Category Archives: Reading Tips

Honor the Story

The other day, I was reflecting on what it took to get all the disparate members of my family to stop what they were doing and sit down to listen to a story.  As kids get older, with a variety of interests and more complex schedules, it gets harder.  And in our modern age, with more and more to distract and attract us, it gets harder still.  In my own family, I know it’s still possible because each and every one of us is willing, eager even, to fall under the sway of a story.  It’s not the first thing each of us thinks of.  But every one of us knows the pleasures, pleasures rich enough to induce each of to say, “OK, I’ll do such and such later.  Right now – it’s story time.”

I’d like to say the story speaks for itself.  And it does.  But that is not always enough.  The willingness to fall under the sway of the story – to sit still that long, to put off the need for constant visual stimulation, to maintain the patience it may require to give the story a page – or a chapter – or two to become captivating – is also a cultivated habit.

So how do you cultivate that habit?  You must honor the story.  You must create an ethos, an ethic, a culture in which all are slaves to the narrative, in which everything else stops while that chapter is being read.  It requires respect for everyone else listening.  It requires the suppression of individual desires (to go the bathroom, to get a snack, to crack a joke, to answer the phone).  But most of all, it requires respect for the story itself.

This is a habit which can be cultivated when your children are young.  Everyone knows what it’s like to have a small child on your lap, reading a picture book, someone comes in the room, and you pick your head up and say, “We’ll be with you as soon as we finish this story.”  We have the confidence to do this because whoever comes in the room knows a picture book can only last another few minutes.  We have the desire to do this because we don’t want to break the brief, fragile, special spell the story has cast on our little lap sitter.  We have a vicarious stake in the world of their imagination.  We are honoring the story.

This is no different when reading a chapter book, but this truth is harder to recognize because when we are older – as students or parents – the things that distract us – the call from a friend, the incoming text message, the e-mail update – all seem more important.  Those things can be important, but you have to ask yourself if the brief twenty minutes shared together, under the spell of a common cultural medium – a story – is in fact not worth more. In most cases, the irritation with having to check those messages later is insignificant in comparison with the magic of family time gained.  It is really more an exercise in self-control.

In truth, this habit can also be cultivated – or re-enforced – by examining one’s viewing habits.  In fact, viewing habits can inhibit or retard the principles of honoring the story.  I’ll bet everyone knows the phenomenon of young children at a birthday party; someone puts on a movie thinking it will entertain the children for an hour or so; and twenty minutes in half the kids are wandering around.  This isn’t just because some kids have shorter attention spans or some kids have already seen the movie.  It’s because some children don’t grow up honoring the narrative.  For many, putting on a film is just like putting on the television.  It’s constant background noise, something to be tuned in or tuned out at will, as the impulse strikes.  It is lamentable, but it is also preventable.

A movie is a story, too.  A finite tale with a beginning, middle, and end.  Its narrative, too, can be honored – should be honored – because doing so will pay dividends elsewhere.  I often speak about the value of the “pause button” when reading a book out loud, how a book affords the opportunity to pause at will, to discuss a point, to ask a brief question, to reset the attention span.  The metaphor is of course imported from the television.  But in my experience, many families don’t avail themselves of the pause button when watching a movie.  When a child needs to go to the bathroom, or get a snack, they miss five minutes.  Yes, it’s not the end of the world, but it disrespects the story.  Everything from not using the pause button to having the television on as constant background teaches disrespect for the story.  It suggests that choosing a story on film is just an ephemeral distraction, of no lasting importance.

If you want your family to mutually cherish the twenty minutes it takes to suspend everything – everyone putting off or suspending or restraining something – to respect the story, then look at your own family viewing habits.  Ask yourself if the pause button isn’t in fact the key to honoring the story the next time you want to brave a chapter book as a family.  Ask yourself if that isn’t the first way to recognize and value and then preserve the quiet and silence and commitment it takes to read a chapter book out loud.  The restraint may seem momentous, but is a small thing really (saying “not now” to a text message?).  But the dividends for your family, and for your children’s literary understanding, are enormous.  If you teach respect for the story – for the sanctity of the narrative – then the next time you want to read aloud it will be a little bit easier.  Every one will think first of the thing they are putting off.  But if they remember the special value of that shared twenty minutes – the laughs and thrills and shared expectation and choice prose bits – then they will choose the story over another ephemeral twenty minutes at the computer.

