Tell me tales
On one of the copyeditors' e-mail lists, Helen Court gave me a hook to hang some recent thoughts on...
I read—and early on was read to from—the books my parents (circa 1915) had read, my grandparents (circa 1885) had read, plus a slightly newer batch (1930s onward).
"read to from"...
My daughter (almost 10) is mildly retarded. For all her school years, it has been pretty much necessary to exchange notes or phone calls every few days about class work, homework, and suggestions for new strategies and exercises (both from teacher to us and from us to teacher).
My son (6) is very precocious and in a Spanish-immersion kindergarten; the nature of the program means that it draws highly motivated teachers, parents, and children. My wife or I has at least a "hello" with the teacher every day, and every week or two we contribute some kind of help to the class—craft projects, in-class presentations. We're involved, OK?
And yet it would be stupid to think that we can't still learn something. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned to Sally Ann's teacher that she was becoming less interested in reading at bedtime. It's disappointing, I said, because I had read to her every night since she turned 2 and was glad when she started being able to read (very early beginner-level) stories herself last year.
Teacher said, read TO her. They spend hours every week in class getting the kids to read, and the homework includes reading. Sally Ann doesn't need to spend more time doing it herself, especially since at this point that's a halting, difficult, frustrating experience. She needs to experience how fun, easy, and interesting reading can be. The teacher sketched for me, and I've thought more deeply on, why reading-to is important: she needs to hear the drama of acting out character voices and the cadence of sentences and paragraphs. She needs to know that not only do fright and love come in different volumes, but so do suspense, calm, and anger.
I knew all that. I deserve a Tony award for my Fox in Socks. And I know the value of making 'em up, too; I've had Chase Collins' Tell Me a Story on my shelf for years. But I had forgotten, and gotten lazy.
These included the GA Hentys of the late 19th century [...], Robin Hood, Robert Louis Stevenson, A.A. Milne, Alice in Wonderland, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, to name a few. [...]
I delighted in them, including ack The Dog of Flanders, bigger ack Slovenly Peter, and—in particular—The Just So Stories (even if they were written by someone many disapprove of today) ... for a five-year-old, they were terrific stories ... the bicolored python rock snake springs to mind, curled up on the banks of the great gray green greasy Limpopo River, warning the Elephant Child about the false tears of the crocodile. Sunk home, that one did. Not yet disproved.
So I completely overhauled our nightly bedtime-story routine. Used to be, each child would pick a book off their shelf; I'd read P.J.'s to him and help Sally Ann read hers aloud, each in their own room (alternating evenings as to who went first, of course). They only have a finite number of books, and they always pick their favorites, and while rereading is good it's not perfect. You can't get the same insight from even a classic like Green Eggs and Ham the tenth time 'round, let alone from Bob the Builder's Birthday.
Now, I pick the story. One story, both kids, in my room. First thing this means is, we can read books that I wouldn't let them touch, such as the hardbound editions of each of the Just So Stories from my mother's childhood library (they still have the year and a private kind of Dewey code, in my mom's handwriting, pencilled on the endpaper).
Back on the copyeditors' list, Ben Boyington posted that "the Jungle Books are some of the best tales ever written, in my humble opinion. Ever so." Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake indeed. The kids are rapt. For a 5- or 6-year-old—as a race, they are notoriously truth-challenged—I don't know of a better way to warn about deceivers than the original crocodile's tears. We accidentally had The Elephant's Child two days before going on a trail hike where PJ learned the difference between garter snakes and rattlesnakes—no rock snakes, unfortunately, but the immediate relevance of tale to trail completely sold him on the idea that I should always choose the story.
The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Baltohas a great arc and even greater payoff. Pieces of books also work; Bilbo's encounter with the trolls was a hit. The Wind in the Willows is on the horizon, as are Peter Pan and The Red Balloon and In the Night Kitchen and more. Tonight we'll be in Chapter 7 of The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, they've seen the movie, but they've never seen Kalidahs...
They aren't going to deny me a bedtime story again!