Coming April 14, 2020. Available for pre-order on Amazon now.
The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
What if a longtime classroom teacher were able to share with the brand-new parents of her potentially future students the single most important thing they can do to foster their parent-child bond and their child’s future learning potential? THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is Kim Jocelyn Dickson’s answer to that question. Nearly thirty years teaching hundreds of elementary school-aged children has convinced her that the simple act of reading aloud from birth has a far-reaching impact on our children, as well as the culture at large, that few of us fully understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance.
What Every Parent Needs to Know
THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX is the concise, accessible gift book that belongs in the hands of every new and expectant parent. In it, Kim explains that every child begins kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. Some children arrive with empty toolboxes and some arrive with toolboxes overflowing. For those with full toolboxes, the future is brighter; these children are much more likely to thrive in school and beyond. Children who enter school with empty toolboxes are destined to struggle. Their shortfall will be a herculean challenge to bridge, negatively affecting their motivation and ability to learn. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, 75% of children who begin school behind never catch up.
Priceless Tools for Kids and Parents
In THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, parents will learn about the ten priceless tools that will fill their child’s toolbox when they read aloud to their child from birth; and they’ll also learn about the tools they can give themselves to foster these gifts in their children. Practical tips for how and what to read aloud to children through their developmental stages, along with Do’s and Don’ts and recommended resources, round out all the practical tools a parent will need to prepare their child for kindergarten and beyond.
Research and Experience-Based
With THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, Kim has done her homework, weaving her practical anecdotal experience as an educator and parent into the hard research of recent findings in neuroscience. She not only reminds us that the first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school—language skills—and that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, but also teaches and inspires us to build our own toolboxes so that we can help our children build theirs.
The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is due out April 2020 from Mango Media.
“..what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.”
by Kim Jocelyn Dickson
As a former third grade teacher, I’d often wished I could roll back time and meet the parents of my struggling readers at the door of their maternity hospital with a stack of picture books. There was nothing sadder to me than an eight year old that had missed out on being read to from the very start.
After years of teaching and observing students, it became clear to me that children who struggled in school lacked the necessary tools that come from being read to that their successful peers possessed. Brain science tells us that the first three years of life are critical in building the neural pathways that are the infrastructure for all future intellectual and emotional growth. In order for a child’s brain to make these connections, parents need to speak, read to, and sing with their babies.
According to the results of the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress—otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card), which tests a cross-section of fourth and eighth graders from public and private schools every two years, nearly two-thirds of fourth and eighth grade students do not read proficiently. That the United States is suffering a crisis of literacy is beyond dispute, but the good news is that our awareness of the problem is growing and people and organizations are finding creative ways to address it.
When I recently learned that the thing I’d wished for was actually happening in my former hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, through a program called Born to Read, I was intrigued and had to learn more. A few emails and a phone call later with Library Director Kristen Sorth, and I was convinced that what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.
In 2015 Ms. Sorth and her team of librarians and volunteers from the St. Louis County Library system, along with the support of a handful of local maternity hospitals, began reaching out to new parents with a gift that sends the message that babies and books belong together. Just two years later every single maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County were on board.
What inspired you to bring Born to Read to St. Louis County?
We brought this program to St. Louis County to help give families a head start. Studies show that when children start behind, they stay behind. The goal of Born to Read is to foster a love of reading starting at birth and to emphasize the importance of reading to children of even the youngest age.
That your program has grown to include every maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County—11 in all—since you began in 2015 is a tribute to your success. What, exactly, do the parents of each newborn in St. Louis County receive from the library?
Each gift bag includes a board book, baby’s first library card, early literacy information, a baseball Cardinals’ beanie, and a voucher for two Cardinals’ tickets, a toothbrush, and another board book.
What do you hope each new parent gains from this gift?
We developed the Born to Read program to reach families at the earliest possible moment. We want to convey the importance of reading and to make it easy for parents to introduce books into their daily routine.
Was gaining the support of the medical community challenging in any way? Is their support at all difficult to maintain?