Know Your Book I: An Elbow in the Ribs

Know Your Book I: An Elbow in the Ribs

One of my reading tips is to Know Your Book. At the most basic level this means adapting your reading style to your book. If you’re reading a silly book to small children it is appropriate – nay, encouraged – to ham it up. If you’re reading a more serious book for older children, it is often better to play it more deadpan and let the prose do the work, to let the details of the story come at the listener on their own.

But knowing your book also means knowing what’s inside, being able to anticipate any thorny moments – scary, emotional, thematically uncomfortable – so that you are ready with a strategy to defuse them. Knowing your book also means recognizing a slow section – to make sure you power through it – or an exciting or important moment in the book – to make sure you protect it from interruption.

Occasionally, though, you will encounter an author whose style is hard to decipher, hard to figure out how to read. In my experience this happens most often when you are reading something someone else has recommended. (It worked for them, why isn’t it working for you?) Or when you are reading a classic, something the opinion of generations has recommended, yet you cannot manage to unlock.

Me, I have trouble with A.A. Milne’s Pooh stories. Don’t ask me why. Children love them, but I just can’t seem to find the right tone to pull them off. I am either too simple, or too knowing. And I feel stupid and uncomfortable and self-conscious. I just can’t access the right restrained yet arch silliness.

But there is one book, which gave me great trouble, that I was eventually able to unlock – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Kipling is a master of English prose and has written books for various reading levels. The Just So Stories are the simplest; the two Jungle Books are a step beyond; and then if they’re game children can graduate to Kim or Captains Courageous.

But if the Just So Stories are the “easiest” – i.e. aimed at the youngest children – how could they give trouble? Perhaps you know “The Cat Who Walked By Himself” or “How the Camel Got His Hump,” two of the stories from this collection that have been anthologized most. If I can’t read that, I asked myself, what is my problem? But I couldn’t. There was something stilted about the rhythm of the prose. Just when I thought Kipling was all set to ease into his moralistic fable, he would interrupt himself. I just couldn’t get it right. And when an adult is starting and stopping and re-starting – interrupting himself – then the book will not work for listening children. (Even if is the author’s fault.)

Here is the first paragraph of my favorite story from the collection, “The Beginning of the Armadilloes,” just so you can see what I’m on about:

This, O Best Beloved, is another story of the High and Far-Off Times.
In the very middle of those times was a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog, and
he lived on the banks of the turbid Amazon, eating shelly snails and
things. And he had a friend, a Slow-Solid Tortoise, who lived on the
banks of the turbid Amazon, eating green lettuce and things. And so
that was all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?

Now what do you do with all of those “Best Beloveds” and the interrogative at the end? Maybe you’re quicker than me, but I honestly couldn’t figure it out.

Until I lucked into a solution. I happen to read something more about Rudyard Kipling, about his time in Vermont (he lived in Brattleboro, where he wrote the two Jungle Books). About his young children growing up in Vermont and about how he actually wrote the Just So Stories for them.

Suddenly I was able to conjure an image of Kipling sitting in his chair, and his daughter coming up and asking him to read one of the Just So Stories, or perhaps even asking him to tell the story that he would eventually set down in the book. And since I have been that father – with a young daughter in his lap – it was easy to imagine what that must have been like – the little private playful encouraging dialogue you have with a young child on your lap, to get them interested, to keep them interested, to make the story interactive. And suddenly, the prose of the Just So Stories was unlocked

Now what do you do with all of those “Best Beloveds” and the interrogative at the end? When I thought about Kipling’s daughter, Josephine, sitting on his lap, I had the answer. For she is clearly the “Best Beloved.” And Kipling’s conversational tone is now clearly evident as interacting with such a child sitting on his lap.

