Tag Archives: when writers read kids’ books

Alphacity: guest post by artist Eric Cator

On Twitter, my friend Eric Cator describes himself as “Artist, filmmaker and guy who spends more time drawing than can possibly be healthy.” I’ve been following his posts for some time, and recently noticed a series of alphabet drawings he was making for his baby daughter. In fact, he was building her a city made of letters. I was so touched by these pieces, which popped up randomly rather than in alphabetical order, that I asked him to write for Blog of Green Gables and tell us a little about what prompted him to make Alphacity. Turns out it has something to do with a love for stories, and the imaginary worlds you find there.

I’d love to hear your comments on what Eric’s written below. Did having a child inspire you to make something?

alphacityA great deal of my childhood was spent looking for another world to live in.  Specifically, I wanted to live in the ‘adult’ world (the one that parents lived in when they weren’t around their kids).  I didn’t feel like I fit in with the kid world, and anyways, I was pretty sure the adults were keeping all the really good things for themselves, and I wanted in. 

Yes indeed, it was going to be nothing but late-night pancake feasts and afternoons spent speeding around in race cars for me!  In order to learn more about the secret adult world I began lingering around adults, hoping to pick up clues from their conversations, but it soon became clear that they knew I was listening, and therefore insisted on only talking of dull and pointless things when I was around, to throw me off.  

huck finn

EW Kemble’s version of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

Now, I’m pretty sure my parents tried to warn me that the truth about adult life was that it was mostly filled with mundane activities like going to work and paying bills; things that couldn’t possibly measure up to my fantastical theories or even fictional novels.  I of course dismissed this as another clever ruse designed to dissuade me from digging any further into their secrets.

After some time however, I realized that I wasn’t reading books just to look for clues anymore, and instead I was just enjoying being with the characters and spending time in the worlds the authors had created. The truth was that I had fallen so in love with fictional worlds that I had stopped looking for hidden secrets about the adult world; it seemed more and more likely that my parents were telling the truth, and the real world would never compare to the endless imaginary lands that existed in books and comics.  Only then did I realize that these works of fiction were open doors into the minds of their writers, who likely created these worlds because they felt they didn’t ‘fit in’ with the normal world either.  It also seemed very likely that the parts of them that didn’t fit were the same parts that allowed them to create their own worlds, and by sharing these worlds they had found a way to connect to other people after all, which is what I was really after all along. 

sNow that I’m a parent, I find myself wanting to share my love of imaginary worlds with my kids.  Luckily my wife is also a writer and lover of stories, and we make a point of reading to our children daily.  I also try to put my own imagination on display around them whenever possible, with the side benefit that it often encourages them to put their imagination on display for me; at three my son is a frequent teller of make-believe stories, usually involving dinosaurs and firefighters.  My daughter is only a couple of months old, so she hasn’t begun making up her own endings to bedtime stories just yet, but I have been working on an alphabet poster that I will hang on the wall beside her crib; in this poster each letter is an entire building, and together the alphabet forms an entire city.

Hopefully, in the near future she will imagine herself in this city, perhaps living in a two-dbedroom condo on the sixth floor of the letter S, or spending her days watching the world from a balcony in the letter D.  I also hope that this ‘Alphacity’ will spark her interest in other imaginary places, and in the written language that can bring her to them.  And who knows, as she gets even older maybe she will even find some comfort here in this fictional land, on those inevitable days when she feels like she isn’t fitting in with the regular world around her.

_Eric_and_PaigeEric Cator has always loved stories, but usually tells them through pictures.  He is a Toronto-based visual artist with works in the Colart Collection, City of Toronto collection, as well as private collections throughout Canada and around the world.  He is currently working on too many things at once, but enjoying the heck out of it.


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Story-at-the-end-of-the-bed: guest post by Mark Frutkin

I’m happy to have author Mark Frutkin visit the blog today, writing about nightly adventures in storytelling with his son Elliot. Mark’s gorgeously yellow novel, A Message for the Emperor, is just out from Vehicule Press, and author Katherine Govier has given it high praise:

“The prose is sleek, restrained, flawless. There’s research in there but you’d never know it. Frutkin seems to have inhaled ancient China and exhaled a parable of the artist.”

Here at Blog of Green Gables, Mark takes us to far off lands other than China, under the wing of a golden crow. Thank you Mark for this wonderful contribution!

