The Book Shelf, or, Why Reading Aloud Really, Really Matters

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 I am sitting in my daughter’s room, staring at the book shelf.  The room is organized, colorful and quiet, as are the books, a perfect reflection of her personality and charm.  (Her godmother described her as “a quiet spirit with the eye of a tiger.”)  On the top of the shelf are toys from Vietnam, revealing her heritage.. Her high school graduation cap and diploma rest lopsidedly on top of books, and there is a photograph I adore.   She is barely 6, and is with 13 other dark-eyed, dark-haired Vietnamese children, all sporting green tee shirts that say “Vietnamese Heritage Camp.”  She was sick the entire time we were at that camp in the Rockies, yet she is smiling as if there is no other place she would rather be.  

I am sitting here, staring at the book shelf, and reflecting on 20 years so quickly gone by and so connected to what is on that shelf. 

She is not here because she is beinning a semester of study at the American University in Aix-en-Provence.  It is not the first time we have been separated.  She traveled with her choir to New Orleans and Chicago, and she attended language camp for 3 summers in Bemidji, Minnesota.  She’s in her 3rd semester at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA.  For all those journeys I remained in Bend, OR.  On the day before she left we tried to reassure ourselves by saying, “It’s the same as if I was at PLU and we just don’t get to have spring break together.”  “We have Whatsapp, Skype, Messenger, Hangouts–we’ll be in touch a lot.”  “This is good practice for when I join the Peace Corps.”  “Four months isn’t that long.”  

Poppycock.  It was all baloney and poppycock.  She’s in FRANCE!  You know, on the other side of the Atlantic, in tthe home of wine, sexy men with sexy accents, and scarves.  Well, OK, the scarves are fine, but….

So, here I am, in her room, holding myself together, and remembering the years before.  As it is in so much of my life, books are part of the story.  Specifically, reading aloud, every night, including just two nights ago when I read from Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  The length and intensity of what I read aloud has changed over the years, but not the importance to us, nor the setting.  On a bed, hers when she was young, then mine.  Sometimes a cat curled between us.  At least half an hour of sharing words and emotions.  Twenty years.  And it’s all here on her book shelf.  

I read and sang to her from the first day I received her in Hanoi. (That experience will be another blog for another day)  She snuggled in my lap from the start, more than willing to stay for another book and another and another.  Guess How Much I Love You was an immediate favorite, and to this day “I love you to the moon and back,” says it all.  Later, celebrating the full moon became a tradition, and I would drive us to an open meadow, we’d climb up on the hood of the car, and sing every song we could think of that had the word “moon” in it.  “I see the moon and the moon sees me/Shining down from the old oak tree./Please let the light that shines on me/Shine on the one I love.”  When she left for France I gave her a small silver disk to tuck into her purse.  On one side are the words “I love you to the moon”, and an engraving of a moon and star on the other. I believe it is no coincidence that on this first weekend so far apart there will be a super blood full moon.  We will share the moon, no matter how many planes and time changes there are between us.

Along the way of parenting we establish family traditions.  It might be singing a particular song while hiking, or allowing the birthday child to choose what’s for dinner, even if it’s pancakes with chocolate syrup and spaghetti.  Books brought up traditions naturally for us, leading to those full moon drives as well as certain phrases shared, such as Winnie the Pooh’s,  “Let’s have a smackerel of something,” and keeping a basket of Christmas picture books under the Christmas tree, which we still read aloud, one per night of December.

Two others that required repeated readings were Sleepytime Rhyme by Remy Charlip, and A, You’re Adorable, words by Buddy Kaye Fred Wise, and Sidney Lippman, and illustrated by Martha Alexander.  Both of them I sang, making up a tune for Charlip’s gentle reminder of unconditional, everlasting love between parent and child.  Alexander’s detailed illustrations of multi-ethnic children required long, careful observations to find the kittens, identify the alphabet letters, and enjoy the many ways the children find to play with everything from balloons to tricycles.  I’m sure by today’s standards of awareness there is stereotyping in at least one of the pictures, but we focused on the fact that the children were of different skin colors, an important fact I made sure she understood as she grew more conscious of the fact that her skin is not the same as her mother’s.

Speaking of ethnicity, another book that deeply resonated with my daughter was Aki and the Fox by Akiko Hayashi.  I doubt that many people know this quiet gem, and I’m sure it’s out of print.  But the Japanese child and her adorable fox, clad in striped overalls and bright red shirt, attached themselves to my daughter’s heart.  Little Aki, the girl, and Kon, the fox, travel alone (!) on a train to visit Grandmother, and there is tension when Kon is briefly lost but quickly found, sporting a smashed tail.  Then he is grabbed by a dog who buries him in the sand dunes.   Aki rescues him and carries him to Grandmother, listening to his self-reassuring murmurs of, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”  Aki looks very much like my daughter at the age when we shared this treasure, and as many times as we read it she was always greatly relieved when Kon was back in Aki’s arms, and both were embraced in Grandmother’s arms. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” was another repeating phrase we shared whenever life was wonky, and I find myself repeating it now, in the emptiness of her room.