So now read the first paragraph anew. Armed with this insight, it becomes all too easy to turn and look at your own Best Beloved – perhaps jarring them with a playful elbow in the ribs, as I am wont to do – and make the story interacticve. Do you see?


Incidentally, one of the strengths of Kipling’s prose, here in this paragraph and throughout a work for children like the Just So Stories, is the repetition of choice, descriptive adjectival phrases like “the turbid Amazon.” This is a technique as old and well practiced as Homer (e.g. his ‘wine dark sea’). But still just as effective. For a child listener, such a phrase becomes familiar and valued. For the pedagogue in each of us, it is a prime example of how language and vocabulary are delivered to and absorbed by the child listener. They don’t need to ask “What does ‘turbid’ mean?” – and you don’t have to stop and tell them. Most likely, after hearing it a dozen times in the story, they’ll figure it out. And if not, the word will surely be lodged in their mental armory. The next time they hear it or see it, it will already be familiar, even if their minds are still collating information to pin down the exact meaning. But that happens unconsciously. It happens in myriad ways with myriad pieces of information. Our job is merely to expose them to such language.
So read on – and don’t forget the well placed elbow in the ribs if it can make the story or prose more interactive.

(Now if someone will tell me how to read the Winnie the Pooh stories, I’d really appreciate it.)

Read Like It’s An Ice Cream Cone

Read Like It’s an Ice Cream Cone

This week we started our tenth book in the One School, One Book program at Fox Elementary School. We’re doing Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech, the first time we’ve done a second book by an author we’ve done before.

We’ve waited some time to do this book – essentially waiting for National Poetry Month. Like Creech’s Love That Dog, Heartbeat tells a story through easy to read, virtual prose poems. But this time the story is beefed up, encompassing and weaving together as many as six themes (much as Creech does in her longer novels for older children, like Walk Two Moons.)

On Friday we introduced the book to the children via an assembly. Each time we do a new book, we have to come up with a new idea for the assembly, too. I believe a hallmark of the assembly is that it should not tell too much, that it should introduce some element of the book that will spark children’s curiosity, but that the book itself should remain somewhat mysterious. The idea is to induce children to lean forward and look harder to find out what the book is about. To bring that curiosity and enthusiasm home to their families.

So we decided to “introduce” the children to each of the story’s six “themes” – but elliptically, symbolically, suggestively. We put up on the stage, on little individual pedestals: a pumpkin, a stuffed animal alien, a pair of running shoes, a set of drawing pencils in a fancy case, a Max (from Where the Wild Things Are) figurine, a thesaurus, and a set of false teeth in a jar. (Heartbeat is narrated by a 12-year-old girl who likes to run, and draw, and write, who is friends with a boy named Max, whose mother is about to have a baby, and whose grandfather is losing his memory.) We displayed each of these items to the children, telling them they represented “things to look for in the story,” but did not explain anything further.

Then I read a sample chapter.

Now reading an excerpt is the tried and true, fail-safe method of introducing your One Book at the Assembly. In this case we opted for the excerpt because I wanted to share with the children the importance and value (and technique) of reading a poem slowly, not just racing thru because there are so few words on the page. [Caveat: I never tell anyone how they should read a book. If children, or families, want to read the book quickly, of course that is their pre-rogative. The suggested technique is just that – a suggestion. Mere advice.] The particular challenge was to find a method that children, upon hearing it, might actually be able to take home and share with their families.

So I asked them (knowing the answer) if they knew what it was like when you have an ice cream cone, and you don’t want it to go away too fast, you want to make it last as long as possible. My recommendation was to try to read the poems in Heartbeat like that – savoring the juicy words and choice phrases, letting yourself absorb the emotional moments before moving onto the next one – reading the poems in Heartbeat as if they were an ice cream cone. Each poem a lick that you want to finish tasting and enjoying – savoring – until the next.

