Tag Archives: reading aloud

“Soothment” – reading, empathy, and the beginning of the end

n-and-cLast night we stood in front of N’s sagging bookshelves looking for something good to read.

Black Beauty?” I suggested.

“No. It’ll be too sad.”

The Railway Children?”

“Mmm. No.”

“I know: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Funny! Or here — The Swiss Family Robinson!”

“Mmm. No.”

“It says it’s happy! Listen: ‘The Swiss Family Robinson is a story of the happy discovery of the wonders of natural history by a family shipwrecked on a desert island, who remain united through all the adversities that they encounter.’ Wait — it says it’s joyful too! A joyful classic!”

“No. Something else.”

Finally she pulled an Ivy and Bean from her shelf, which we’ve been reading since the picture book phase I wrote about last week. I like the Ivy and Bean books, but I’ve been craving a bigger story since before Christmas (though yes, I do read from my own library too!).

“Let’s pick something else,” I suggested. “Don’t you want to read a big, juicy novel?”

And then came the blow: “Mom, it’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now.”

I smiled to hide the sting, but privately I was thinking about all our years of reading What are you afraid of?together, and — at least in retrospect — how quickly they have flown by. It was another of those bicycle moments. You run and you run alongside your child (in our case for years!), and suddenly she is ready to go alone, and before either of you has realized it, she is flying away from you, and it’s you who becomes the speck in her distance when she finally looks back.

But this is wonderful, I thought as I closed her door last night. In this one respect, I know I have done my job well. N is a reader, and I suspect she will remain so. She has moved up through all the phases of reading, recognizing first the pictures, then the letters as pictures, then the letters as words, then the words as sentences, then the sentences as information. And with this skill she can unlock many mysteries. Wherever she wants to go, books will take her there, and in that regard I hope she will become a world traveler.

I’ve read that reading fiction increases empathy too–I suppose because one gets caught up in a character and looks at the story’s situation through that character’s eyes. In a sense you have to become someone else. I used to get N to eat by pretending the morsel on her plate was sad because she’d eaten other morsels but not “him.” As I put on my warbly Tiny Carrot voice — “Please eat me so I can be with my friends. I am so lonely!” — I’d sometimes worry I’d gone too far when I saw her face fill with pity, eyebrows working, mouth opening wide for the poor bit of food that had felt so abandoned.

I also recall walking through Value Village with N and coming upon a bedraggled stuffed dog lying in an aisle, with a $1.99 tag pierced into his neck. We both stopped and looked down at him, and he stared up at us with large blue eyes, felt tongue lolling. We had to take him home, and of course he’s with us still.

Years later, we sometimes sit in her room and go through the stuffed animals with the aim of getting rid of some, but we make the mistake of holding them up one by one and looking at their faces, and for a quiet moment they look back at us, waiting for our decision. Our cull is far from thorough every time.

There are the real creatures too — the baby squirrel who lost his mother and cried for help in our backyard; the kindergarten friend who wouldn’t speak but found a loyal friend in N, who spoke enough for both of them. We used to walk home together at lunchtime, the wordless girl and her wordless mother just ahead, and N and I trailing behind, calling out a cheerful goodbye when we reached our house.



Recently when her grandmother was sick, N hung a reversible sign on her doorknob, and ran a full series of checkups. She made “emergency pain notes” on her own medical stationery with a logo that read “your health matters to us.” She asked careful, thoughtful questions about where the pain was and what the patient would be willing to take for “soothment.” And would the patient like one hairdo per day, or two?

Whether this ability to understand another’s emotions comes because of reading, I’m not sure. I like to think that’s part of it. But I wonder too what makes books so special? Do movies increase empathy? Does television? There are lots of awful television shows for kids, but there’s great stuff too. In fact, the more I think about it, I suspect a show like Nana Lan, which N loved as a little girl, did indeed boost  her ability to empathize. There are lots of books that have done zero in that regard. So perhaps it’s not so much the medium, but the value of the story it contains, and the extent to which the viewer can embrace that story.

