Tuesday, October 1, 2013

family reading...in a heap

illustration by Nancy Carpenter
Global Literacy Campaign

I love this image.  I can't tell you how much.  Its inclusion in Scholastic's Read Every Day line up of posters created by children's book illustrators makes me so very happy.  Partly because I love Carpenter's work, illustrating this book, and this book, and this book.  And also because I feel as though this picture represents one of the activities that my family values and enjoys most and accurately depicts how we do it:  

Reading.  In a heap.  

So preoccupied with a book that tides come in and lick at our toes or the house falls to shambles around us.  Or we forget to get dressed, or eat, because we have been lying on our bellies, listening to a really good story for an entire day.  

And the other thing I love?  I love that this picture depicts a family reading together.  Values the family's enjoyment of reading together, across ages, across picture books and chapter books.  This picture values the role that a family can play in a child's reading.  I think it is pretty clear that reading to your young child promotes literacy, the actual development of reading skills.  That goes without saying.  

But what I am going to talk about here is the role of a shared language within a family.  The role of a known and familiar and beloved cast of characters.  And their stories, foibles, and moments of greatness.  That can be called upon during moments of need, moments of conversation, moments of wanting to express oneself or needing to discuss something.  When one needs a bit of distance, to throw a story character under the bus, in a way, when it might not work to talk directly about the actual people in the room.  Because the distance from us to that other storied family, that other read-about child, that other frazzled mommy?  That distance allows us to stand back, remove some of our personalizing and emotionality, and really analyze that person's actions.  Or feelings.  Or thoughts.  And then, hopefully, take a gentle look at ourselves.

* * *
If you don't read, I don't know how I can communicate with you...I can never express who I am in my own words as powerfully as my books can.
Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

Do you know this book?

You should.  Because I think this book, intended to bring out the reader in every child, has affected my parenting in ways more profound than my favorite early childhood parenting books.  This book allows me to move forward, past the breastfeeding and the playgrouping, the music classes and the naps.  It allows me to move more comfortably into this next stage.  Of the school years.  Because it helps me to know how to stay connected with my children.  How to stay connected when their focus is wider and includes friends and classes and teachers, when they encounter things when I am not along for the ride, when they're not nestled and sheltered in my lap as we play maracas shaped like vegetables.

As we did in those young child music classes, we are still doing a somewhat self conscious dance.  But now it is a bigger world, and the steps are farther away from us.  Letting them grow and get off our lap and walk around, nurturing their independence, while still wanting to guide and support...and squeeze them hard when no one else is looking. And sniff their heads, to assure ourselves that they do in fact, deep in there, still smell a bit like their infant selves.  Ahem.

One of the windows inside, one of the ways I feel as though I have a bit of understanding about what is going on for them as they move both away from us and also more inside themselves, is watching what they read, listening to how they talk about what they read.  And reading along with them.

Just as picture books move into chapter books, leaving the more explicit, the more visually represented behind, our children also lay themselves out for us a little less.  You have to imagine a little bit more.  Make conversations.  Ask them.  And hope they answer.  And when they don't, make inferences.  Guess.

So this shared language we have developed, starting when they were babies and continuing onward.  We speak in it constantly.  We sometimes work through a difficult day, a social interaction that went badly, in terms of whether someone behaved more like Julian, or Charlotte, or Jack from Wonder.  We clumsily buck conventions like Calpurnia Tate and we connect with creatures like Eva Nine does in The Search for Wondla.  We work Ish-ly and do our best.  We kick it Long Winter style when times get tough, and I explain the consequences of bad decisions, courtesy of Pa Ingalls: those who cannot be trusted need to be watched.  We read together, or read the same books apart, and then reference the same books together.  And we pull from our arsenal of shared stories and cast of characters when we need to explain ourselves, our behaviors, our feelings just a little bit better.

I follow a number of children's literature blogs, newsletters, and websites.  I have attended conferences and passed myself off as a child psychologist interested in the role of of children's books in children's development.  And that is true.  Particularly in their social-emotional development, rather than in their literacy skills and reading ability per se.  But really?  I am trolling for books.  I am listening to authors talk about why they wrote what they wrote, what motivated them.  What they wanted to tell children.  What it says about themselves, the authors, as people.  And why they want to get their stories into my children's minds.

Because I find this interesting.  I find it interesting to read these articles about the changes in the type of literature that is being written for children, for my children, and how these changes reflect changes in societal issues, changes in thinking about children's developing minds, changes in the ways in which we parent our children.  And how teachers think about their role as the literature supporters and providers in our children's lives.

It is a world, this world of jazzed about reading groups of professionals, that I am not a part of.  And I often feel I'm an interloper in it.  But it is a role that I feel is so very important to raising children.  Placing books, placing stories, placing strength from knowledge and thoughtfulness, in each child's hands to help them navigate the world.

And so, I am continuing to feed them.  A diet of books.  From The Book Whisperer, I learned to judge what my children were drawn to read, or what they took out of the library, a little less.  Because the first step was to get them to read.  To get a book in their hands.  And their nose enthusiastically leaning into it.  And then to work from there.  Through this advice from Miller, Nicholas and I discovered and then devoured the world of the graphic novel.  And now book frenzies are commonplace here.  Either at the library or on the floor at home, we lay out a large pile of possible books, talking excitedly about the possibilities of each story as we do so, and step back, and allow the kids to choose what appeals to them.  Choices and enthusiasm.  A magic combination.

Nicholas came home and told us that his homework last night was to choose the first book for his outside reading requirements.  Wordlessly, I laid down the spoon with which I was frantically pushing rice around the pot, dinner already late, and left the room.  I returned several minutes later with a stack.  And found Jonathan making a list of books on the back of our grocery list, opening book trailers on the iPad for Nicholas to view.  Our selections looked something like this:

Paperboy, by Vince Vawter
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chris Grabenstein
Because of Mr. Terrupt, by Rob Buyea
Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool
Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine
Wake up Missing, by Kate Messner
The Schwa Was Here, by Neal Shusterman
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt
The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu

And then?  We left him to take a look at the stack of books and the written list, to read some book reviews and plot summaries, take a look at some reading lists his teacher had told him about, to watch some book trailers, and ultimately, to decide what he would like to read next.

He decided, with Jonathan, as I was upstairs putting the younger kids to bed, to read Bomb:  The Race to Build -- and Steal -- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.  They found it on a recommended reading list on his school's library website.

Cool!   I said when he told me what he had chosen.  And then I closed my mouth.

Because what I was thinking was, Eek!  That's an intense subject.  Not sure war and weaponry and harsh realities and violence are on my list of desired topics for him to have in his sensitive and ruminative mind.  Or for him to be the one exposing other similarly sensitive children to this topic when he discusses his independent reading at school.  But, I replaced those thoughts with this:

Did you know that I saw him speak a few years ago, when he was in the process of completing that book?  I told him about what the author, Sheinkin, had said about how he felt that sometimes children became reluctant readers, particularly of nonfiction, because the story, the full story with all of its detail, can get cleaned up, made child appropriate, the difficult or dark parts taken out.  Leaving what remains, well, boring.  And therefore, unread.

That's cool!  Nicholas said.

This morning, in the car, as I drove the kids to school, he told me about starting the book last night when he went to bed.

I really like this book!  It's got a lot of words I don't know in it.  But I can look those up.  But it is really, really interesting.  I can't wait to read it today after school.  

After dropping the kids at school, I headed to the library.  And took out Bomb.  A copy, for my own bedside table.

And you know?  In a I am a growing boy trying to wrap my mind around who I am, how I behave, new friends, who I am in my relationships, the world is opening before me through school and technology and experiences and a growing mind that can make new and amazing connections between these things kind of way?  This book kind of makes sense.  And it will certainly be catalogued into his mind with the filter of the gentle, kind, and thoughtful boy that he is.  Swallow.

And so, despite the fact that his feet are bigger than mine, and he stands almost at eye level with me, I am still parenting.  Still thinking through what we lay out for him, and for Julia and Elliott too.  Grocery lists for healthy meals on one side of a scrap of paper, possible book lists on the other.  Still reading alongside them, still adding new vocabulary and dialogue to our shared language.  Engaging with them, with a text, and back together again.

It's how we read here.  And how we parent.  In a heap.

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