Loving Bedtime Stories (or Maybe Something Else)

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I’m a diehard for bedtime stories.  It’s a rare night when they’re missed in our house, and that’s usually because we’re coming home really late from some outside adventure, and kids are either asleep or so tired they might as well be.  I’ll fight for this window of storytime against competing needs, and I’m not the only one.  My boys are mystified if something interferes with their stories, and I’ve discovered that even if it really isn’t the right time for a bedtime story, it’s often the path of least resistance to sleep to just read a quick one – just scratch the itch – and then settle everyone into bed.

It’s nice to now that bedtime stories are supposedly good for children in many ways, but I can tell you that the ritual at our house is based on pleasure – mine as much as the boys.  I have three very energetic sons, but they settle quietly right into me during storytime in bed and listen to all kinds of stories, even when the boys are quite a distance for the target audience (our age ranges from 3 to 8).  I love it.

Reading up on bedtime stories for this week’s conversation here at 4Mothers, I felt like I should have been really enthusiastic that our nighttime reading ritual is so highly touted by the experts as producing smarter, more intuitive, more attached, more imaginative children.  Maybe it’s my mood, and maybe I’m prickly, but it kind of got my back up.  It somehow struck me as another might-as-well-be-mandatory requirement of parents, one of those tangible ways we can prove how good we are at parenting, and we do.

But there are so many kinds of parents out there, and so many kinds of parenting.  In university I volunteered with an organization that tutored adults who couldn’t read and write well for any number of reasons – learning disabilities, falling through the cracks at school, surviving much bigger life issues than literacy.  I remember one student was a tall, good-looking musician whose young son was reading better than he could, and the father sought literacy tutoring in hopes of sharing more of his son’s life.  Improving literacy skills as an adult is usually a long process that takes a lot of dedicated time, and I don’t know how far this student got; it’s quite likely that he wouldn’t have been able to match pace with the learning of a young child for whom reading comes easily.

That father may not be reading bedtime stories to his child but I think there’s every chance he’s an ace father.  I just feel like giving a shout-out to him and other parents who don’t read their kids bedtime stories (even if they are literate to the nines), in case they’re feeling down about it.  Because maybe you do other things instead.  Maybe you run with them everyday instead, or drive two hours on the weekend to make sure they know their grandparents.  Maybe you have a long fuse, or you’ve got a short fuse but you’re working on it.  Maybe you have a quiet understanding with your child that she is loved completely.

Books and bedtime are so amazing – I love them so much.  I just want to make sure that love isn’t pushing anyone else around, because it’s a big, beautiful world out there, and books are just one part of it.

Talking About Bedtime Stories

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Given that November on 4Mothers revolves loosely around the theme of sleep, it was  easy for us to decide upon a theme for this week – we’ll all be writing about bedtime stories.

Do you engage in this nighttime ritual?  Proponents can’t say enough about the benefits of bedtime stories, but not everyone does it.  Parents and children reading together at the close of day has a special place in many hearts, although it’s so easy to imagine other beautiful nighttime practices – I remember feeling breathless when Judy Collins lovingly recounted at a Unique Lives event that when she was a girl, her father would sing her to sleep every night.

So what is the magic of bedtime stories?  Is it the togetherness or the stories or the brainy-ness or just the do-ableness of it?  Do you do something altogether different that works better for your family?

Were you read to as a child, and do you read to your children now?  What are your favourite bedtime reads, when you were young, and now that you’re not so young anymore?  This and more this week at 4Mothers.  Stay tuned.

Transport To a New Place

imgresThere is no refuting the overwhelming evidence that a solid early literacy foundation translates to greater successes later in life but yet I have heard from parents that it is difficult to find the time to read to their school-aged children.

It’s true that when our young school aged children are often tired when they get home from school, finish off their homework and attend their various activities but there is inherent value of being read to.

About a year ago, Marcelle introduced me to the series Canadian Flyer by Frieda Wishinsky (similar to The Magic Treehouse series but the emphasis is on Canadian history).  This Christmas, I gifted to my boys the first in the series, Pirates Beware! We have since devoured several books in the series.

