As part of Share a Story - Shape a Future's carnival, my initial plan was to interview my first grade daughter about reading with her, and what it meant to her. And while I thought that would be super-cute, with mentions of cuddle time and all, it wouldn’t necessarily address the three big issues I’ve had to face about being a father who reads with his daughter. So dispensing with cute, here’s the important stuff you need to know:
1. You Gotta Get Over Your Sparkle-Fairy-Pixie-Dust-Pink-Glitter Allergy
Okay, I may be a gay man, but I admit it: I don’t particularly gravitate towards reading “girly” books. Sparkles on the cover do NOT draw me in. I like adventure stories, fantasy, sci fi, spy novels, James Bond, and the heroism of regular kids... I would never choose to read the chapter book series my daughter really grooves on. Like the SERIES of seven books about these two young girls helping seven fairies collect seven magic feathers for a magic rooster so he can better control the weather in a magic fairy land...
But my kid LOVES those books with a passion. So I get over it – and like a real man, I read them to her.
2. Repetition feels Safe for kids because they know what to expect. Repetition feels Safe for kids because they know what to expect. Repetition makes me want to zzzzzzz.
Kids love hearing stories again. And again. And really, for good ones that hit the right emotional notes for them, they could request it on an endless loop. Here’s where it’s important to not be a doormat. Or as I recently said, “No, Papi can’t read Charlotte’s Web again right now. Daddy and I spent the entire day reading it to you the first time. Go choose a different – shorter – book.”
But when you’re reading Pinkalicious for the Nth time, you have to find a way to get past the boredom of repetition and make it fun for you, too. Challenge yourself to do different voices and accents for the dialog. Track which parts of the story your kid responds to. As a writer, I sometimes focus on story structure, on point of view, on the mechanics of how the story is being told. We have one Disney version of Cinderella that’s told in third person omniscient (where we know and see everything, like the mice and birds planning the surprise of fixing up Cinderella’s dress), and another told in third person limited (where we only know what Cinderella herself knows, and the mice and birds’ work on her dress is a surprise.) They’re both based on the same movie, but the differences are really interesting. The other four versions of Cinderella on our bookshelves all have different takes, and it’s, well... fun to compare them. (Did you know there was a Jewish shtetl version of Cinderella? There is - it's "Raisel's Riddle," by Erica Silverman.) Having another level to analyze helps me stay alert and interested. But still, I’m only human and I need some variety.
3. Reading is the doorway to a Shared experience with your kid. Don’t just read it TO her. Experience it WITH her.
Here’s the biggest secret about reading with your child: It’s not just about you reading the sentences aloud and both of you following the story, getting to the words “The End” and then running off to do other things. It’s about following the story together. Pausing to talk about what just happened. Explaining words that need explaining. Guessing what’s going to happen next. Debating what a character’s better choice might have been. Spinning different outcomes and possibilities.
Kid: Why does there need to be a villain?
Me: It would be a very short, rather boring story otherwise, wouldn’t it?
Kid: Why is it “Ah-men” and not “Ah-women?”
Me: You’re right, we should call it “Ah-women.”
Kid: No, Papi. We should call it “Ah-people.”
Kid: Are you going to cry again at the end of Charlotte’s Web?
Me: Yes, Probably. (Damn thing gets me every time!)
It’s the shared experience that’s so amazing.
I was surprised that one of the best reading experiences I’ve enjoyed with my daughter in the last year has been listening to audio books during our commute time in the car. We’ve been on a huge Ramona Quimby jag, listening over and over to the same stories, but we stop the audio a lot to discuss what’s going on. My daughter jumps in to talk, and my hand hits the off button. We chat about the plot point or the decision Ramona made to not confront her teacher. And then, when my daughter’s ready, she tells me “Okay Papi, you can start the book again.”
And I vary it. When Ramona’s sister Beezus’ haircut drama for the third time around was too much, the audio book got returned and I checked out something different from the library. The Magic Tree House series of chapter books are time traveling adventures, with lots to talk about – they’re good to read and/or listen to together. In fact, many chapters end with little cliff-hangers, and it’s fun to both go “dah-dah-dahhhhh!” together.
We go to the library a LOT. My daughter chooses a pile of books, and so do I. She grabs the sparkly ones, and I pick up books like Princess Knight, about a girl who becomes a champion in her own way. It helps keep my Sparkle-Fairy-Pixie-Dust-Pink-Glitter Allergy under control. It also ensures variety. And they have a load of audio books there for kids that we choose together. (Though I do need to get better about returning them on time!)
As part of her homework right now, my first grader has to read 20 minutes a day, and she reads out loud to us. We’ve made a point to have her do her reading in the morning before school, and my husband and I read to her in the evenings. Reading has been a big part of her childhood forever, and it’s kicking in – she’s so excited about reading by herself.
But I’m hoping she’ll let us continue to read to her for many years to come. And when she finally feels too big to snuggle on the couch and share a book, I’ll still try to read the book she’s reading at the same time she does. And maybe we can even listen to Twilight in the car together. And yes, I’ll have to get over the sparkly-in-the-sunlight vampire thing. Because there are a few things I’d like to talk with her about: like how Edward treats Bella, and what makes a relationship healthy... or not.
Reading with my daughter. It’s a sparkly, repetitive, sparkly, repetitive, critically important shared experience... and it’s pretty darn wonderful.
Here are the books I mentioned above:
1. Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies series, by Daisy Meadows
2. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams
3. Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann
4. Cinderella versions:
Walt Disney’s Cinderella, Adapted by Lisa Ann Marsoli, 1994 (3rd person omniscient)
Disney Princess Once Upon A Princess, Stories translated from the Disney Libri series by Carin McLain, 2006 (3rd person limited)
Raisel’s Riddle by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Susan Gaber (the Jewish shtetl Cinderella)
Cinderella by Barbara McClintock (Classic, based on the Perrault version)
Walt Disney’s Cinderella A Magnificent Mouse Pop-Up, by Elle D. Risco, illustrated by Mario Cortes and Inman Art (Silly pop-up fun, very much about the mice)
The Book of Princesses, stories retold by Anita Ganeri, illustrated by Anna Marsh (A basic version)
5. Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary
6. Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne
7. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer