them.  We in the parenting/educational line are often thinking of what’s best for our children and students.  We are very judgemental.  We’d rather they eat healthy and play healthy and read healthy.  We let them eat junk food and soda – we let them play video games and live on their phones – but we’d rather they do better.  We all know TV isn’t good for you – that reading is better.  So how do we get ‘em to read healthy – without wagging our fingers at them and making it our chore rather than their pleasure?

Let’s look at it from this angle.  How many times have your kids gone to see a big movie based on a big book – and they’ve come back and said – “The book was better than the movie”?  How many times have you said it?  We all say it.  Why is that?  Why is the book better than the movie?

It doesn’t take much to understand the answer.  The book is richer.  The characters are depicted in more patient emotional depth – and we as readers – and our kids as readers, too – respond to that.  We care more.  The book uses more details – longer descriptions – more color and anecdote – more complicated nuanced layered plot set up – to advance it’s story.  Sometimes when you are in the middle of a good book – and kids know this, too – you don’t want the story to end.  You’re with a good friend(s) and you want to pause and hold onto that moment.  If you’ll forgive me, you’re like a rat who wants to keep pushing that dopamine receptor.  You don’t want life to intercede and take that pleasure away from you.

The movie can’t – or rarely can – provide these pleasures.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love movies.  I love a rich movie that I’ll want to watch more than once, share w/ others, remember and reference.  I love a movie that adds to my emotional and intellectual palette – that enriches my mental world.  I admit – not everyone goes to the movies for those reasons.  Sometimes we just want an ephemeral pleasure.  We want to laugh or be caught up in a story – action, mystery, thriller – or even be scared.  But when it’s a movie we also expect it to be finite.  We need to get in and get out in 2 hours.  (Excepting anomalies like Lord of the Rings.)  And that means a movie can’t provide as rich an experience – in two hours – as a book can in 10 or 20.

Kids intuitively know this.  My examples are going to date me – but if we just choose from recent adaptations of popular novels aimed at children – from The Lightning Thief to The Hunger Games to Twilight to good old dependable Harry Potter – the experience is the same.  Kids will tell you they liked the movie, they may even see it again, but it wasn’t as good as the book.  Why?  What can we do with that?

The truth is, kids have a tough time telling you why.  They usually harp on the same things – the stuff that was left out.  They usually mention characters, scenes, bits of dialogue – stuff that is precious to them that the film-makers had to cut out or condense because they couldn’t make a 12 hour movie.  For starters, we need to recognize that kids who read books treasure the stuff – the details –  inside of those books as precious.  It bothers them that such details are left out.  (You can ask your closest child for their personal examples.  They may like how the Harry Potter folks pulled off Luna Lovegood – but they still miss Peeves the Poltergeist.)  That stuff – those details – are in fact your kids’ treasure.

But that is not all the filmmakers leave out.  They truncate or eliminate themes and plot lines.  Set ups that may have taken pages to establish are executed visually in a film in seconds.  Screenwriters are trained to establish elements – character elements or didactic exposition – as efficiently is possible.  This is necessary and skillful for efficient two-hour story-telling.  But it’s not what makes books special.  And that difference – the stuff left out – is what makes books better.

A recent example from the adult world may really illustrate the point.  I’m talking about World War Z.  (And before I begin, let me say that I know an awful lot of precocious middle schoolers who have discovered this book, too.)  If you’ve read the book, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t – allow me a moment to convince you – just to make sure you don’t think that World War Z is just another stupid zombie book.  I confess, the notion of zombies is pretty silly, and the current craze is probably little more than that – a passing fad.  Nonetheless World War Z is special.  It takes as its premise that there has been a world wide attack of zombies – a plague.  And that people and nations all over the globe have fought back – and largely won.  But the book doesn’t depict that war in real time.  It is all told after the fact through the technique of oral history.  The author – Max Brooks – contrives to have ‘interviewed’ participants and survivors of the war that was.  From all over the globe they describe what they witnessed and what they experience.  What they really describe is how people – different people in different places and cultures – responded to the threat.  Sure there are moments where some characters describe the physical details of fighting off zombies.  (There are details like why to go for a head shot.)  But this is not the true meat or theme of the book.  Instead, Brooks uses the occasion of a zombie attack to imagine how humanity would respond to a world-wide threat.  His premise could just as easily be an actual disease or pandemic.  Or natural disaster.  Or invasion from Mars.  His real subject is who would panic?  What would that look like?  Who would succeed?  What kind of leadership or ingenuity or teamwork or unity would succeed against a difficult to understand adversary?  And Brooks uses actual history and journalistic references to tell his story.  There is an early character who describes the trade in internal organs for transplant in the Far East.  Brooks’ imagination also abounds in historical ironies.  The Israelis invite the Palestinians in as they build a higher wall to keep the zombies out.  Rich Americans become boat people trying to get into the haven of Cuba.  I won’t spoil more but you can see the natural question – how do you film that?