The hospitals think it’s a wonderful program. The nurses love giving the bags to the families and encouraging them to read to their children. They know the materials in the bags are purposeful, and they hear great feedback from the families. Ensuring that the hospitals are stocked with enough bags so they never run out can sometimes be a challenge since the nurses and hospital staff are incredibly busy and can’t always let us know right away when they are low. Our weekly visits help to keep them stocked.
Once the initial gift is given, do you follow up with parents later on?
Parents and babies are invited to the library for a first birthday celebration. The Born to Read parties include story time, sensory play with bubbles and, of course, cake. Parents are also given another free book to take home. These parties are a great first introduction to parents, showing them the variety of resources available at the library.
We also stay in touch with parents via a monthly Early Literacy e–Newsletter, which provides early literacy tips, library event information, and other library resources.
Is Born to Read having an impact on the community? If so, how?
Every child born in St. Louis County now receives a library card, thanks to the Born to Read program. We’re helping create a new generation of readers. To date, we’ve distributed almost 40,000 bags.
With the involvement of every area hospital and clinic you must need a lot of help. How do you accomplish the creation and distribution of all those gift bags?
Our Youth Services staff has done a fabulous job of maintaining the program. Every 6-8 weeks they have a Born to Read work day, where staff form an assembly line to stuff bags and package them for delivery. Each Friday we have a dedicated staff member who delivers bags to area hospitals and clinics. The program has been very popular among local volunteer groups as well. We have corporate and business groups that help stuff bags each month.
How is Born to Read funded?
The St. Louis County Library Foundation helps raise funds for the program. We also have strong corporate support–-the St. Louis Cardinals and Delta Dental have been key supporters of the Born to Read program.
What is the program’s biggest success?
Born to Read has provided a unique opportunity for the Library to reach new parents at the very beginning. Before they even leave the hospital, parents learn about the importance of reading to their baby. We make it easy for them to utilize library resources by providing them with a library card, and the book voucher gives them an incentive for visiting their local branch.
Does the St. Louis County Library provide any other means of educating new parents about the importance of reading to their child from birth?
St. Louis County Library has a variety of early literacy resources for families at every stage of development. Born to Read is the entry point for many families; after that they can sign up for the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten or attend weekly story time at a nearby branch. Later we offer Kindergarten Prep workshops and resources such as FLIP Kits (Family Literacy Involvement Program) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) programming.
With the enormous success you’ve experienced in linking society’s primary stronghold of literacy—the library—with the medical community in order to reach new parents with this crucial message, do you expect to eventually see other communities follow your lead?
The Born to Read program has already been duplicated by St. Louis Public Library. Together, we’re reaching families and promoting early literacy across the St. Louis region.
If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to become a volunteer with the Born to Read program, please contact the Youth Services Department at 314-994-3300.
Author’s note: Born to Read is an American Library Association (ALA) trademarked program that encourages the connection between libraries and health providers. The St. Louis County Library’s program is exceptional in both its implementation and scope.
“I just can’t get her to read!”
I often hear protests like this from parents when I suggest that their child read more for fun. Because it’s an important lifelong habit that I want my students to cultivate and because I know reading more will have a huge impact on their success in school, I encourage parents to become proactive whenever their children don’t read outside what’s required for class.
Once a child hits the middle or upper elementary school years and is still not reading for pleasure, it’s tempting for a parent to throw up their hands and decide that reading just isn’t their child’s ‘thing.’ Or, understanding how important it is for their child’s academic growth, a parent may take the opposite tack and get into a power struggle, treating reading as if it’s some kind of medicine that has to be swallowed and endured: “I said, go to your room and read!”
Neither approach is helpful.
My belief about most children who don’t like to read is that they simply haven’t found their books yet. The good news is there are things we can do as parents to help them find those books and experience the worlds that will open up to them.
