Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954) wrote a terrific poem called “Reading Mother.” It starts off,
“I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea.
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth;
Blackbirds stowed in the hold beneath.”
Many of his references are dated; what on earth was “Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales”? But no matter. His mother opened his mind to the world of books, or rather, she brought to life the world itself by reading him books about all sorts of things.
Even before my granddaughters were born, I was thinking of books to give them. Then I had a big idea. I would give them every book that’s ever won the Caldecott Medal, the annual prize recognizing the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children.” No scribbled adaptations of the latest Disney romps for my girls. They deserved books that had won actual medals.
I made this promise before looking at a list of winners, before having read most of them, and without realizing that they currently number seventy-eight.
Every so often, I have run into Make Way for Ducklings (which won the 1942 Caldecott) or Come to the Doctor, Harry (which should have, for 1981 ) among my more grownup volumes. It had been a long while, though, since I’d paid close attention to a picture book. Yes, I did write a piece that ran here about lessons learned when The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, and I have read most of the Crayons series in book stores with my daughter, Allison. We recently skimmed The Day the Crayons Came Home – hilarious! – but we leave them on the shelves.
Though I recall little about my mother reading to me, memories are flooding back of reading to my own little brood. Herewith, some tips for anyone getting ready to read to a child.
First, it’s never too early to start. Get to know these books as soon as you know you’ve got a bun or two in the oven. You’ll start seeing the world through your child’s eyes long before you look into them. Expectant dads, did you know babies can hear in the womb by four months? Read aloud to that baby bump! Think how cool it will be when that little person recognizes a book you read to her in utero, a subtle, happy memory.
Too many books in the house? Don’t be silly. Ask your parents if they still have the ones you read. Maybe you saved your favorites; it’s time to hunt them down. At my daughter-in-law’s baby shower, guests brought signed books instead of cards. Buy, build, or scavenge bookcases. Let your children know the sky’s the limit. Don’t worry about shelving them in any order. They won’t forget where they put that one about Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne.
Don’t dumb it down. If children don’t hear the words “rhinoceros,” “cumulus,” or “chartreuse,” they’ll have a hard time recognizing them when they’re learning to read on their own.
There’s more, but I’ll leave you with this very important advice: Before launching into story time, read it yourself. As I said, I had little experience with the Caldecotts before making my sweeping gesture. So as we have brought them home from every bookstore in Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa; Madison, Wisconsin; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I sit down and study each one. Some have mostly (or only) pictures; others contain full-blown stories along with their superb illustrations. I read them so I will know just which ones to mark with a “read me soon!” note, and which to suggest holding back – or revising.
This is because one time, after a trip to a library, I began reading aloud a book my kids had picked out. Titled something like The Children in the Forest, I expected a happy, calming book about trees and ferns, maybe a frog or two. But these children wander deep into the forest, losing their way. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, they leave no trail behind. What do you suppose happens to them? The last line reads, “And so the children lay down beneath a big oak tree, and died.” No kidding! And as luck would have it, they were a brother and sister, so it might as well have said in red letters, “ALLISON AND DANIEL, THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU.”
Can you imagine writing a book like that for children? Luckily, mine were too young to read along. Allison was still months away from startling me with her overnight ability to read at age four. Also in my favor was a skill I’d developed years before, possibly beginning the winter night she woke me from deep slumber, eyes shining and arms lugging a stack of ten books. “Read!” she demanded. How could I refuse? I was a librarian; I was a writer; I read to myself constantly. I was a mother who read to them.
Protecting your children from stories you’d rather avoid (at least until they’re older) requires you to learn just one skill: Should you find yourself reading an unfamiliar book aloud, read ahead. With practice, you can skim an entire paragraph ahead while still accurately reciting all the words in the previous one. It was this magic power that allowed me to spy the disastrous end to the children’s bucolic walk, and to substitute for its Grimm Brothers’ scenario my own, saying instead, “So the little children lay down beneath a big oak tree to take a nice nap,” adding for good measure, “When their parents found them five minutes later, they all sat down under that sheltering tree, eating cupcakes and lemonade, before skipping all the way home.”
The end. Whew!