When my son, Elliot, was three, I overheard a bedtime conversation between him and his mother:

“Mummy, can fish talk?”

“No, sweetie, fish can’t talk, not really.”

“Can cows talk?”

“No, dear; at least, not like us.”

He paused to think.  “Well then, can they hum?”

The child’s natural imagination is the necessary ground for nurturing literacy, for everything read must be imagined whether it is a story, a mathematical theorem or a legal brief.  Elliot, at that age, had no need for a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ for the simple reason that disbelief had not yet reared its experienced head.  He lived in a world of innocent belief, where every story was real.  I remember being surprised to discover that he could not distinguish between real live people and cartoon characters on TV.  Everything was alive and it was not yet beyond the realm of possibility that cows and fish could talk, or at least hum.

We were typical of many modern young parents — in our house the prelude to bedtime was a time for reading and storytelling.  Of course, we went somewhat overboard and fell into a pattern almost Byzantine in its complexity.  Between the ages of three and seven, this was Elliot’s bed preparation schedule:

— About an hour before ground-zero (sleeptime), mum or dad would read aloud a story downstairs on the living room couch.

— Stage two involved urging a now sleepy child up the long flight of stairs to the bathroom for the ritual brushing of teeth, itself a bizarrely complex routine that has done little to stave off the inescapable genetic proclivity for cavities.

— Stage three led to the bedroom where pyjamas were donned and another story was read to a little boy now gaining his second wind.

— Stage four consisted of lights out and what we called ‘story at the end of the bed’, in which a thoroughly whacked out mum or dad would lie at the end of the bed and try to make up a completely original story that would somehow be interesting enough to entertain all concerned but not so exciting that it led to further wakefulness.  It was in this stage that Elliot met The Golden Crow.

For months, Elliot had insisted that every ‘story at the end of the bed’ focus on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and conclude with a celebratory feast of pizza.  I was desperate for something a little more imaginative than those dullards of contemporary mayhem could provide.  One night, out of the blue, I started a tale about The Golden Crow who lived in an imaginary tree in our backyard.  The other character in the tale was me.  Eventually we added Red Crow Boy (a young crow) and a little kid named Rusty.

For nearly two years, Elliot and I would set out on our nightly adventures, to distant planets whose ‘people’ rode around in long-stepping robots, or into our own backyard which overnight had miraculously filled with huge (“bigger than cars!”) succulent watermelons, or to the local mall where The Golden Crow and I foiled a bank robbery-in-progress.

The stories always contained heaps of the right kinds of food:  outrageous Dagwood sandwiches (no pickles — Elliot couldn’t bear even to look at such a disgusting warted beast), chocolate in all its forms (an entire chocolate world for several weeks running), and, of course, pizza.  No green beans, however.

The Golden Crow was an astute fellow, full of magical powers and unforeseen abilities.  I was Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.  I was, basically, his chauffeur (The Golden Crow didn’t drive); also, the refrigerator was in my house and since he lived in a tree in the backyard, I played an essential role.

More than anything, The Golden Crow (and I too) loved to travel.  The furthest planets were always a snap of the fingers away.  Some nights I would flick on the light a moment; Elliot would close his eyes and point at random at a globe.  The Golden Crow would transport us instantly across continents by holding his Magic Globe, closing his eyes and naming the land we wished to visit.

At age eight, Elliot began reading “chapter” books to himself with ease and confidence.  We still read to him but ‘story at the end of the bed’ has passed, along with quarterly ear infections and those nasty Ninjas who have gone back to the sewers where they belong.  Meanwhile Elliot transports himself nightly, through reading, back to the land where fish can talk and cows can hum.

Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006) won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). His most recent publication is a novel set in 13th century China, A Message for the Emperor (Vehicule, 2012).  Altogether he has published thirteen books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Visit his blog here.


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The seeds of the writing bug: guest post by Barry Grills

Happy to present yet another post in the series When Writers Read Kids’ Books. This one comes from Barry Grills, whose new memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, is just out from Freehand Books. I love what Merilyn Simonds says about the book: that it “celebrates the human need for wildness and the courage to live an authentic life.”

Here, Barry writes a post unlike any other I’ve had on the blog to date. It’s about the fact that his parents didn’t read to him when he was a child. And somehow, the writing bug persisted inside him anyway. Thank you Barry for this wonderful contribution.