The boys sat and listened as I read them chapter after chapter.  Their attention did not wane from the first word that I read to the time that I closed the book.

Finding the time to dedicate to read each night did not prove to be inconvenient.  In fact the boys and I look forward to each night discovering what our “friends” are up to.

As the boys grow confident in their own ability to read, they enjoy being read to even more than when they were toddlers holding board books.  Now they can sit and listen for longer periods of time and while they enjoy looking at the occasional illustration peppered throughout an early novel, they are just as content to let their imagination do the creating for them.

Literacy is about more than simply reading, it also encompasses comprehension (understanding what the story is about) and inferencing (thinking about what will happen next, how characters were feeling, why characters may have acted in a certain way, etc.).

I like to engage my boys while I am reading to them.  I ask questions:

–       What do you think will happen next?

–       Why do you think she acted that way?

–       Has anything like that ever happened to you?

–       What a would you do if you were in his shoes?

At the end of each chapter, I ask them the 3 R’s:

  1. To Retell what happened.
  2. To think of how they are able to Relate to what the characters experienced.
  3. To Reflect on what happen and suggest what may happen next, or why something happened the way that it did – make a connection.

The Three R’s of Writing

To take it steps further consider your child’s interests.  My oldest enjoys drawing.  After I have finished reading aloud a chapter book, he writes a reflective sentence about the book (maybe something he learned) and draws a picture to accompany the sentence.  Then he stores the page in a binder.  This binder is a fantastic tool to have on hand for when grandparents or friends come visiting.  Your child can proudly share and retell the story with grandma the stories he has been enjoying through the reflection pages that he has completed.

If your child is more like my other son and prefers the computer to a paint set, why not engage his interest?  We keep a list of interesting facts or tidbits as we read through the book (e.g. pirates got scurvy) and once the novel is complete we take our list to the Internet and further research those interesting facts.

He looked up pictures of scurvy and maps of the Canadian Arctic, discovered that Captain Frobisher looked nothing like what he’d imagined!  There is a plethora of fantastic kids websites that do a fantastic job of integrating technology with history thereby creating a fun and engaging way to learn about the past.

Always remember that reading should be a transformative experience.  For those hours spent deeply engaged in a story, your child has the chance to escape their reality and virtually experience something different without the use of screens, remotes or controllers but through the power of the written word and the imagination.

Resources worth checking out:

Kidspace

Turtle and Robot (fantastic suggestions – I have raved about them before)

The Canadian Children’s Book Centre

Guys Read

Educating Alice

Being with The Littles… Again

It’s trite but true:  one of the joys of parenting is rediscovering your own childhood pleasures.  So it was one day when I was perusing a rack of sale books at the library and came across The Littles and the Big Storm by John Peterson.  I clutched it to me, and was immediately transported to the wire display racks at my elementary school library where I searched out these books.  It even brought to me warm memories of Mr. Sullivan, the librarian.

The Littles is a series of chapter books that feature a family of miniature people who live in the walls of The Biggs, who are normal-sized people.  The Littles are just like people, except that they sport tails and that their tallest member is just six inches tall.  They live in harmony with and often to the benefit of the Biggs, even though the Biggs don’t realize it.  With children Tom and Lucy leading the adventures, the Littles use their ingenuity to survive, with regular appearances of contraptions such as a soup can elevator and rafts made from the Lincoln Log toys belonging to the Biggs’ son.

I loved these books as a child for some of the same reasons I like them as an adult:  they are exciting, it’s interesting to envision life from the miniature perspective, the Littles children are clever and brave, and they’re just plain good fun.

I know there are other chapter books that would fit this bill, but I particularly like The Littles at this stage of life because they’re accessible reading for sensitive children.   I have a child who has the attention span and imagination that could lead him through the many chapter book plots, but he’s sometimes frightened or upset enough by what he’s hearing that he doesn’t want to continue. The Littles is nice for kids like him because they can experience the trials of the Littles without feeling too vulnerable.  They can engage a breathless encounter with the Littles’ mortal enemy, a mouse – complete with toothpick spears and sewing needle swords – without feeling in over their heads since they can always pull back and identify with a Bigg.