And the answer is they barely even tried.  My point isn’t to write a screed against the film adaptation of World War Z.  In fact, they created an enjoyable – and fairly traditional – adventure film that allows Brad Pitt (a character who doesn’t exist in the bool) to trot the globe learning a little here and there (Korea, Israel, Iceland) to try to figure out how to combat the zombies.  But this film – as conceived and executed – can’t hold a candle to the book.  It doesn’t even try.

I think kids know this, too, when they come out of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter 7.  They want to see their favorite characters and moments.  They want to be back in the favored magical, exciting world of their imaginations – the one they conjured when read the book.  They come out knowing they only got a less than satisfying, not as rich taste.  Many of them go back and re-read the original for the full emotional, imaginative experience.

So what can we do with that?  If the book is better than the movie – how can we get them to read the books?  Make them available.  Always say ‘Yes’ when they want to go to the library or – gulp – the bookstore.  Let them put it on their Kindles.  Make the books available.  Have them lying around.  Encourage them to read the book before they see the movie.  You can even demand a quid pro quo – telling them they can’t see the movie until they’ve read the book.  (Yes, that’s the rule in my house.)  If they haven’t read the book – or perhaps weren’t even aware there was a book – get it for them.  Oftentimes this is how a child first learns “the book is better than the movie.”  Make comparisons.  When they tell you the book is better than the movie – make a list.  Together.  Come up with other examples. From their childhood.  And from yours.  (You can even include adult films.)  Let them come up with whatever films they do.  Do they like Stuart Little?  Do they know Freaky Friday was a book?  The possibilities are endless.  But let the occasion of the comparison between the movie and the book become an opportunity to talk about more movies – and more books.  And get those books!  Life is about opportunities.  Create them.

Finally, I think we have to trust.  If the books really are better than the movies – then quality will out.  Eventually children don’t want junk food – they want a full, rich nourishing meal.  They’d rather eat Thanksgiving dinner than more Cheetos.  So they will gravitate to those hefty, nourishing chapter books – no matter how thick and imposing.  (In fact, when they come to love those worlds, they’ll prefer them thick and imposing, because they’ll want to reside and wallow there – stopping time – longer.  They’ll want their literary Big Gulps. Indulge them.)  But we can also hasten or enable that moment along.  Have the books around.  Let them bring them in the car.  Make sure they’re with you during likely moments when there might be dead time – car trips, any time you may have to wait for wherever you’re going (e.g. doctor’s offices.)

It’s also OK to use some quid pro quo carrots and sticks.  Books can be rewards.  If you’re a little firm – books will become their own rewards.  When we finally had a child who really wanted to play video games – we instilled a 1:1:1 ratio requirement.  She was allowed to play video games – but she had to maintain a 1:1:1 ratio of time spent a) playing outside, b) reading, c) playing video games.  She’s been on her honor to maintain this balance.  If we think things are out of whack – we speak up.  Books – even in this required scenario – quickly become attractive anyway.  If you’re looking forward to playing your next video game – you still want to choose books you’ll enjoy – books so good they read fast – books so rich you’ll enjoy being in them for 500 pages.  In a perverse way, even this technique takes children into worlds where – sometimes despite themselves – they discover the superior riches of the mental and imaginative worlds – the emotional universe – of good books.  And they’ll come out admitting, “the book was better than the movie.”

After the interview

I was interviewed by a local television station in Richmond this week.  The morning show on Fox.  It’s not the first time – but my emotions and reactions were different this time.