I have no recollection of my parents reading to me when I was a child. In fact I am quite certain it did not happen.

My brother, a world class guitarist, discussed this with me a few months ago, when I was visiting him out west. He maintains this missing rite of youthful passage reflected a preoccupation in our household with music. Both my parents played the piano. Of an evening, visitors joined them around their old upright Heintzman and sang their hearts out after the dinner dishes were washed and put away. My brother and I had voice training when we were young enough to be sopranos. My brother’s musical gifts were on display dozens of times when our family had company. My brother and my parents and I all sang in the church choir at one time – in four-part harmony. My father was a tenor, I sang bass, my brother’s voice had not yet changed and he performed alto. My mother was a noted soprano. Except for my brother’s changing voice, I wonder if we might have formed a barbershop quartet.

My brother talked recently about how unfair this preoccupation with music must have seemed to me back then, when I was so passionate about books and being a writer. I waved his concerns away. We are what we are; a fact of which I am glad. As I write this now, I am relieved I did not have to give a reading in my parents’ living room at age fifteen, the year when I began to write stories every day after school and on weekends, in the same fashion that my brother was called upon frequently to perform a song or two. It would have felt dreadful, I think, to stand in front of glazed gazes reading deeply flawed, uncrafted work that experimented with far too much. At fifteen, my writing flipped between octaves in much the same way my singing voice had floundered a number of years earlier.

My parents gave me a few books when I was a child. Inevitably, they were little covers of popular television programs: Zorro, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers. But they did not read them to me. Later, I found my own materials to read, from friends, from teachers. I read Two Years Before The Mast at a young age, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer. In my family’s culture at the time, a varied collection of books was difficult to find and my parents weren’t motivated to persist.

So I read adult books as a child. And this, I think, is one of two things that happens when the culture of being read to doesn’t take place. First of all, one reads adult books. Second, one develops a cultural family history based on oral tradition.

Instead of reading children’s fiction and, later, young adult fiction, people who have no experience of lying in bed – the covers tucked up to their chins, someone sitting on the edge of the mattress, turning the pages of a great story that will change their lives – move quickly to adult books. The seeds of the writing bug for me were sown in the first years of my teens by novels by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Evan Hunter, Herman Wouk. Then, by the time I began to write myself, I devoured everything I could find by John Updike and Ray Bradbury. I wanted to write like John Updike because he was so wickedly clever. As for Ray Bradbury, I would ponder the beauty of his writing and wish to emulate it.

There was, though, someone who told me stories. He made his stories up. My uncle. He would build a large bonfire down on the river where he lived and sit there with my brother and me, spinning incredible yarns, as he poked endlessly at the embers, about how he survived Custer’s last stand, or how, as a private detective, he’d brought to justice a gang of truck hijackers. He would make these up on the fly; they were wonderful stories. I wrote a short story about my uncle and his stories, adding a male character in puberty who thinks he’s too old for such stories, calling the story “Waiting For Unc”. Although it was never published, an editor at a New York magazine wrote me a long letter of encouragement when I was around eighteen. And encourage me it did.

And my older son, David, who reads to my granddaughters with his wife, Rachel, most nights, reminds me that I told him and his brother stories whenever we travelled anywhere by car. My favourites were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and elements of The Aeneid. He claims he and his brother loved these stories tremendously. He remembers Agamemnon the most, because Agamemnon wouldn’t listen to the people he should, like Cassandra, for instance. And he liked the story about Discordia showing up at the wedding feast uninvited, carrying her golden apple.

I suggested Richard Adams’s Watership Down when David and I talked. His daughters, Emma and Lydia, would like it, I said. This book too began its history in print form as a story told on car trips to a young, appreciative audience.

Oral tradition. And adult materials. For me, at least, these were the kinds of stories I read and heard as a child. Sometimes I miss the children’s books I will perhaps never get to read. Then again, we are what we are.

One footnote, though. When I was in my early twenties, I managed my brother’s band for a time. I lived with some of its members in a large house where the band could also rehearse. Some nights, after everyone retired to their respective rooms for the night, one of the comedians would call out: “Bawwy, would you wead us a stowy?” Chortles, chuckles, guffaws. I would read them a story. Something like Erskine Caldwell’s “Warm River”, which is one such occasion I remember.