Now that summer has arrived, it’s the perfect time to help your child find their way to books they will enjoy and build an important lifelong habit. Here are some tips:
Limit the use of screens. This tip is first because it’s crucial. Not putting a phone or iPad into the hands of your elementary age school child is the best strategy, but if that ship has already sailed you must sets limits. Ready access to screens for a child is like allowing them to indulge in a steady diet of fast food. The easy access and temporary satisfaction that comes from sugar and fat will diminish the appetite for healthier choices and greater variety; in the same way, the addictive instant gratification of screens will kill the motivation to read. Reading requires deeper sustained concentration than anything your child can do on a screen. It’s work that the brain is wired to do, yet must be trained to do.
Do a quick check about your own attitude toward and practice of reading. The truth is children watch and emulate us. Creating a culture of reading in your home will have a huge impact on your child. Has it been a long time since you’ve read a magazine or a newspaper? What about that novel you’ve heard about and been meaning to get to? It’s important for your child to see you read.
Read aloud to your child. Parents sometimes believe this practice is no longer important once a child can read on their own. Not true! Reading aloud to your child is one of the most powerful ways to help them discover and experience the joys of reading. First, you can choose books together that you both enjoy, books your child might not be able to read on their own yet, and second, the time that the two of you spend connecting over a story or novel is golden. The preadolescent still craves the kind of closeness that comes with cuddling up together at the end of a day. Reading together regularly provides a double bonus: Not only will you nurture your child’s appreciation for literature, you’ll nurture your relationship. You’ll be glad you put time and energy into this before adolescence hits.
Visit your public library regularly. Establishing a routine of stopping in every two to three weeks is important. Your library provides the opportunity for you both to browse to your heart’s content. Consult with the children’s librarian there. Discuss your child’s interests with them so they can help direct you to books your child might enjoy. Pointing kids and their parents in the direction of great books is what they love doing. Don’t be shy about asking for help. During summer months, libraries often offer programs to support kids and their reading. Take advantage of them.
If you’re fortunate to have a local bookstore, visit the children’s section. Children’s book authors often provide readings and programs for free. If your finances permit, allow your child to choose a book to own occasionally. Help them build their personal library.
Talk to the parents of kids who love to read—or the kids, themselves—for recommendations. These are the kids who have found their way to books and series that appeal to your child’s age group. They’re an excellent resource. Librarians aren’t the only people who love to talk about great books. Kids who love to read do, too!
Make sure books are readily available in your home. (See above.)
Start a parent/child book club. Sharing and discussing books with friends multiplies the pleasure. Gather together a couple of your child’s friends and their parents to select a book and then meet to discuss. An adult can lead to begin with, but eventually let the kids take over in planning and running the meeting. Don’t forget the treats. (As a teacher, I’d love to have my incoming students do this with their parents and would be thrilled if they chose to read and discuss books from our summer reading list.)
Extend summer bedtime a little for fun reading. A dad I know wanted his fifth grader to read more, so he bought his son a headlamp and told him he could use it to stay up a bit later and read. This little trick, along with a great series (Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians), ignited a passion for reading that continued long beyond the series’ end. If the novelty of a headlamp isn’t quite the inducement your child needs, try to think of something else that might make the pleasure of staying up later with a book special. A reading fort made of blankets and a flashlight, perhaps?
If regular reading at home isn’t a practice that’s been part of your lives, take heart. It’s not too late to make a change. It may not happen overnight, but if you are persistent in pursuing the joy of sharing books and building new habits, you can trust that the impact on your child will reach far into the future.
As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.
Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:
The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.
By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.
A deeply informed, literate people may be the only thing that stands in the gap between our nation and its ideals and the rising tide of ignorance, tribalism, and barbarism that appears to prevail today. Make no mistake—history teaches that progress is reversible. It has happened before, and it can happen again. Pulitzer Prize-winning, Wall Street Journal columnist, author, and speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently delivered a commencement address to The Catholic University of America’s graduating class of 2017 that captures exactly what’s at stake for us as a civilization. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum nor what your religious faith is, the following is worth your time. Her message is non-partisan and non-sectarian.
“Today is for celebration but starting tomorrow I humbly urge you to embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you — who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life. I am talking about: books.
You must not stop reading books. That’s all. If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books.