1) It’s just TV.  And it’s not the first time.  Who even watches TV anymore?  It hardly feels like it’s a topic of conversation these days – the way it used to.  Unless that just dates me.  Because of course I’m wrong.  Of course people still watch TV.  Sure they watch more channels.  And they ‘watch’ or consume other media forms too.  The audience is highly diffuse and dispersed.  But I’m still fortunate to be there – to have a platform – to have an audience that might be interested.  Like a musician performing his best songs for an unknown audience – I still need to be up and ready and give it my best.  And I did.

2) Part of me is self conscious about doing that at all.  It is important to me to be asked for my opinion, my point of view, my expertise – not to over-aggressively offer my opinion, advice, anecdotes unsolicited.  But I know that’s not entirely true either.  I know that some people want to be entertained.  I know that some people want answers – even if they’re unsure of what questions they’re asking.  And I really know that I have a message worth sharing.  It’s not just a do-gooder’s message about eating healthy.  (Although it is that, too.)  I know that dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands of families will be enthused about reading aloud – whether they’re just doing it more, or more often, or if they’re doing it for the first time.  My message is worth it.  It’s not only worth offering – even unsolicited.  It’s worth pushing.  If there’s a TV audience out there – it’s eager to be pushed.

3) Late in the interview I committed what felt like a mistake.  I mentioned my son. He’s only 3. And I mentioned that we play the movie line game – and even the book line game – together.

Was that wrong?

In one sense it’s not.  I have certainly mentioned my own children – including my still young son – often enough in this blogging arena.  And where else does one find the anecdotes and apercus about reading aloud but from one’s own experience?

But in another sense I must be cautious.  Wary.  Careful.  When I am being interviewed – it’s not about me. (Or my family.) It’s about the families we’re reaching.

A step further – I must be careful to come off right.  I am educated, articulate, sometimes academic, can be intimidating.  And my children are – comparatively – privileged.  They grow up in a highly literate, articulate household.  I don’t want to come off wrong.  I don’t want anyone to turn away because my own children’s experiences can’t be relevant to their own.

But with enough reflection I realize that this is in fact the whole game right here.  In fact, I shouldn’t be embarrassed about sharing both what I know and have learned and the experiences and anecdotes of my own kids.  It’s what I’m here for.  It’s what I do.

Let me explain.

a) In fact lots of families are eager for answers and information – for stories and inspiration – eager in fact to be told what to do and how to do it.  I know this because of the untold millions of dollars spent by our federal government and untold number of earnest non-profits (like our own) trying to reach out and help – to enable and to make our world a better place.  I know because parents and families ask.  They read parenting magazines and are hungry for tips – parenting tips on all and sundry.  They call and write and ask questions – Am I doing it right? What else should I do?  Do you have any ideas for this?  It’s what parents talk about on the playground and at the gym.  How do you handle this?  What are you doing about that?  I know because they ask us, too. They ask even the most elementary questions about where to find book lists and what books to read.  I shouldn’t be embarrassed or humble about sharing what I know.  We all can’t know about everything – and I know a lot about this (this reading aloud thing).  Parents do want to know.  They should. And they do.

b) I also know from my own experience.  If I share Ready McFie’s ardor for the movie line game – I know it can come off show-offy.  (And I know what it’s like to be repelled by the show-offy parent.  I DON’T want to be that parent – and certainly not on TV.)  But I know from experience how other kids respond to the movie line game.  And so I know it’s worth sharing.

You see this, in fact, is where the trivia questions come from.  They – the idea behind them – their impetus – come from the very questions (or type of questions) I ask my own kids when we have read books together.  Or long after we have read books together.  It’s one of the ways we interact and communicate.  It is our vernacular.  A way to celebrate the books.  To challenge each other.  To re-access and re-live in the choice detailed pleasurable worlds and moods and atmospheres those books create.  But it doesn’t stop there.

I can recall countless times I have shared the same with my children’s friends.  At parties.  In the car.  Carpooling all those countless places we end up taking our own and other people’s kids.  Invariably other children are quickly fascinated and enthused by movie or book trivia.  I test and feint to locate their level of knowledge and understanding – what books and flics they know well.  For some of them it takes a little getting used to.  But for almost all of them they sit up – are more alert – they’re brains are thinking too – they want to play the game.

