Tag Archives: reading for pleasure

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.

The Power of a Reading Promise

the_reading_promise_coverIf 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.

 

 

Why Children Need Their Own Library Cards

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When I was growing up every kid I knew had a library card. It was standard issue for a child of my generation, used once a month when the bookmobile came to school and bi-weekly during the summer when our mothers took us to the library to pick out a stack that would last us—maybe—for two weeks.

Entering the library or the bookmobile as a child was like embarking on a treasure hunt. One never knew what new discovery might lie around the corner. I loved the sense that there was a seemingly endless supply of books for me to browse through and that any number of them—within reason of course—could come home with me if I so chose. If one of them turned out not to be my cup of tea, no problem, it simply went onto the return stack that would go back to the library. More often than not, the books I hauled home turned out to be a delightful haven for me in quiet moments.

Not long ago I visited friends in a tiny eastern seaside town where they spend their vacations. Jack, who had grown up summering there, was especially eager for me to see the town’s charming stone library that had remained nearly unchanged for over one hundred years. He led me into the children’s section with as much gravitas as if he were leading me into King Tut’s tomb to see the Egyptian king’s riches. We came to the “B” shelf, and there he lifted one of Frank Baum’s original, much worn, hardcover copies of one of the Oz books. He had checked them all out many times as a child, and here they remained decades later. I moved further down the stack to the “L’s,” curious to see whether one of my favorite series, Betsy-Tacy, had also survived. I was thrilled to see that it had, but even more elated when I discovered all the original Lois Lenski books shelved above them. I hadn’t seen these books, which I’d adored through grade school, in decades. It was like meeting old, beloved friends.

Books that we grow up with and love can come from any source, of course, but there is a special value in teaching our children to use the local library. The reasons for introducing our children to the library, helping them get their own library cards, and creating a habit of use are twofold and both have to do with empowering them.

First, using the library encourages children to regularly and frequently make their own reading choices. When books are purchased children make a greater commitment, which often necessitates adult involvement in the decision making process. This is not a bad thing–I don’t at all discourage buying books— it’s just limiting. Unlike a bookstore or online shopping, browsing and sampling are not restrictive. The world of books is a child’s oyster in a library.

Second, it’s empowering for a child to have a library card of their own as it implies both responsibility and privilege. Parents also ought to have and use their own cards. Making regular trips to the library in which both parent and child check out their own books–and shared books too for read-aloud time–communicates a powerful message to a child about the value, pleasure, and importance of reading.

As a teacher, I’ve seen the number of students who have library cards and use their local library rapidly dwindle in recent years. Many of them use only the school library or buy their books online. While both of these venues are fine, they are missing out on the uniqueness of what libraries have to offer–limitless browsing, freedom of choice, and the frequent reminder of the value of reading that comes when they visit regularly with a parent and exercise this privilege with their very own library card.