And so I read an eight-page poem, “An Apple A Day,” a poem you can read in less than a minute if you’re flipping pages. But it took us a good 3-4 minutes, because there is humor, and story, and imagery, and detail, and inner mental life all in this poem, and we wanted to taste and recognize each of those elements.

It is no easy feat to hold the attention of kindergarteners in the front row when you’re reading a poem like that, with no pictures and no real action. But it seemed to work. Sometimes the words are enough – when you’re licking them like an ice cream cone.

The Power of Patience

January 11. Friday evening. “I’m tired of that stupid book.” My eight-year-old daughter, reluctant to continue with the Golden Compass, which we had started over Christmas.

February 29. Friday afternoon. “Papa, would could you read a little Golden Compass.” This, as she lay in the bathroom, amid towels and pillows, having left school early, having thrown up, still queasy and weak and wary of throwing up again. A very timid endorsement, perhaps succumbing because of her nauseous weakness.

March 3. Monday morning. My daughter is white as a ghost, listening to the penultimate chapter of Part 2 (Bolvangar). She stares straight ahead, beyond rapt, petrified of what may occur in one of the scariest and ominous passages we have ever read aloud. (To a parent, monitoring the vicarious reactions of children-listeners, it is a memorable, all-time moment.)

March 4. Tuesday evening. “Papa, keep reading! Don’t stop! Come on, Iorek Byrnison!” This, amid the last chapter of Part 2, of the Golden Compass. To a parent, these are the golden words you want to hear, that mean your child is hooked, that mean you have done the right thing carving and creating and preserving the time to read.

And in this case, it means that I was a) right to put the book away on the shelf for a month (maybe forever), and b) right to attempt the book in the first place, content in my parental confidence that something that began slow would eventually thrill and entertain.

These are essential and valuable principles to understand and remember about reading aloud to your children. But easy to forget or lose sight of amid the challenges of parenting and the complexities and tensions of our lives.

1) It’s right to challenge them. In our case, my eight-year-old wanted to read the Golden Compass, not because her older sisters had, but because she wanted to see the movie. (And we have a strict rule in our family: If the movie comes from a worthwhile work of literature, you have to read the book first. No shortcuts short-changing the long-term value of literature.)

2) It’s OK to put a book down. One is always reluctant – and often feel guilty – but it’s vital that reading aloud not be a forced thing. If a book isn’t working, then continuing to read it can negatively re-inforce the impression of reading aloud as boring, drudgery, forced. Figuring out when is the trick. At the very least, you’ve got to finish the first chapter to get used to an author’s prose style. (Modeling that kind of patience is beneficial for your child.) And some books don’t start off with a bang, even if they have varied pleasures further in. But if you’ve finished a defined chunk of the book – in this case Part 1, 150+ pages – it’s OK to acknowledge, perhaps this isn’t the right book, or the right time for this book.

3) ‘Father knows best.’ But usually – unless the book is brand new to the parent reader, too – a parent does know what pleasures lurk deeper inside a book. And a parent has the patience to soldier on through a section that feels or seems slower to a child. No book is perfect. But the lesson here is that it is worth persevering until your listener is hooked. You can’t overuse the notion of “just one more chapter” or you lose your credibility. But it’s prudent and wise to offer a little carrot or reward to reach a milestone while you’re letting a book work it’s patient magic.

In the case of the Golden Compass it took longer than I thought. But two sections (and 300 pages) in – with two more books to complete the trilogy – I am sure we were right and our patience has been rewarded. It’s worth remembering, as a parent reader, that a child doesn’t need to be perfectly, 100% fulfilled or satisfied every second of every reading experience. A little unsatisfied curiosity, a little impatience, these are normal and necessary to appreciating the value of any experience – a movie, a baseball game, a hike. And it’s worth remembering as parents that we have the patience to share and bestow on our children to wait for the part that hooks you.