Now, you have certainly read a few to get here today and some of you have read a great many. But don’t stop, continue, even speed up. And if you have not read all that many books it’s okay, you can start now, your brain is still young and fresh, it can still absorb and hold and even commit to memory big important things.
And now I share the thing I will not forget that I saw during the campaign of 2016. I’d been seeing it for a while but last year it broke through to me in a new way.
I saw something, especially among the young men and women of politics and journalism — two professions from which excellent work is now more crucial to our country than ever. These young reporters and candidates for office are college graduates, they’re in their 20s and 30s and early 40s, they’re bright and ambitious and work hard. But it became clear in long conversation that they’ve received most of what they know about history and the meaning of things through screens.
They have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. They read the headline on Drudge or the Huffington Post and then jump to another site with more headlines. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is therefore superficial. Here is the problem: If those trying to make history have only a shallow sense of history, they will not be able to make anything good.
They came to maturity in the internet age and have filled much of their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned, that is, through sensation, and not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.
Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world — of life itself.
Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma. The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events: It makes your brain do work.
But, oddly, it’s work the brain wants to do.
A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear. Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands. In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.
Not to put too fine a point, but your brain gets bigger, stronger. You become smarter and deeper. That happens with books.
In the past two years I talked to three young presidential candidates — people running for president of the United States, real grown-ups —who, it was clear to me by the end of our conversations, had, in their understanding of modern political history, both figuratively and literally seen the movie and not read the book. Two of them, I’ve come to know, can recite whole pages of dialogue from movies. (I will tell you parenthetically that it is interesting to me that the movies our politicians most love are “The Godfather” Parts I and II. In case you haven’t seen them, both movies are masterpieces and both are about gangsters involved in organized crime. Make of that what you will.
Another candidate for president by the way stated that his two favorite books were the bible and the Art of the Deal. I’ll let you guess who that was.
What I’m really saying is that almost everyone involved in politics or covering politics now…is getting dumber. They’re getting lost in a sea of dumb. They may drown in it. You must help them — they need you to help them, to be better than that, to set an example. They are involved in the making of history…and yet some are “historical illiterates”, which is David McCullough’s phrase. He of course is the great American historian of our time, and he would know. He’s written brilliant histories the past 40 years and recently was asked, “Apart from Harry Truman and John Adams, what other presidents have you interviewed?”
People in politics now are getting what they know through the internet, through Google searches and Wikipedia. These can give you a certain sense of things but are by nature quick, lifeless and shallow reads that link to other quick, dry and shallow reads that everyone else has also read. Who wrote them? Nobody quite knows. And what you see is often presented at a slant. They put forward as fact what are really the biases or limited knowledge of the writer. It all becomes a big lying loop. Or at least a big, un-nourishing, inadequate one.
And they leave out this fact: history is human. History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting — sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly — in real time.
So: I am become an evangelist for reading books, especially history and poetry but novels too, fiction or non-fiction, whatever you’re drawn to. But try to be open to a lot — let life summon you through books, be open to its summoning.
I know this:
If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply.
If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.
And all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.
So: Unplug and read every day. You stop at least three times a day to eat Stop at least once a day to read. You can also, I’m here to tell you, read while you are eating.
Here are some things you will get from it.
Information is more likely to be received and retained by the relaxed mind. Reading is by its nature relaxing. You’re not furiously scrolling down, you’re not hitting refresh, you’re not fighting off pop-ups, not surfing in search of likes, retweets, elusive approbation. It’s just you and your book, which unfolds before you, at your speed. It’s tactile. Hold the book in your hand, underline it, write notes on the margins, interact to the point even of defacement, it’s okay. Live with them for a while. Carry the paperback in your pocket.
You must read so you don’t wind up with a head full of data you are unable to process. You process facts, data and information with the help of wisdom. Wisdom is to be got through life experience — and books.
America is increasingly a land of communication. We’re all talking — we talk a lot — we’re writing memos, trying to inspire office workers, making the pitch to the client, conferring with the patient, speaking at the symposia, we’re making the deal.