And that’s what tells me how good and healthy and stimulating and right it is for other children – other people’s children – everyone’s children.  It’s not me telling you to eat your vegetables.  It’s just me sharing that I know kids LOVE this kind of stimulating, get-the-most-out-of-popular-culture celebration.  I know how to do it.  And I want you to, too.
But that is not all.  (‘Oh no, that is not all’…quoted from what picture book? A: The Cat in the Hat.)

It all goes double for the movie line game.  One kind of trivia question I love to put in the OSOB book packets are “Who said?” questions.  Children spring up animated to try to answer these questions.  The questions put kids’ imaginations right back in the book. They scramble all over each other to recapitulate the scenes and moments and characters who create certain lines of dialogue.  I especially like choosing dialogue that is not obvious.  Redolent, memorable – but on the edge of memory.  So they have to work a little to remember and re-imagine and recreate.  The effort is worth it as their satisfaction and pride are all the greater.  Their enthusiasm and celebration is brought forth.

And children – even my bred-in-the-bone 3-year-old – especially cotton on to the movie line game.  They can play it too.  It is somehow easier for them to come up with lines from movies than it is from books – even from movies they haven’t seen in a year.  (Perhaps because it’s easier – part of our generation’s parenting culture – to see and re-see favorite movies.) Children make the transition quickly – eagerly – and start to ask their own “Who said?” questions riffing the movie-line game.

c) So what was Ready McFie’s book line? It started when we were reading Charlotte’s Web. The night before Wilbur meets Charlotte she actually speaks to him from the rafters in the darkness. Wilbur can’t see her – doesn’t know who she is – doesn’t even know what kind of animal she is – doesn’t know where to look. She says good night to Wilbur intoning, “I’ll see you in the morning.” Wilbur goes to sleep that night pondering the mystery – eager to learn the identity of his mystery friend.

Well Ready McFie – the eager listener – went to the bed the same way. (This is, of course, a classic read aloud scenario. The tired child eager to hear more. Sometimes asking for one more chapter. Sometimes recognizing the safety of their fatigue, but happy they have something to look forward to the next day.) He woke up the next morning – and he remembered the line. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he quoted. He made the line his. It was a talisman of the book for him. He has quoted it many times since.

And that’s how you play the book line game. You try to think of lines from books – and see if your interlocutors can identify the character who spoke it; the title of the book it’s from; the author. Sometimes it’s even fun to recall moments of dialogue – and see if your child, friend, colleague can finish the conversation.

Try one: From the Disney film, The Emperor’s New Groove. (this sequence may be familiar to you from the trailer) David Spade/Llama: “Let me guess. We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.” John Goodman/Peruvian peasant: “Yup.” Spade: “Sharp rocks at the bottom?” Goodman: “Most likely.” And how does Spade finish the exchange? “Bring it on.”

An easy one: “That Sam-I-am. That Sam-I-am. I do not like that Sam-I-am.” Too easy right? (Green Eggs and Ham, of course.)

How about: “Kaplink. Kaplank. Kaplunk.” A little harder, I hope. From Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McCloskey.

Moving up a little: “Wow. That’s about all they could say was ‘Wow.”  [Kevin Henkes’ Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse.]

How about a chapter book: “Excuse me?” “Excuse me?” “Excuse me?” [That’d be the Warden in Louis Sachar’s Holes – a line (and method of delivery) all kids remember and love in fear – memorably played by Sigourney Weaver in the film adaptation.]

Closer to home: “How can you whip cream without whips?” A toughie, eh? Try it on one of your e.s. kids. It’s Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (explaining about the Whip Room to Veruca Salt)

You can play this game forever – with movies or books. We just watched The Lion King for the first time. We’re playing it now. “I’ll tell you when we get there.” (Simba, to Nala.)  “Ix-nay on the upid-stay.” (Zazu, to Simba)  “It is time.” (Rafiki)  “Remember.  Remember who you are.” (Mufasa, to Simba)

One more? “I know what I said. Listen to what I’m saying now!” (Character? Movie?) [Elastigirl/Holly Hunter; The Incredibles.]

You can play it, too.

And I think – upon reflection – my instinct to share this was right after all – even on TV. It is what I do. We play the movie line game – and the book line game. It is one way we celebrate the books we share. I want you to share books with your families too. What else can I do but share that enthusiasm, that joy, and these methods, too? I just hope it comes off right…on TV.

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.


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.]

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.


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…

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).

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.

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.

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.]