We were on the road, running errands. The eldest son broke his glasses. Again. For the third time in a twelve-month. We needed to pick them up, deliver some books ordered at an Usborne party about 45 miles distant, visit the cousins, do a little shopping because the French press had a mishap in the dishwasher this morning, and then at last come home. It was about two hours of driving time on a cold afternoon, sitting bumper to bumper in the vehicle. What could have been really boring flew right by because we did it with Ribsy on audio, cavorting along, getting lost and found repeatedly. I laughed as heartily as the children when Ribsy chased the squirrel that came to school in a show-and-tell box. We all agreed that obviously, this author has a dog. She described in minute detail how dogs beg and grovel gratefully when they get attention. She even narrated what Mother says when Ribsy wants to ride in the new car with the family, “Don’t pay him any attention! Henry, don’t even look at him!” The children giggled gleefully and said, “That sounds like you, Mama!
When we read, my children don’t have any concept of gaining insight into human nature or relationships, but that is what happens in great fiction. I just read a study that indicates that people (including children) who read fiction score significantly higher on the empathetic scale because they are constantly walking in another’s shoes while they are reading. Conversely, children (and adults!) who have unlimited screen time score much lower in simple tests designed to identify another person’s emotions using facial cues. It’s not that they don’t care at all, but they simply haven’t been practicing while staring at a device. (That’s just my little Free Rant Bunny Trail for the day.)
The best children’s books are simple themes, with masterful descriptions that take you right to the scene and leave you breathless to figure out what will come next. There is a trend in modern children’s books that tends to dark and heavy topics. I hate it. Stories for young children should be wholesome, real, not burdening a child with a load they aren’t meant to carry. That will come soon enough.
I can still see Jimmy and the Jam Jars and that incredible mess he made when he was sneaking the fresh jam in the kitchen. I can recall holding my breath as Peter Rabbit ducked into a watering can to hide, of all places! and of course he had to sneeze! I can walk the trail with Little Bear when something went pit-pat, pit-pat behind him on the path. These are the books that are a delight to read aloud. Rarely do I read books to my children that bore me. If the illustrations are beautiful, I can manage it, but otherwise just go get another book, Sweetie.
This week we cracked open some brand new books. I got a set from Usborne titled Anna Hibiscus. Olivia has been spending all her free time in Africa, amazing Africa, with Anna Hibiscus and her extended family that lives in a compound with goats nibbling outside the door and aunties sewing cool dresses and braiding everybody’s hair. The twin brothers, Double and Trouble, are doing what all toddlers do best, getting into constant mischief and Anna is supposed to watch them! These books are genius, and I do not say that lightly. Olivia doesn’t know that she is learning to love a culture that is vastly different from her own, but she knows that a little girl from rural Pennsylvania wants to go to Amazing Africa.
Here is another favorite from an author that delights without fail: Mr. Putter and Tabby, by Cynthia Rylant.
Mr. Putter has always wanted to write a book. He wakes up to the perfect book writing day, sits in his comfortable chair with his companionable cat and thinks of a title that fits his plot. It is strenuous going and he needs a snack to sustain him. The snack takes a few hours of time, after which he needs a nap. This goes on for days until he decides to just write a list instead of a book. I, a 38 year old woman, love this children’s story. Wonder why?
That’s the thing: children’s literature is about life and all of us. It may be told from the vantage point of the beloved family dog or a tiny tugboat in an impossibly crowded harbor, but it is easy enough for anyone to understand and say, “Yes, that’s how it really is!”
Tomorrow I will tell you a little more about how my parents raised us to be readers.