If you hope to be a writer, here’s what will happen if you read books: you can be a writer. The author’s subject matter –history or poetry or a novel — will enter your mind. Suddenly the reality of a style will insinuate itself without your even fully noticing. It’s Murray Kempton’s style or Robert Frost’s — it’s David McCullough’s style or Willa Cather’s — but it will enter your mind and settle in. Which means a way of looking at the world, of viewing and of processing the true nature of life, will enter your mind. You will begin not to react but to ponder, to reflect.
You will imagine how Scott Fitzgerald’s Riviera looked along with him — you won’t be able not to — or how the stream and the small fire in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories looked, and how the trout tasted.
These things will form colonies in your head. They will take up space and hold up a flag. They will say “I am the neural matter that is Emily Dickinson.’ ‘I am the cognitive territory of Leo Tolstoy, and I know what he said.’
It will change how your very mind works. And in some magical way the deep thoughts of others give a spark to, and almost give permission to, thoughts of your own that had been lurking about but never had the courage to present themselves…
Books helped reveal myself to me. I know that it was a book, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, read in college, that began to reveal to me that I was a political conservative. It was books — Saints for Sinners, and great biographies of Teresa of Avila and the Cure of Ars — that helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all. It was the first book I remember reading, a childrens’ biography of the Mayo Brothers, that provided, when I was 7 or 8, a breakthrough. When I got to the last page I burst into tears — not because it was a sad story but because the story had ended. Looking back, maybe this suggested to me that there was something about reading and writing that might figure in my future…
I earn a living writing a column each week only because I read books. I follow the news to know what’s happening, but I read books to understand what’s happening.
At some point in my late thirties I stopped reading fiction and turned almost exclusively to history and biography. I don’t know why. I think a youth reading novels was a search for the answer to the question “What is life like?” The history and biography is: “What happened? How did it end? How did we get through it? What can I learn that will help me understand the world?” I find now I go off on tears — a winter reading every book I can find on the Civil War, a summer devoted to the French Revolution, a few months on the Russia of Catherine the Great.
Finally there is the sheer comfort of it. When history turns murky I focus on crises and difficult eras that demanded wisdom to navigate. I try to understand what a crisis IS, how to look at human agency, who made it a little better, who made it a little worse –.
But lately for no special reason, and yet of course for special and particular reasons, I have gone back to the stories of journalists living through history, especially columnists living through big history, such as Walter Lippmann, and Dorothy Thompson. I am re-reading their biographies. How did they withstand the pressure of sharing their thoughts in public when the stakes were high? How did they handle being wrong, and embarrassed? What part of their brain and wit did they use to understand or misunderstand fascism, Hitler, communism, the beginnings of the Cold War. I reach back to the daily drama of those trying, in their way, to lead in this great disputatious nation.
And so my friends you will be texting today. You’ll be saying we’re at Brookland Pint, we’re at Busboys, come join us. You are making the plans of life and about to have fun. Fun involves logistics. Text away.
But tomorrow put down the smart phone, put aside the internet of things, find the real and actual THING of things. Read and be taken away in a way that enriches, that strengthens, that makes you smarter, more serious, more worthy.
Keep it up. Pass it on. If your generation doesn’t, it will disappear.
Civilization depends on it.
And so ends my chance to give you the advice the singing schoolchild made, unknowingly, to a bright, semi-wayward young man who would become a great one. “Pick up the book, take up the book” the schoolchild sang. And the man who would become St Augustine did, and changed himself, and changed our world.
Good fortune and high honors to the great and fabled class of 2017 of the Catholic University of America, in Washington, District of Columbia, in the United States of America. God bless you and keep you.”
[To read Ms. Noonan’s full address, please click here.]
Think reading affects more than just the language processing parts of the brain? You bet it does.
Fifteen-month old Piper demonstrates what brain scientists have only recently proven to be true. When we read we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us.
According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, “The brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” (“Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 18, 2012)
When a parent reads stories to a child, the child is not just learning about the world of the story, she is experiencing the world of the story. As we can see from Piper’s reaction, reading is a full-body sensory phenomenon, and it makes her very happy. Her mom and dad are teaching her an invaluable life lesson that will pay huge dividends in her future: reading is a pleasurable, rewarding activity.
