Tag Archives: parenting

Raising Readers from Birth: An Interview with Kim Jocelyn Dickson

“I couldn’t actually meet the parents of my future students at the exit door of the maternity ward, so I wrote The Invisible Toolbox instead.”

I interviewed recently with dyslexia expert Don Winn. Don is an award-winning author of picture books and Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know.

Thanks so much, Don, for this opportunity! A great conversation about what really matters in the early years for EVERY child.

How Reading Inspired Jane Goodall’s Life Path

The Power of a Story to Ignite Imagination

Ground-breaking primatologist. Anthropologist. Conservationist. Speaker. Author.

Jane Goodall’s list of accomplishments is well known, but what may not be as widely recognized is how she came to be the remarkable woman she is today.

From early on British born Jane loved animals. In 1935, on the occasion of King George V’s silver jubilee celebrating 25 years on the throne, her father gave one year old Jane a stuffed chimpanzee in honor of the birth of Jubilee, a baby chimp born at the London Zoo the very same year.

Jane traces her early fascination with animals all the way back to her own little Jubilee who resides with her still in her childhood home in England. But it wasn’t until she was a little older that this affection expanded into a passion that would ultimately draw her into a career that changed the way the world understands animals.

She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.

As a young girl Jane grew into a voracious reader and spent hours at the public library or perched on stacks of books at her local second hand book shop. When she could save a little money, she was occasionally able to buy one. In a lovely letter to children published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Jane explains how these books inspired her future:

“…in the summer I would take my special books up in my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places. I especially loved reading about Doctor Dolittle and how he learned to talk to the animals. And I read about Tarzan and the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.”

At the age of ten Jane decided that when she grew up she would go to Africa to live with the animals and write books about them. And that is just what she did.

Jane’s story beautifully illustrates the power books have to inspire the human imagination.

One can’t help but wonder…what if Jane had grown up in a different time? Consider the present for instance. What if she’d had access to screens and the internet and never fell in love with reading as she did? Would Jane Goodall have become the person she is today?

I wonder.

By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.

Books have a unique capacity to fire the imagination. Neurologists now know that we humans experience reading fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. All parts of the brain are engaged when we read, not just the region that processes language—which is what we used to think. The deep and organic engagement that comes with written text doesn’t happen with fiction depicted through images on a screen. A book that a child becomes immersed in, however, literally becomes a part of them.

Jane read and reread the Tarzan books, developed a crush on the noble savage himself, and was quite put out at his choice of a partner. “He married the wrong Jane.”

Fortunately for Jane and for the world, she grew up in the time that she did. She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.

What does Jane’s story have to say to us today? Simply this. As parents it is our responsibility to nourish our children’s inner worlds.

Jane was fortunate in having parents who encouraged her to believe she could do whatever she set out to do. They also supported her love of reading.With the myriad distractions parents and children face today, helping children find their way to the books that inspire them is a taller order than it was in Jane’s time. But, it is definitely doable. By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.

And who knows where that might lead to?

How Can I Help My Child Like Reading When (shhh!) I Don’t Really Like to Read Myself?

“It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”

Once a parent understands that reading to their child is not just a good thing, but an essential thing that will enable them to reach their potential and bring great joy—fears and anxieties might emerge. A parent may wonder, how can I help my child fall in love with reading when I don’t love it myself? Where do I begin?

Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence:

Tool #1: Parent Yourself

“Parents who struggled with reading as children or who have never really discovered its pleasures for themselves may feel helpless or ill-equipped to lead. My advice to them is that this is not only your child’s golden opportunity to grow; this is your opportunity as well. One of parenting’s greatest benefits is having the chance to rework or recover experiences that we may have missed out on in our own childhoods. Do not misunderstand; I’m not promoting the type of vicarious living we see on the Little League field when overly aggressive parents relive their dreams of baseball glory through their children. The benefits I refer to have to do with the fact that when we raise children they open up new experiences to us through the worlds they are drawn to. This can happen with reading as well. If your experience with reading was difficult or unremarkable, doing right by your child gives you an opportunity to rework and overcome that. It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”

Parents, you are not alone. There are tools and support out there for you to help you give your child the best possible start.

My Chat with a Brit Down Under

Kate Foster wears quite a few hats. Children’s author, editor, agent, blogger, and promoter of other writers. She lives in Australia now by way of a small village in the south east of England. I had the pleasure of chatting with her recently about my writing/teaching career and The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence.

Check out our conversation here.

The Secret of the Invisible Toolbox: A Loving Letter from Your Child’s Future Teacher

Excerpt from the Introduction to The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

“Dear New Parent,

Congratulations! Your precious little one is here. There is no feeling in the world more wonderful than holding your tiny newborn for the first time. Your heart expands with warmth and love and protection in a way you never could have imagined until now. As you begin a journey with this miraculous new life you have created that will take both of you far into the future, into places known and unknown, you will do everything in your power to ensure your baby’s path is as full of hope and promise as it can be. 

As well-meaning parents, we all want our children to thrive. Regular pediatrician visits, vaccinations, sleep routines, proper nutrition, feeding, bathing, cuddling—we do all of these things because we want what is best for them. But there is one more thing that is essential, and it’s one that is as important to our growing child as all the things we do to take care of our baby’s physical needs. This necessary thing is one that you may already know—or perhaps may have forgotten or haven’t fully understood. As someone who has been in your shoes as a parent and taught children just like yours in elementary school for decades, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this essential thing over the years.

Flash forward five years, and imagine with me what your child will look like on their first day of kindergarten. At this moment, that day may seem a long way off, but believe me, it will be here before you know it. Can you see your child in the brand-new school clothes that you’ve bought for this special day, down to the sneakers with laces so white because they too have never been worn? Under a fresh haircut there may be a big grin or perhaps a look of apprehension. Your child knows it’s a big day, just as you do. On their back is a crisp new backpack and in one hand a lunchbox filled with favorite things. All of this equipment is recently acquired, full of promise and expectation for the future–and probably decorated with a favorite superhero or three. Who will that be, you wonder? The picture is almost, but not quite, complete. There is more. And here is the secret. 

In your little child’s other hand they carry something else. It’s a toolbox, but it’s invisible. Unseen though it is, it will be carried to school on the first day of kindergarten and every day after that all through your child’s academic career. Whether or not it contains the most essential tools will have an enormous impact on those years and far into the future…”

Pre-order now for April 14, 2020 publication

Thank you, Jeff Conyers, President of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Dollywood!

Dolly Parton’s organization is doing amazing work promoting literacy. Her foundation has donated over a million books to children from birth to age five throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I couldn’t be prouder that THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX has the endorsement of Jeff Conyers, the president of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Here’s what Jeff had to say after reading The Invisible Toolbox:

The Invisible Toolbox shares a simple truth that rises above the flood of information parents are subjected to: ‘Reading aloud to your child from birth is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.’ This book will tell you why and what you can do to develop a lifelong love of books and reading with your child.”

Available now!

THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, the book! Available April 2020

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.

The Critical First Five Years

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.

Magic in a Read-Aloud Book Club

Photo by Ben White

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.

Still, everyone said what they loved best about the stories, or shared a sentence or two. We snacked: for “Phantom Tollbooth,” tollhouse cookies; for “Pippi Longstocking,” chocolate cake because the market was out of Swedish Fish. Our kids began to name what they wanted most in a story. Bean: epic battles. Bennett: careful observation. They both wanted magic. In this we agreed: Who doesn’t want magic?

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.]

What Else is in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox? (Part III)

caucasian-man-reading-to-babyThe 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.