The musicians in the other rooms would fall asleep to an adult story. Yes, we all lived there for the music. But literature wormed its way in anyway, slipping between the notes, refusing to be shut out. Just like it did at home.

Barry Grills’ stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Quarry, Grain, and the University of Windsor Review, as well as various anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories. He is also the author of three cultural biographies from Quarry Press on the lives of Anne Murray, Alanis Morissette, and Celine Dion, as well as an updated Celine Dion biography, co-authored with Jim Brown. He is a past chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Book and Periodical Council, and he has been both a federal election candidate and a municipal councillor. He currently lives in North Bay, Ontario. His memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, has been published by Freehand Books this autumn.


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Bea and the Garden: guest post by Miranda Hill

I’m thrilled to welcome author Miranda Hill to Blog of Green Gables, continuing the series I started some time ago about when writers read kids’ books. Miranda’s collection of short stories, Sleeping Funny, is due out next week from Doubleday. Here, Miranda writes about reading through a lengthy illness with her daughter Bea. “Books had to be carefully selected, because certain dramatic episodes or oppressive situations might trigger an attack of anxiety, but stories that weren’t engaging enough would not pierce through the pain.” Thank you Miranda for sharing such a personal and powerful story.

This is a sad story. But I can tell you that it will be all right in the end.

Of course, we didn’t know that at the time.

In the wee hours of January 1, 2011, my eleven year-old daughter woke in the night, screaming with stomach pains. It was a spike up through all of our worlds. Our hospital visit that night was the first of many. Tests—blood, urine, psychological—followed. She would experience intense 3-4 hour episodes of pain that she rated on a 10 out of 10 scale. Worse, she developed chronic pain that never left her, even for a moment. That pain, and the related illness, would sculpt our lives for the next nine months.

Before that night, Bea had been the most cheerful of children. The fifth of a blended family of five kids. The only one not yet a teenager. Smart, kind, funny, buoyantly well-adjusted. She became exhausted, fearful, anxious, listless, depressed. Already a thin child, she lost weight, turned pale as her sheets, began to refuse to see more than one person a time, wept every night from dusk on, became terrified to fall asleep, spent 24 hours a day in bed and frequently had to be carried to the bathroom. It felt as if we were in some fairytale, where one child had been lifted from the bed in the night, and another child put in her place.

All that time, I was trying to finish my first book, a collection of stories called Sleeping Funny. Though the collection is not linked, or bound by any theme, there were definitely recurring tropes—among them, that of children’s stories, and the adults who read them to their kids, and why.

I have always identified myself as a reader first. It is the way I hide from the world, and the way I participate in it. When I have had painful episodes, even in labour with Bea, I have read. And so, while Bea slipped into her own pain, I read to her, too.

Books had to be carefully selected, because certain dramatic episodes or oppressive situations might trigger an attack of anxiety, but stories that weren’t engaging enough would not pierce through the pain. We reread books that had delighted her when she was younger, like Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda by Margaret Atwood and Dr. Seuss’s posthumous collaboration Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, stories that were rhythmic ad filled with the comfort of expectation for the next line and the memory of earlier, easier times. We reread books she had read on her own, like the all-time favourite The Tale of Despereaux by Kate diCamillo, a book even more beautiful read aloud and in company, than savoured silently and alone. We discovered stories that were new to us, the hilarious The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series and The Little Prince—which I had always meant to read.

The hours that we spent reading were the only thing either of us would want to remember from that sad and frightening time. They distracted us, in whatever little way they could, from the fear and frustration, the alienation that an illness, so all-encompassing, but so seemingly inexplicable, can produce. Because, despite the constant tests, there were no answers. There was a growing list of things she didn’t have (thank God), but no true diagnosis—and no cures.

How could this happen, we wondered? Neighbours wondered. Friends wondered. Doctors wondered, too. And then, some doctors seemed to suggest that it wasn’t happening at all. That maybe all of this was some sort of subconscious ruse Bea was concocting to keep herself out of school and home with mum.

Luckily, we were bolstered by friends in the health profession who continued and to work on the mystery, to try to help. And we also encountered a children’s GI specialist.

“Don’t let anyone tell you this pain isn’t real,” he said. And then he gave us his assessment: her condition had been brought on by a flu she’d recovered from weeks before her first attack of pain. It was nothing we were going to see on a test, he told us, nothing we could “prove” to anyone. And then he proscribed the only things he thought might work: pancreatic enzymes and time. It was going to take months and months for it to go away, he said, if it ever did.