It’s clear that there are many other things about books that Piper has already figured out (be sure to check out “What’s in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox?” parts I, II, and III), but the understanding that reading is fun is the most critical lesson of all and the hardest to impart later on.
Learning why we read begins right here, in infancy, in the arms—or legs—of a loving parent.
Recipe for fostering community and connection through books: Gather 2 or more kids. Add their moms and a splash of wine. Stir with the classics. Yields: Comfort, belonging, and the joy of shared stories. (Caution: May inspire imaginative play.)
[The following is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2017; by Tess Taylor and Edan Lepucki]
“When the world felt hard–as it has this fall and winter–turning to a children’s book was a singular opportunity to settle down, unplug the phone and the news, light the light and be together.”
The plan was simple: We would start a book club for our 5-year-old sons. Bennett and Bean had just started kindergarten and were crazy for stories. They couldn’t read chapter books on their own but they took pleasure in listening, imagining the story playing out. Besides, we, their mothers, had basically been waiting to read big books to our kids from the moment they were born.
And, like that, Bennett and Bean’s book club was born. We figured we could handle a book a month, and we dug out the ones we remembered loving as kids: “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “Pippi Longstocking” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Our meetings would be whatever the boys made them, but the book club would be for us too.
All fall, we read to the boys. That wasn’t unusual, but it felt different because we were doing it with another family across town — picking up the same book, laughing at the same jokes, falling in love with the same characters.
Bean and Bennett had never read on deadline before, and we all became more disciplined about the reading hour. Sometimes it was the best part of the day. When the world felt hard — as it has this fall and winter — turning to a children’s book was a singular opportunity to settle down, unplug the phone and the news, light the light and be together.
“What could be a greater gift to pass on to our children? Sharing stories, weaving a small community together.”
The boys loved it. After all, who doesn’t want to belong to a club? We didn’t hold our kids to teacherly standards. The meetings often consisted of talking about books for all of 10 minutes before we poured ourselves glasses of wine and let the kids run in circles around the redwood tree in Tess’ backyard.
Our picks weren’t perfect. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was too complex for 5-year-olds. Its puns and math sailed over their heads. Bean thought it a bit dull; Bennett wished for whales. “Pippi Longstocking” was full of adventure, but we moms found the way she described her travels around the world imperialist and dated. Bennett said that, like Pippi, he wanted to live alone. Bean wondered if he could get his own pet monkey. Each meeting ended with both boys asking why the party had to end.
And us mothers? From the beginning, we assumed we would enjoy ourselves, but even we were surprised by how nourished we felt. The book club reminded us of the deep pleasure of losing oneself in a rich story. The reading hour was an antidote and balm for adult distractions, fears and responsibilities. However chaotic and cruel the world seemed, setting aside time to read classic books with our children, letting our imaginations take flight, made the universe seem legible again.
What could be a greater gift to pass on to our children? Sharing stories, weaving a small community together. The days got shorter and we curled into the reading light.
Ultimately, it was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that offered what we all wanted most: magic. The sentences were clear, easy to read aloud, spellbinding. There were the children escaping the air raids of World War II, brought to a house in the country. And like a house within the house, there was the wardrobe, and inside it a land where long winter had fallen, and people and animals were being kidnapped.
Yet C.S. Lewis’ book also contained bravery, camaraderie, light. And the assurance that even in the most ominous times, it is possible to fight the darkness. The White Witch might seem all powerful, but the children were working to set the long winter right. How lovely the writing was, we exclaimed. How urgent the book felt, to us, in 2016.
That afternoon, Tess hung extra coats in a closet and Bennett and Bean went in and came out ready to fight the witch. They waged a great battle in the backyard, armed with wrapping-paper tubes. Bean wore a lion mask and roared and roared. Bennett put on a cardboard crown. Everyone ate Turkish delight. Everyone got powdered sugar on their noses. We ducked together into the magic wardrobe and emerged as new avengers, ready to battle for the light.