In any case, I hope this is not the end of our reading together, but it is almost certainly the beginning of the end. Which is as it should be.Blog of green gables?


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Guest post: Carrie Snyder on the many stages of reading

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.”

Nighttime reading at Carrie's house

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.

Jelly Belly bit with a big fat bite, Jelly Belly fought with a big fat fight, Jelly Belly frowned with a big fat frown, Jelly Belly stomped and his house fell down.

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.


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When door is closed, do not comme in

Manners by Aliki: "Some people have them, some people don't."

Years ago at our local library’s annual summer book sale, we picked up a copy of a book called Manners by Aliki. It’s a bright, cheerfully illustrated picture book that goes through the whats and whys of polite behavior: “words and actions that show others you care.” Each page is laid out like a cartoon all to itself, and might address nose-picking or toy grabbing, or more complex issues like gossiping or alienating others. N has always liked this book, and we used to read it often, but like so many others it’s sat on the shelf unnoticed for some time, until last week she went looking for it, perhaps prompted by some ethical puzzle she didn’t share with me. Since then, we’ve read it every night from cover to cover.

And I can see signs of it popping up around the house. Last night, a note appeared on the bathroom door. “When door is closed, do not comme in. When door is open, you can comme in.” (I think the “comme” is French immersion influence.) The accompanying illustration shows a girl patiently waiting on one side of the door while on the other side, a second girl sits on the pot glancing at the door, mouth in a worried O.

Books that teach manners and broader morals are difficult to write, and can be off-putting for parents and kids alike. But Aliki handles the subject wonderfully, since we get to either giggle or gasp at the rotters in these pages. The kid who says “BLAAAA!” with an evil scowl when an old lady stops to pat his head, and another who burps and slurps his way through a meal.

Some pages use images and next to no text to get across the message (such as “Look at Daniel,” scratching his head, picking his ear, and coughing into the open air), while others are devised as little stories. A miserable boy terrorizes a birthday party, grabbing, throwing food, cheating, and tattling. After he leaves, “nobody missed him.” And this really is exactly what the book tries to convey: “manners are about feelings … they make others want to be with you.”

Tea, by Mary Cassatt

My favourite parts of the book use role-playing dialogue: “manners lessons,” in which a couple of kids act out a tricky situation. Each starts with a child saying “Let’s pretend” to another (as kids so often do), and then carrying out their mini play. In one, Aunt Bessie cooks up potage du toad’s legs and bisque de giraffe’s neck, and her nephew has to wend his way through the situation without saying “Yuck!” In another, a girl comes to her friend’s house for a sleepover and after an evening of disparaging remarks, says, “I get the bed. You can have the floor.”

But I suppose what I like even more than the messages of these little skits is the fact that N and I read them aloud together. I’ve mentioned many times in these posts that, while N can read, she loves to be read to. And I’ve struggled with that over the last while, wondering if perhaps I should be pushing her more to read aloud in English (as she does in French, for her homework). But I decided I would follow her lead, and trust in the process she seems to enjoy most. And I often glance at her and see her following along with me as we move through the text. Sometimes she corrects me when I miss a word, so I know she is indeed reading as well as listening. But what’s nice about this book is that we do these exchanges together, so it’s a manners review as well as a reading review all at once. (And also just fun.)

I should perhaps mention that sometimes N’s own manners leave a lot to be desired—but then, occasionally, so do mine. The other day she was whining incessantly and growing bolder by the minute, and I lost my temper in that way that can only be described as steam shooting out of my ears. We both felt horrible afterwards as we rushed off to piano, and then the incident was forgotten until bedtime. That night when we lay in her bed reading Manners, we talked about our fight now and again when we came to places in the book that reminded us. I relished the opportunity to point out behaviour of the kind she had exhibited, which had made me so angry. And when we got to the line “But you can’t treat bad manners with bad manners,” she saw her opportunity too.