It wasn’t what we wanted to hear. We wanted help. We wanted a definite cure. Mystery illnesses without tangible diagnoses seemed part of another century. We lived in a quantifiable age, a predictable—or at least explicable—time. We didn’t want to believe him. But as the weeks, then months, went by, we had to. There was nothing she could take or do that would suddenly make it all better. But she did have to get better.

“What if this is the rest of my life?” Bea asked. “What if I can’t get back to it? What if I can’t find my old self again?”

“I am not going to let that happen,” I told her. I had the determination, but absolutely no plan.

And then we were faced with a terrible truth: the sicker Bea had become, the sicker she was committed to be. Lying in bed for weeks, then months, her muscles had weakened. The time indoors, in winter, had made her ultra sensitive to light and to noises. Fears and psychological troubles, though not the cause of the illness, had been its virulent byproduct, fed by isolation, drug side effects, and exhaustion from the pain itself.

My husband and I made a difficult choice: if pain was going to be Bea’s life, she still needed to have a life. She had to get up. She had to get back to the world. Even if it hurt terribly to do so.

We set a date. We told Bea that she would return to school on a part-time basis for the third term. A class here, a class there, worked around doctor’s appointments, counseling appointments, and rest.

Bea was horrified. She saw our decision as a complete betrayal. Did it mean that we, too, doubted her pain? That we had been turned? There were additional tears, there were deeper, longer silences. Only now, the tears and silences were directed at me. I had been her ally, and I had forsaken her. The only time we didn’t argue or smoulder with sadness, was when we read.

In the last days before she went to back to school, I was searching Bea’s shelf for a new book to read. Like Bea, I saw something slipping away, a trust between us, that pocket of comfort that we had been able to find together, when everything else seemed hostile or hopeless. And in the last few days alone together, I wanted to provide things that I had always meant to give her, treasured parts of some classic childhood that perhaps no child ever has. That’s when I found The Secret Garden.

It had been sitting on her shelf for years, in several editions—a large, beautifully illustrated hardcover, a couple of abridged versions given as not-well-thought-out presents by people who had underestimated Bea’s reading ability, and my old copy from childhood. But she had never read it, with me or alone.

I doubted my choice almost as soon as we began to read. This was hardly a comforting tale to round out our months of 24-hour togetherness. I had forgotten the horrible scene (astoundingly well-realized) of Mary being forgotten, left behind as her British parents and the whole household of Indian servants dies of cholera. Then there was the racism (always to be navigated in these classics, but so quickly noted by Bea that it need not be explained by me) and the blatant disregard for the orphaned Mary, when she arrives at her new, Yorkshire home. What had I been thinking?

And then we came to Colin: the boy invalid who shuts himself away, convinced by doctors and by himself that he will die. He is sad and angry, unable to walk far without a wheelchair. His ailments are legion, and pretty much unexplained.

In my earlier reads of the book, I had loved the story of the garden, its magic and its secrets, giving little thought to Colin and his story. I had dismissed his condition as a typical, old-fashioned misdiagnosis or a dramatic feint, something that was the province of dusty manor houses and charlatan doctors, afraid to open a window lest something come in on the draft. But lying there beside my own, sudden-invalid child, I read the story differently. I added my own, raw experience to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s compassion and insight, and found something timeless. It wasn’t just the intensity or the name of the disease that made it dangerous, it was how illness could trap a person inside it, so that it seemed impossible to escape.

Tucked in beside me, Bea had had her own epiphany. “I know how Colin feels,” Bea said. Her voice was quiet, but purposeful. “The longer you are sick, the less you want to get well.”

I will not tell you that Bea jumped out of bed and ran around the house. She did not shrug off the illness, anxiety and depression immediately. She couldn’t. There was still too far to go. But, from that moment, it seemed as if she and I had reached a new understanding between us. Maybe we both were able to go from wishing that things would change, to believing that they could. Because as Colin got better, Bea started to, as well.