[Tess Taylor’s collection “Work & Days” was named one of 2016’s best books of poetry by the New York Times. Novelist Edan Lepucki’s latest book, “Woman No. 17,” will be published in May.]
The benefits a child gains from being read aloud to are many, and they contribute directly to success in school.
A child who has been read to regularly from birth arrives on day one of kindergarten with an invisible toolbox overflowing with the pre-literacy skills that are the foundation for all learning. They include not only the number one predictor of school success— a rich vocabulary—but many other essential understandings. Check out Parts I and II and then add these to the list:
They gain the ‘background of experiences’ necessary for understanding what they read in school.
Stories expand the boundaries of a child’s world in the best possible way. The greater the exposure to stories and ideas from outside their immediate experience, the better children are able to understand what they read in school. The reading a child eventually does in school is filled with countless references that will fall outside her natural orbit, and her degree of familiarity with them will determine her ability to understand what she reads.
They absorb how stories work on an unconscious level.
Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a protagonist, a problem, a struggle, and a resolution. These are understandings that a young child will generally not consciously express, but they will understand intuitively that this is what constitutes a story. This unconscious familiarity will become very apparent as a child moves into writing in school.
They possess the tools to become effective writers.
Children who have been read to not only gain a greater vocabulary for expressing themselves in writing, they develop an innate grasp of how sentences are formed and have an easier time constructing them. Just as they have greater expressive fluency orally, their writing is also more fluent than that of their non-reading peers. Through hearing many stories read aloud from a young age, they have absorbed the structural rhythm that stories possess. They will draw on this to write their own more easily than their peers who have not been immersed in stories.
The simple act of sharing a daily read-aloud with a child will fill his invisible toolbox to overflowing with a rich vocabulary, an inherent understanding of the pleasure of books, knowledge of the way books and stories function, an ability to attend to what is important, and familiarity with expressive reading and the rhythm of language. These are the essential tools of literacy that are the foundation for all learning in school.
If you think a nightly read aloud ritual between parent and child is a luxury only for those who are well off with smoothly running lives, think again. Alice Ozma’s best-selling memoir, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared doesn’t just dispel that notion; it illustrates that this simple, daily communion between a book, a child, and a parent can shine a light that soothes the pain of the present and points the way to a hopeful future.
Alice’s father, an elementary school librarian, was fortunate to have a mother who read to him as a young boy. When his daughter Alice was nine, they made a pact to read aloud together for one hundred nights straight. The pact eventually became known as The Streak, stretching out into 3,200 nights and nearly nine years. They marked the final night of The Streak on the steps of Alice’s college dorm, reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, symbolically, because it was the book with which they started.
One suspects that their commitment to The Streak was intensified by the family’s rupture. The Thanksgiving Alice was nine her mother, who we later learn suffered from mental illness, abruptly moved out, leaving Alice’s father to parent two daughters alone. As a man not prone to talking about his feelings, he wasn’t able to help his youngest directly process her own. What he was able to do though, was give her the gift of himself, his time, and his love of books. Through sharing fiction together daily, he not only strengthened his connection with his daughter, he opened worlds of possibility to her.
Recent studies in neuroscience show that we experience fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. Beyond the language-processing parts of the brain that are triggered when we read, the sensory regions are as well. So when we talk about entering into the world of the story, this is in fact what our brains do. Despite the obvious pain that is far below the surface in Alice’s retelling of her story, she is carried along and buoyed by her father’s love and the worlds they share. The loss of her mother, a father who is not comfortable talking about feelings, and her family’s limited financial resources are not determinative for her.
Throughout her school career Alice scored at the top of her class in reading and won awards in writing. Then her graduate school admissions essay on The Streak became a New York Times article which led to publishers taking notice. And so she found herself writing a memoir at the age of twenty-three. Hers is a story that will make you laugh out loud and maybe tear up too, but never is it sentimental or cloying. It is deeply moving, though. If you’re a parent of young children, it may inspire you to make your own reading promise. For this parent of a young adult, I found myself wishing for a do-over—wistful that I didn’t continue read aloud time with my son beyond elementary school.
Originally published by Kim Jocelyn Dickson at fractuslearning.com.