But I’d love to expand my horizons.  If you know of other early chapter books that are friendly to the sensitive reader, or just have favourites that I can bookmark for later, I’d be grateful to know of them.

The Chapter Book: A Reading Milestone

Like many parents who really want their children to enjoy the pleasures of the word, I spend a good bit of energy reading to my boys and trying to make it fun and meaningful.  Sometimes this just requires not being oblivious to the shoo-in interests like fire engines, but sometimes it means unearthing the kids’ less obvious curiosities while identifying story features that they like or dislike. 

So I’ll notice that my kids enjoy stories that present monkeys or opportunities to break into song.  And I watch for that slight shift in my older son’s manner, feeling as much as seeing how deeply affected he can be by an angry expression or frightening scene, and modify accordingly my firewall for deferring such material for when he is better able to moderate its effects.

Given the subtleties that can accompany this parental literary exercise, I was rather surprised when I recently asked my older son what he liked about a particular story, and the answer he gave was “Long pages”.  Although I routinely read stories to Sam that are “recommended” by the publisher for older children, I just hadn’t thought that he might like stories with… lots of words on a page.

“Long pages” thus sent me on a hunt for chapter books earlier than I expected.  Although I had been keeping tabs on chapter book suggestions gleaned here and there, the stories I had noted contained content that was overly mature for my just-turned four year old boy. 

Instead of turning to the computer to find more possibilities, I looked over our existing stash more carefully and found Down Tumbledown Mountain by Elisabeth Coatsworth, written in 1958.  Apparently Coatsworth was a prolific writer and winner of the Newbery Medal, but I didn’t know that when I happened upon the worn hardcover at the fun fair of my son’s future school.  Mostly I picked it up because I liked the cover (so green!) and its illustration. 

Well, I love this book, and luckily so does Sam.  There are 13 chapters, and the first time we read it, which took about 40 minutes, it comfortably held Sam’s attention throughout.  Most of the two-page spreads contain an illustration, and Sam quickly learned to settle in and wait through the few that had none. 

The story recounts the adventures of a boy named Randall as he rides a mule down the mountain where he lives, to reach the miller who will grind the corn his mother needs to make for corn bread for dinner that evening. 

What’s special about it?  The closeness between the mother and her son, mostly, and how it’s communicated gently and without saccharine mush.   Early in the story, while Randall’s mother tells him about all the “pretty things” he’ll see on his trip, Randall realizes that his mother wishes to go down the mountain herself.  He suggests that she ride the mule ahead of him down the path.  But his mother has many chores; she can’t go.  Randall then commits to do for her the most that he can:  “I’ll remember every pretty thing I see and tell you about it when I get home, Ma.”

Most of the remaining chapters each outline one of the ten things Randall wants to relay to his mother.  Using each of his fingers to help him remember, Randall’s offerings span from some pretty birdsong (Randall can see the bird’s throat shaking), to joining the neighbours who dance to a fiddle to get the stiffness out of their backs from working their fields all day, to news of a road construction that will lessen his family’s isolation on the mountain.

I love the simplicity of the book, and its depiction of a way of life so different and more difficult than our own.  I love that Randall finds pleasure and a place for both the small and big pieces of news he will bring back to his mother, and that his ways of seeing are informed by her presence and the slower pace of their lives. 

And, of course, I love the book because it’s my first chapter book with Sam.  It wasn’t an especially intentional selection, but it has panned out beautifully.

One unexpected windfall is that Sam has been learning to count using his fingers along with Randall who uses them to spur his memory.  And!  We get to break into song throughout the story – verses of “The Swapping Song” are peppered throughout the book, and reproduced with a musical score at the book’s end.

So much of the current literature on parenting revolves around what feels like a false dichotomy between the independence and dependence of children.  To me, the real magic rides along with Randall down Tumbledown Mountain, in the easy interdependence of a loving family.   

Do you remember the first chapter book you read to your child?  What chapter books would you recommend?

 ~

This post also appears at http://thekingsandi.wordpress.com.