And in much the same way. Inside, we chased the light around the house, finding the brighter corners. Bea began taking charge of decisions about her health, opting for facing down pain. When the last round of pharmaceuticals produced more negative psychological side effects, she noticed instantly and refused to take more. She worked to develop techniques for falling asleep on her own. She went from crying when forced to go outside and down the street to walking around the block, hesitantly at first, and then with purpose. On one difficult day, a small walk turned into an excursion of many metres, in which we circled around and around under the cherry trees in our neighbourhood park, staying out, at Bea’s insistence, just a little bit longer. “It’s so beautiful,” Bea said. “You don’t want to look, but it’s so beautiful that you have to.”

And over the next many months, she got better. It was that complicated. It was that simple.

Bea is 13 now. She has gained back the weight she lost, and then some. She has grown a couple of inches. She goes out of the house to school and sleepovers and camp and hardly ever pauses to ask, nervously, if I will be there when she gets back.

I rarely read to her anymore, but often she will seek me out in the kitchen or myoffice to read to me a particularly good line she’s found in one of the books she is reading on her own. When I was doing a final rewrite on one of my stories for my book, I read it aloud to her, and took her edits. She is a girl who has come to believe in light, natural beauty and time for quiet and reflection. She has grown even more sympathetic and empathetic. And I think she will always believe in the power of a good story. As I do. Now, more than ever.

Miranda Hill’s debut story collection, Sleeping Funny, comes out September 18 from Doubleday Canada. Her stories have previously appeared in Reader’s Digest, The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review, and in 2011 she won The Writers’ Trust / McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story, “Petitions to Saint Chronic.”

Hill is also the founder and executive director of the Canadian charity Project Bookmark Canada. She lives, writes and works in Hamilton, Ontario.


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Guest post by Shari Lapena: raising an excellent (dyslexic) reader

Yet another guest post for When Writers Read Kids’ Books — #8 by my count. Please welcome Shari Lapeña, whose most recent book, Happiness Economics, was nominated for the 2012 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Shari commented on the blog a while back, and mentioned the challenge of teaching her dyslexic son to read. I asked her to do a post on that topic, and she graciously accepted. Shari writes:

As new parents, we are always urged to read to our children twenty minutes a day. I always read much more than that to my kids, starting in infancy, and as it happened, it was a good thing, because my first child turned out to be dyslexic. It was a struggle to get him to learn to read, but by the time he was in grade five, he’d become an excellent, above-grade, reader. I thought I’d share a bit of that journey, because sometimes you need to do much more to turn a child into a reader than read with him twenty minutes a day and send him to school.

I think all children have a natural need for stories. And I worry that if you let children watch TV and use the computer at too young an age, then they will have their natural desire for stories filled by these other media, and a window might close. The chance to cultivate a great reader may slip by. Reading is an essential skill and also a great pleasure.  Not only that, I believe that reading fiction is a very good way to encourage empathy. What is reading but experiencing the world through someone else’s point of view?

I’m no expert, I’m just a mum who has always been an avid reader and is also a fiction writer, but I thought I’d share a bit of what it was like when my kids were learning to read. My sense of it was that most kids picked up reading pretty naturally—this letter makes this sound, you sound things out.  This is phonics, which isn’t necessarily taught that systematically in school. Some schools use the whole language approach, where there’s a word wall of high frequency words, and you start to recognize whole words.  Most use a bit of both. Kids seem to pick it up by osmosis. This worked fine for my daughter. But for some kids, this just isn’t enough. I have to admit that by grade three I hired an expert for my son. I simply didn’t have the skills to teach him to read. He loved stories, he loved being read to, but he needed more expertise than what I could provide. His tutor used the Orton-Gillingham method, and he learned to read, and read well. He still can’t spell. But I tell him that’s what spell checker is for.

Along the journey of learning to read, and after, it was important to find books that really captured his imagination. I think I owe my life to Dav Pilkey, Rick Riordan, and J.K. Rowling. I think they’ve probably done more to get boys to read than anyone.

“…when I find out that I’ve inspired a kid to write and draw, I feel like I’m passing the torch in a way. My dream is that a bunch of kids who were inspired by my books will grow up to be great artists and writers and filmmakers. I’d love to have as big an impact on a kid’s life as Charles M. Schulz and Ernie Bushmiller and Arnold Lobel had on mine.” Dav Pilkey in Publishers Weekly, August 2010.

I resisted reading Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books for a while, thinking it was all potty humour. But I was wrong. The books are creative, clever, and highly entertaining. They were hugely appealing to my son and my daughter—and to me. And the best thing—Dav Pilkey is dyslexic too! That’s why George and Harold spell that way. Which is something my son really enjoyed, although I had to point out a lot of the spelling mistakes to him, because to a dyslexic, “he acksidentelly dropped the majic amyoulet” looks just fine.

My son became a huge Rick Riordan fan.  He read all the Percy Jackson books, The 39 Clues (even the ones not written by Rick Riordan), The Kane Chronicles, the companion volumes, everything he could get his hands on. He couldn’t get enough of Rick Riordan.

So I took my son to see Rick Riordan when he was releasing his new novel, The Son of Neptune, at Chapters in Yorkdale Mall. The line up was a couple of thousand people long. There were security personnel. It was madness. There were actors floating around dressed as Greek gods, in gold paint.  We waited at least two hours in line for our chance to meet Rick Riordan and have him sign our copy of his latest book. But my son was happy to do it—he sat down in line and started reading the long-awaited book. I stood in line with my girlfriend and her two sons, also huge fans.

I don’t know what was more exciting for me—seeing hundreds upon hundreds of kids, mostly boys, so excited about a book, or seeing an author actually selling books and making money.  When we finally got to the front of the line, I said to Mr Riordan, pointing proudly to my son, “He’s dyslexic!”  And Rick, bless him, said, “Ah, a young demigod!”  I was impressed. My son was thrilled. (For those of you unfamiliar, the hero Percy Jackson is dyslexic and has ADHD; he is a demigod who derives his powers from his dyslexia and ADHD.)

Both my kids read and re-read all the Harry Potter books many times. I don’t need to say more about the tremendous effect they have had on kids’ reading everywhere. I still have straw brooms in my closet that I got one Halloween at Value Village. The kids wrote on them in black magic marker:  Firebolt, Nimbus 2000. I had my Swiffer 9000. We played quidditch on the front lawn.

But there’s another series I must mention—the Simon Bloom series by Michael Reisman.  Now, these are probably my son’s most favourite books of all. They are funny, action-packed books about physics. There are only two of them. My son kept pestering me to email the author and find out when the next book was coming. So I found him through his website and learned that although book three is written, he has been dropped by his publisher (despite a movie deal for the first book!) so this tells you how tough it is out there in publishing, but I digress.

My son would LOVE to have that book, so here’s hoping it finds a publisher soon. Perhaps I should email Bill Nye, the Science Guy, to get him on board. There’s an idea—he would probably support funny, action-packed books about physics.

I’ve spoken mostly about my son, because he is dyslexic, and because boys are sometimes seen as more of a challenge when it comes to reading, especially when they hit a certain age, at about grade 7, when reading may not be viewed as “cool”. (Thank goodness, then, for The Hunger Games—which I’m supposed to be reading for my book club next week, but which my son has now swiped—because I think it’s seen as “cool.”)  But my daughter is a huge reader as well, and loves horse books, especially the Canterwood Crest series by Jessica Burkhart. She also adores the Magic in Manhattan series by Sarah Mlynowski.

There’s lots of excitement building in our house these days, because a new title from Rick Riordan—The Serpent’s Shadowand a new Jessica Burkhart—Popular—are being released—on the same day! The kids can’t wait!

It’s important not just to teach kids to read, but to keep kids reading—it’s not something you put twenty minutes a day into when they’re little and then think your part is done. Keep looking for books they’ll love, and do them the favour of making them lifelong readers. It will make it a bit easier to keep them off the computer.

And make friends with your local librarians and booksellers—they know what kids are into, and because you’re a parent, your kids probably don’t think you’re very hip.

photo of ShariShari Lapeña worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers, where her mentor was David Adams Richards. Her first novel, Things Go Flying, was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunburst Award. She won the Globe and Mail’s Great Toronto Literary Project contest, and was shortlisted for the 2006CBC Literary Awards. Her second novel, Happiness Economics, was published in September, 2011. She lives in Toronto and is currently at work on her third novel.


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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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Building a library: guest post by Shannon Anderson

Part 6 of a growing series on Blog of Green Gables, When Writers Read Kids’ Books. Writer, curator and editor, Shannon Anderson, tells us how she goes about building a library (and hopefully a love of books) for her daughter D. I’m curious to know how others choose what lines the bookshelves for young readers?