Many books brought us laughter.  Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One by Kate Duke features adorable mice, the most adorable of which is timid Penelope.  She helps her Aunt make up stories, correcting her with, “That’s too scary!,” or “I think we should leave that Problem part out.”  Papa’s Song by Kate and Jim McMullan is all about a baby bear who is not at all interested in going to sleep, so each family member takes a turn at making up a lullaby to lull him into closing his eyes.  “I’m your mama, up since dawn./How I wish that you would yawn.”  For some unexplainable reason, a photo of a boy in Picture Dictionary, written by Jennifer Boudart, Brian Conway and Lisa Harkrader, sent my daughter into gales of giggles.  To me, it’s just a boy in jeans and yellow pullover, his arm extended up, but for her it was a guarantee of hilarity.  By far the best for laughs and a few winks was one called When Mommy Was Mad by Lynne Jonell.  Yes, indeed, I am human, and I had my moments.  Single parent, working full time, blah, blah, blah.  This book helped both of us see that even mommies can be unhappy, lose their temper, and be too tired even to snuggle.  What they need is a good “bork,” which amounts to being bumped by your child while saying “bork.”  In case you’re wondering, it works.  It brings a laugh.  My daughter and I know this, first hand.  .

We read fairy tales.  No Disney!  Those are fine for movies, but the real story of Rapunzel  or Sleeping Beauty is so much more powerful, and the intensity and lessons learned in the traditional folk tales is so much more important than singing to blue birds..  Her favorites were the ones illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and we both agreed we’d happily be kissed awake by the the handsome, rugged prince in Snow White.  

We never read an eBook. Reading aloud requires cuddling with a real book with real pages to turn and illustrations to touch, and, yes, pages to smell. (you knew I was going to say that)  When a child says, “What do lizards eat?” or “Why were Cinderella’s sisters so mean?”, it means a trip to the library.  The child will soon learn that answers are found in reading.

Jane Dyer is a favorite illustrator of ours.  Lush with details and rich with colors, every book is a treasure to explore.  Oh My Baby, Little One helped with conversations about why I had to leave each day to work at the library.  Time for Bed is a melodious spoken lullaby among animals preparing their young ones for sleep and she loved all the different voices I used, from hissy snake to squeaky mouse.  And ​I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, well, that one deserves a blog of its own for those of you lucky enough to be adoptive parents.  Suffice it to say there is no other book that resonated with us so deeply as we navigated the troublesome waters of understanding what adoption means.

As a librarian, I often hear from an exasperated parent, “I just can’t read Green Eggs and Ham again but he wants it every night.  It’s so–so–so–.”  Yeah, I know.  But here’s what you need to do.  Read it again.  And again.  And again.  Something about that book resonates with your child and that will lead him to loving books and wanting to learn to read.  Pick other books, too, but keep reading the annoying–uhm–catchy and repetitive phrases of Sam I am.

It was my mother who read aloud Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  When I was out of town for a conference she took care of my daughter, and they would sit on the couch for hours, Bobby the blanket firmly held in my daughter’s hands, and Mom reading aloud to their hearts’ content.  When I was considering purchasing a house in the forest, and took Jamie Rose to see it, she immediately spied the green shutters and white siding, saying, “Ït’s Green Gables!”   We bought the house.

My daughter grew up, of course.  So then I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, (loved it) and The Great Gatsby (hated it), and A Separate Peace by John Knowles (pondered it).  Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner captivated her and led to her reading all his others.  Like almost anyone who is breathing, we read all the Harry Potter books.  Twice.  I finished the second round when she finished high school, and then read the playscript, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, while camping that summer.  I really had to temper down my usual array of voices and drama in respect to others in tents not so far away.  We’ve watched the movies more times than need to be counted, we’ve been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and we could easily read all 4,400 pages a third time.  Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for giving the world these books that have brought delight to more people of all ages than any other book I’ve known in my 40 years as a librarian. 

So many parents think that once a child can read on his own they should stop reading aloud.  In a word–WRONG!  Reading aloud to a middle school child can lead to profound discussions about bullying or peer pressure.  Reading aloud to a high school child can lead to her sharing thoughts or experiences she might never have shared otherwise.  And reading aloud to a college student, the night before she leaves the country and will never be quite the same again, gives you the place and time to be together the way it’s always been, the way that ended each day and left imprints of bonding never to be broken and memories never to be forgotten.

She’s sleeping now, on the other side of the Atlantic.  She has so much ahead of her to experience, from climbing Montagne Sainte-Victoire with the other new students, to learning about the immigration experience in Europe.  To say nothing of being immersed in French.  Ooh-la-la!  (She’s already fluent in Spanish, this child of mine who wants to make a difference in the world.) She will read alone, at night, as will I.  But we’ll share the same moon, and the same memories of me saying, “Go get what you want tonight from your book shelf.” And off she’d scamper, running back into bed, snuggling under the blankets, and handing me the books that would fill us with wonder and love.  

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