“That’s what you did, Mom.”

Well, yes. Fair enough.


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The surprise package

We came home from the holidays to find a package waiting for us — two books sent by relatives in England. I was thrilled to find them, because these were the same relatives who’d introduced us to a couple of now-favourites,  Mrs. Armitage on Wheels and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

The books inside the package were I Believe in Unicorns and The Dancing Bear, both by English author Michael Morpurgo. I noticed the first came with a CD inside, and since I had a cold and was achy and didn’t feel much like reading aloud, I put the disc in the player, climbed in bed with N, and listened. As we lay there, I remembered a conversation I’d had with the woman who’d sent the books. Two of her children had difficulty reading, and audio books were a great discovery for them — a way into the world of stories that allowed them to appreciate the richness of language rather than struggle their way through it. Whether you read well yourself or not, there is something wonderful about being read to. You can close your eyes and let your imagination form its own images for the story. And yet, as with reading, you still to need to work, and focus, to hold the thread of the story.

Within moments, both N and I were drawn into this tale, about eight-year-old Tomas who hates school, books and church, but loves the outdoors. “Sometimes I’d go off with Father, feeding the bees in winter, collecting the honey in summer. I loved that, loved being with him, doing a proper job. But although I never told him so, I much preferred to be on my own. Alone I could go where I wanted. Alone my thoughts and dreams could run free. I could sing at the top of my voice. I could soar with the eagles, be wild in the woods with the deer and the boar and bears and the invisible wolves. Alone I could be myself.”

But Tomas’s mother shuffles him off to the library one day, because she’s heard there’s a new librarian who tells wonderful stories to any children who wish to listen. Tomas doesn’t, but he goes against his will, and to his surprise discovers a real live unicorn among the books and children. “He was sitting absolutely still, his feet tucked neatly underneath him, his head turned toward us. He seemed to be gazing straight at me…. And his eyes were blue and shining.”

At first Tomas is let down with the discovery that the unicorn isn’t real at all, but carved from wood and painted. But then the librarian — the “Unicorn Lady” — perches on the unicorn to tell the story of Noah, and Tomas is transfixed. “You could tell she believed absolutely in her stories as she told them. So we did too.”

Anne Anderson's 1934 Match Girl illustration

One day she shows them a copy of her favourite book — The Little Match Girl — but the cover is scorched and tattered, and the spine is held together by tape. When Tomas asks if the book has been burned, she tells them about a time in her childhood, in a far-off country, when “wicked people ruled the land, wicked people who were frightened of the magic of stories and poems, terrified of the power of books…. Books make you want to ask questions. And they didn’t want any of us to think or dream, and especially they did not want us to ask questions.” This book, she tells them, is one her father saved from a huge bonfire of books. He plucked it from the flames and ran with it, and soldiers chased him and beat him but he would not let go of it.

“This was the book he saved,” she says, “so that is why it is my favourite, most special book in all the world.”

I Believe in Unicorns is a beautiful layering of stories, unfolding one after another, but each working together as a whole. After the librarian tells of her father and the book burning, war comes to Tomas’s valley, though his own father has promised him it never would. I could see N’s expression change as Tomas described the planes overhead, glinting in the sun, and the bombs falling far away, and then closer.

“That’s what happened with Opa,” she whispered, referring to my father’s childhood in occupied Holland. I nodded, and we kept listening.

Dad, about the age of Tomas, celebrating liberation with his brothers in Holland

I won’t give away more, because this is a story well worth discovering if you haven’t already. And while it’s very much a book about a boy who hates books learning to love books, it never feels preachy. The story is completely engrossing — we enjoyed listening to it so much that now we’re reading it for ourselves, and the grainy sketches by Gary Blythe are a fine accompaniment. Once in a while N stops me to ask a question — “Will war come to Toronto?” — and though the questions are sometimes difficult to answer, it’s quite something to see the process at work: a book opening a mind; stories connecting to everyday life.


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