Shannon writes:

The Music Library, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi

There was a moment, when my daughter was about two-and-a-half, when I discovered that she was quite capable of listening to books that were much longer than the ones we had been reading together. We immediately set off to the library to borrow some books with more elaborate tales; with pages that unfolded in paragraphs, rather than sentences. It wasn’t long ago that she was eagerly fingering the next page of our book, pushing me to speed along. Now, the pace has slowed considerably as she takes in these longer stories, peppering them with all manner of questions and concerns.

I’m learning to approach D’s education in books as a constantly (and sometimes rapidly!) evolving process. I try to think a few steps ahead, consciously testing the waters sometimes, while keeping a few books ready-at-the-waiting for her next leap in interest. Like most people reading this blog, I’ve always been an avid reader and it’s something I’m eager to pass along to my daughter. But I suspect that all I can do is provide the best possible conditions and surroundings for encouraging her interest in reading and hope for the best. To that end, I’m currently pursuing two types of book collections: one geared toward discovery, and one that’s a little more selective.

There’s a picture of me and my dad, taken when I was about two months old. My dad has propped me up on the couch with him to read, and I’m utterly engrossed in Normal Thelwell’s The Effluent Society. By all appearances, it looks as though I’m engaged in some kind of environmental text (and that’s how we often joked about the photo in our household), but in actuality it’s a book of cartoons on the hazards of industrial progress. So, it was likely the pictures that grabbed my interest more than anything else. In any case, it’s a photograph I’ve always loved, and it has new meaning for me now as a reminder that it’s worth having all manner of books lying around the house for burgeoning readers to discover, whether or not they can be readily understood. I wonder if part of developing a love of books comes from simply being around them – having them lying around for casually flipping through their mysterious pages and strange illustrations and trying to figure out just what you’ve got in front of you.

So, I’ve been looking at our own bookshelves with different eyes lately. To be honest, our collection is not all that extensive – I’ve always been more of a library borrower than a buyer, at least when it comes to fiction. But the other day, I came across a perfect copy of Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock in the small stack of books for sale at our local library, and decided to place a loony in the metal box and take it home to add to our bookshelves. While it was a book I had enjoyed reading a few years ago, my real reason for buying it was for its intricate illustrations and creative format, which incorporates envelopes and letters. I imagined D might enjoy discovering it during a future scouring of our bookshelves.

My daughter is only three years old, but it seems a love of books can happen pretty quickly, so I’m trying to think about the future. The second book collection I’m working on is a little more formal, and definitely still very small. Each year for D’s birthday, I’ve decided to acquire a new book to add to a small library, signed by the author and inscribed to her. The collection didn’t quite start this way – her first birthday consisted of a signed limited edition book I found in a design store – Hanna by Katherine Morley – but it got me thinking about creating a personalized collection that grew by a book a year.

And just before D’s second birthday, I found out that Salman Rushdie was going to be in town for a reading and signing of Luka and the Fire of Life. Not exactly an early-reader kind of book, but it is intended in part for younger audiences, so I was sold. I won’t pretend it was all about my daughter – as one of my all-time favourite authors, meeting Rushdie was on my bucket list and listening to him read in person was a remarkable experience. But I enjoyed having the added mission of getting the book inscribed for D. And last year, when her third birthday was coming up, it only took a few minutes of searching the internet to discover that Margaret Atwood was doing a book signing in a couple of weeks time. And so I got to meet another favourite author, while at the same time having her inscribe a copy of Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda. This time I was a little bolder – the inscription reads: “To D on her third birthday.”

I like the idea of creating some kind of connection between me, an author and my daughter. Maybe when she’s older, D and I can choose her birthday book and attend the signings together. Right now, the collection is only in its infancy, and it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, but I suppose that’s how most collections begin. If I raise a daughter who’s not so interested in books, so be it, but each year I’m looking forward to being reminded that fostering a love of reading for someone else is an ongoing endeavour.

Shannon Anderson is an independent writer, curator and editor who works mainly with contemporary art and culture. She has curated exhibitions and written essays for galleries across Canada, and has contributed to various art magazines including Art Papers, DesignLines, Canadian Art and C Magazine. She also assists artists with writing about their work, and has edited publications on everything from heritage quilts to performance art. She lives in Oakville, Ontario with her husband and daughter, and they are looking forward to welcoming a new baby this July. Plans for an additional book collection are underway! Visit her website: www.shannonjanderson.com.


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