Part 7 (wow!) of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. I’m thrilled to welcome Carrie Snyder, most recently the author of The Juliet Stories, writing here about “subtly sharing with my children the joys of literary criticism.”
When I was pregnant with my first child, my cousins threw me a baby shower. One of the questions asked was “What are you most looking forward to about motherhood?” and I didn’t give it a second thought: “Reading to my kids.” I’d studied children’s literature in university, and as an adult shamelessly collected and read “young adult” books long before it was a popular trend. I couldn’t wait to share my love of reading. What I couldn’t have guessed was how many layers of discovery such a simple pleasure would bring.
I have four children, currently ages 10, 9, 6, and 4. Together, we’ve gone through many different reading stages; in fact, our reading patterns seem ever-changing, much like the children themselves. As soon as I think I’ve got something figured out, they go and grow some more.
I began reading to my eldest when he was extremely small. Too small, really, to comprehend, but I just couldn’t wait. He quickly grew to love books. We often read lying down with him snuggled on my chest, me holding a book with arms outstretched over our heads. His sister arrived 17 months after him, and she was immediately brought into our reading experience. Now we squeezed together in a comfy chair, my eldest bringing me selections while his sister nursed. My son was about two years old when we discovered that he had memorized entire books. He could complete the rhymes in Dennis Lee’s Jelly Belly. He could finish the sentences in Marthe Jocelyn’s A Day with Nellie.
Strange, then, when I realized a few years later he’d forgotten them all. Somehow I’d thought he’d know those words by heart forever.
By the time my son turned four, and his sister just two-and-a-half, I’d ambitiously begun reading them chapter books. I couldn’t resist diving deep into the classics I’d loved in childhood: Charlotte’s Web, Pippi Longstocking, even The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. We read before bed, for half an hour or often longer. When their sister was born, nursing time again became reading time. But when she reached the grabbing age (seven months? eight months?) reading time suddenly became a trial for all of us. The older kids were frustrated by their baby sister’s interruptions and impatience. The baby sister wanted to eat/rip/otherwise destroy the book (her destruction was indiscriminate—picture books were as liable to be mauled as chapter books). And the library went from haven to hell (at least for me). Chasing a conscience-free one-year-old amongst the stacks is a deeply wearying task.
The year our eldest was in grade one, we stumbled over a new trial in our shared reading experience: learning to read. He was flagged at school for remedial help, and at home we worked together every night, deciphering the simplest texts. I would listen, he would read. What I learned was that my child possessed much greater patience than did I. Slowly, slowly, he put letter sounds together, rolling them out, testing them out, inching toward making them into something coherent and whole: a word. One word. It could take us half an hour to read a book only several sentences long. I had a graduate degree in literature, but I didn’t have a clue how to teach my son to read, not when he hit snags and difficulties. That year, some of our happy bedtime reading time was given over to unhappy forced learn-to-read time; and he did learn to read. But in retrospect, I wonder whether the hurry helped or hurt.
The following year, with another new baby added to the crowd, we read through the entire Little House on the Prairie series. What an experience to share these books with my children; I’d read them over and over as a child and young teen—and how very different their flavour when read as an adult. Pa was wilder, a hustler, an unsuccessful farmer and businessman, clearly skilled at getting in with the right people in order to protect his family in rough frontier towns. And how could Ma tolerate the unstable life they were leading? So dignified and graceful—did she regret her marriage? What were all the parts that had been left out of the story? Some of these thoughts I shared with the children while we read. And that became yet another layer of pleasure to reading out loud: Talking things over. Really wondering. Sharing big questions. Making observations, even critical ones. Subtly sharing with my children the joys of literary criticism.
But I’ve also shared with them the somewhat brusquer task of literary discernment. Over time, my tolerance for badly written children’s books has seriously waned. There are simply too many wonderful books to waste time on the ones that melt brain cells. At the library, my youngest children are often drawn to books that feature familiar characters from kids’ shows or movies (like their siblings before them were too, when they were younger). They’re suckered in by marketing techniques unrelated to literary value—sparkly covers, fairy wings, moving parts. I don’t blame them for being fooled, as pre- and early-readers. But I refuse to participate in the fooling. Why pretend a book based on a television character is as rich and wonderful as, say, the simple line drawings and moving text of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books?
It’s not that I won’t suffer through the occasional insipid Dora, or preachy Berenstein, or write-by-numbers Disney offering, but I choose not to hide my interior editor. If I don’t like something, I will name it. The plot doesn’t make sense. The art doesn’t fit with the story. Or I will ask them to think about it. What is this story really trying to say? What is it trying to sell us, and why? When my eldest was going through a Tonka book phase, around age 4, he loved and would request my made-up version, a silly riffed monologue in which I expressed my intense boredom with the ridiculousness of the text presented on each page. Life is too short not to make it interesting.
I read less to my children now than I once did.
I write that sentence with a mixture of guilt and regret, and pride. I read less to them because our evenings are stacked with extra-curricular activities. I read less to them because I am busier myself and we don’t always have time, or make time. But I also read less to them because they read more to themselves. Reading is so ingrained into their daily lives that bedtime would not be bedtime without a book (we don’t watch television; that is not how they’ve learned to unwind). The older ones go to their own beds with their own books. Very recently, the two youngest, who share a room, have begun reading together before lights-out—the big sister reading to her little brother. And he has just begun memorizing and sharing books, “reading” to us, painstakingly pointing to the words as he says them.
A few more lovely things about this stage we’re currently in (I will write them down quickly, before it all changes once again). One is that if I pick up a picture book and sit down with the younger children, the older children drift in to listen too. By the end of a good reading session, going through the library bag, there will be five of us squished together on the couch. I love that being read to is a pleasure my children have yet to outgrow; I hope they never will.
The other is hearing one of my children say, “I don’t know what to read,” or even, “Mom, what should I read?” What joy to go to our shelves—filled with books that I’ve collected over many years, many of them pre-dating my children—and to search for a match. What deep soul-soothing happiness to find the perfect book to answer my child’s need at this moment in his or her life. It’s like being asked for advice that I feel qualified to give. And that’s a relief. Because when it comes to parenting, I’m swimming in the dark and probably always will be. Books—now books, I know.
Carrie Snyder is the author, most recently, of The Juliet Stories, published by House of Anansi. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her husband and four children where she writes, cooks, runs, and reads. She blogs as Obscure CanLit Mama.