Monday, March 8, 2010

Dads! The 3 Secrets To Reading With Your Daughters

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


Greg Pincus said...

She's a lucky girl, Lee. She's a lucky girl, Lee. She's a lucky girl, Lee.

fairyhedgehog said...

This brings back memories! I can remember reading "Postman Pat's Rainy Day" every night for about three weeks!

I did enjoy snuggle times reading with my lads though. I think my youngest was twelve when we stopped sharing books together like that! It's not about being able to read, it's a fun experience you have together.

I had my limits. I would read Thomas the Tank Engine if I had to - but I didn't re-read those books if I could avoid it.

Terry Doherty said...

What great memories for her ... and you, too. Your idea of finding different versions of a story isn't one I've thought about, but DEFINITELY need to. Oy Vey! Life is too Disney-fied.

Francesca said...

I LOVE this. As a parent who is also having to read all those (*&$#&(* Rainbow Fairy books over and over again, I raise my sparkly pink fist in solidarity -- and agree completely with your thoughts about WHY my daughter likes them so much. Indeed, I asked her recently why she wanted to get more of them out of the library since they were all the same story. She replied:

"I like them because they ARE all the same story. The girls help the fairies and Jack Frost is always mean and the fairies always win."

A child's world is saturated with uncertainty and newness. Perhaps as older readers, we dive into books for adventure, excitement and really wild things. But even so, if the day has been hard or the week too long, I turn back to the books I have always read and loved, because they are comforting and familiar -- like going home and having The Ur Mom make mac and cheese.

The1stdaughter said...

I LOVE this! As a mom to a boy who loves nothing but cars, trucks, and dinosaur books over over and over again, it's nice to hear I'm not alone.

And, that they almost never like the ones that you would like to read. I just know that what's important is the reading. Yes, squeeze in a "good" book occasionally, but it if they don't like to read, they won't.

Great post and some wonderful tips I'm going to have to try out! Fabulous dad! She's a very lucky girl.

Brimful Curiosities said...

We attended a book signing featuring Kevin Henkes yesterday. He says he reads to his daughter every morning! I think it is especially important for fathers to take the time to read with their children, and I'm so glad my husband is willing to participate in that ever-so-important bonding together time, even if it means reading pink fluff.

Tif Sweeney said...

Wonderful, wonderful post!! And, I would just like to say that this is good advice for a mom or dad, grandparent, teacher, etc.! They are good reminders for us all and you said it beautifully! Thank you!!

Jen Robinson said...

This is wonderful advice, Lee. Thanks so much for sharing. I suspect that I'll have to work on my own aversion to the sparkly pink books pretty soon. And I agree 100% about continuing to read the books that your daughter reads as she gets older, and using books like Twilight to talk about behaviors. Great stuff!

And I agree with the other commenters. Your daughter is a lucky, lucky girl.

Laurie Young said...

Great article, Lee. You so clearly nailed the experience (I get SO tired of the repetition, too) but also why it is important. Your daughter is very lucky to have a father who teaches her to value reading. She will have a richer life for it.

Daniel Teeter said...

For those of us not thespian inclined, reading stories to our children in character is a treasured opportunity. Here's where our beloved library system really proves its great value (as a constant flow of fresh material) and damn any budget-slashing politician who threatens to compromise it!

Those cursed Rainbow Fairy books have also infected our house, not unlike hair lice, and like the lousy louse they seem to be as difficult to eradicate.

For some reason my 6 y.o. daughter loved The Night Kitchen--those wonderful pictures!--and so we remove it from the library regularly. We read Dr. Seuss, I don't think she's so much a fan but I enjoy 'em. Have you read Domitila? It's (another) Mexican Cinderella story version and a pretty good one.

My 12 y.o. enjoys being read to as well but since that usually initiates a sister vs sister cage death match over oral reading privileges, for better or worse the last born usually gets to win by forfeit.

Sure, your daughter is lucky that you read to her. You're lucky to have the opportunity. In a world of vicious circles, this happens to be one of the few nice cuddly ones.

BookChook said...

Great ideas here, Lee, especially the ones about coping with the repetition. I am still word perfect on Thomas the Tank Engine!

D said...

I just came upon your blog by a link on Heather Kelly's blog!
I know exactly how you feel! The repetition drives me craaazy! And my 4 year old wants to hear Dr. Seuss's "Marvin K. Mooney" OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!! AGH!!!
Anyway, I got some laughs out of your blog post. I'm sure I'll be back :-)

Mama Librarian said...

We read a lot of books over and over again, but I firmly refuse to read those series books (Magic Tree House, Rainbow Magic, etc.). My rant... er, informed opinion can be found here:

Having said that, I try really hard to provide so many great books from the library each week that my daughter and son can't help but choose something new. =) We love reading together and now my daughter is reading alone, which is miraculous and wonderful.

Rosanne Parry said...

This is a great post, Lee. There's a lot of power for your long term relationship in the book time you're investing now. To me the best part about reading aloud is not so much the story but the invitation to a conversation that a good book provides. That's the real treasure.

And eventually you get to those great dinner table moments where your eighth grade girl announces with glee that the relationship in Twilight meets seven of the nine warning signs that you are in an abusive dating situation according to her health class at school. Which of course invites the even better conversation about the signs of a healthy, happy dating relationship.

Oh yes, and my own husband's answer to the repeat reading of excessively girly picture books? A John Wayne accent! Give it a try. :-)

Sarah N. said...

I am so glad my daughter can read Rainbow Fairies on her own now. Your daughter is lucky to have such great reading time with you!

Carol H Rasco said...

Lee, I know it has been said already but indeed your daughter is very lucky. I look back years and years ago and remember how much it meant for my father to read to me, how rare that was among my friends.

And gracious, thanks for the part about repetition...whew. I thought if I read anything about babysitters again after all those Babysitter Club books I would throw up to put it bluntly...but those memories are now very special to me and to my daughter!

Anonymous said...

What a beautifully written piece about the power of reading. Your daughter is so fortunate to have a dad who "gets" her as a reader.
Tess (Reading Countess)

Katie Fries said...

My earliest memories are of going to the library and reading with my father. My mom read to me too, but for some reason I equate reading aloud with my dad. And it began my lifelong obsession with books and writing. Your daughter will remember reading together for a long, long time.

I have a first grader and a 4 year old and we have been reading to them since they were born. I hope they will want to continue to read together even after they "outgrow" it.

Playing by the book said...

My husband has just come down exhausted from reading to our two girls (it's late after a tough day) and having read this post I double appreciate him doing this. The girls LOVE it - they always want him rather than me to read to them, and I know he loves it too. He was read to by his father as a child and I think that made a huge difference.

Kelly said...

Hilarious, insightful post! Just forwarded to my hubby. :)