Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Five
Early Books, Stories and Lessons
 “And a little child shall lead them.”
Somewhere in time before we thought about using a first-grade teacher’s services to teach
our children, or even long before we learned about the adventures of Dick and Jane, in log cabins and sod homes sprinkled across this country -- children learned to read.
Sitting by the hearth at the end of each hard, sweat-filled day, mother or grandmother or father or grandfather, or whichever family member this honor was bestowed upon, took up the Holy Bible, and read verse and chapter aloud. The rest of the household, including even the youngest child, gathered around to listen.
This was not an extraordinary event. It was a regular event played out in most homes each evening and/or on the Sabbath, designed more to give thanks and preserve faith than to serve an academic need. But serve it did. There was no escape (even if a child’s imagination wandered elsewhere).
One Book
One room, one hearth, one reader, one book. By the light of a single candle, each passage and verse filled the room, and the minds and hearts in it, with enough words and images to satisfy a multitude of reading lessons. In the dim light, a small child sitting on the reader’s lap could watch as the reader’s finger slid along the passage, pointing out each carefully spoken word. A result of poor eyesight and dim light? Maybe.
Nonetheless it was an effective lesson for small, emerging readers, focusing on each word as it was read aloud – as they listened to the tone, the rhythm and especially to the richness of the language.
What’s more, unfamiliar names like Aboliab, Ahisamach, or Nahbi son of Vophsi had to be sounded out. Right along with learning their ABC’s, young listeners quickly learned how each letter and sound worked in combination with other letters and sounds to create words.
They also learned how words combined to create sentences. And how sentences combined to create meaning as the passages grew to become verse and chapter and book. Until they reached the most feared and imaginative book of all, the Book of Revelation -- a signal that it was time to start the Good Book all over again. It is easy to see how phonics and grammar lessons became a natural outcome of this blessed experience.
Listening: Reading
Family Bible reading left no lesson or child untouched. Every member of the family, even an infant at the breast listened. They listened to the sound, the rich sound, of the written language. They listened to the words as well as the lessons, the psalms and the parables. They listened so when it was their turn they too carefully sounded out difficult words and foreign names and places.
And all the while they learned to read, to apply their ABC’s in a natural, peaceful and important way. When it fell upon them to take their place in front of the hearth, to read aloud to the next generation, they were well prepared. Each literate family member was expected to pass on to the next generation the lessons they had learned so well.
Then as literate citizens they could make their own contributions to a young country or new frontier, to take their place as sound and respected members of a new and growing democratic society.
Learning at Its Best
However limited early frontier education might have been, at least from an academic standpoint, it nonetheless represented learning at its best. Surrounded by love and trust, a child could not help but be receptive to the rich lessons the family settings offered.
Still today, the world over, it is probably fair to say that more children learn to read from just one book – the book of their faith – read by a trusted friend or family member, than from any other source. However difficult the text, it still works.
But it always takes two – at least two: Someone to read and someone to listen.
Even today in our age of technology, it is good to remember that the methods of the past are just as effective today. That the minutes you take to share a story with a child will continue to grow until that child is big enough and wise enough to return it all to you and to the generations that follow -- and sometimes in ways that we can’t even guess.
Baby’s Own Early Library
Sitting around the family hearth, reading by the light of a single candle is now but a faint image from the past. Today we have so many more options. We have not just one book to share with the whole family, but a multitude of books from which we can chose to read just to baby alone.
In other words we have choices – so many choices. Given the plentitude of titles, we now have the luxury of matching unique interests and tastes (books) with individuals. Even infants. So today we not only ask, “What does baby want to eat?” We can also ask what books and stories does baby prefer?
In today’s home the stories of David and Goliath, of John the Baptist, and Luke and Mark straight from the pages of the Good Book are left to compete with Winnie the Pooh or Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type.
Which stories does baby prefer? The answer is best found through trial and error. However, it is a safe bet that most small books designed especially for babies, books with simple stories and colorful illustrations will be well received and become as much loved and enjoyed as baby’s favorite toys.
Baby-Friendly Board Books
High on the list of books to fill baby’s bookcase will be those wonderful, baby-friendly board books. Practical, sturdy little volumes, these are the books that resist moisture of all sorts and are easily grasped and tossed as baby grows. You won’t have to worry about torn or food-smeared pages. These are baby’s books to drool on and handle as he or she sees fit.
At playtime, prop up several board books where baby can clearly see them. Baby will love looking at their bright colors and simple illustrations.
At story time, don’t worry that the few pages in a board book do not contain words. Some board books have no print at all, but others have phrases, even small stories and rhymes. Some are printed with colorful alphabet letters and corresponding illustrations. Others showcase familiar objects such as teddy bears, drinking cups, and rocking chairs. They are all cheerful and inviting.
Clear and easily recognizable illustrations are enough to engage baby. Simply hold baby in your lap and “read” the little book just as if it was filled with words – pointing out the illustrations and creating your own story.
“Plunk Plonk Splish Splosh”
Words or no words, board books have a way of generating their own excitement, at least from baby’s point-of-view. Place them in close proximity to baby in the play area and it won’t be too long before baby will giggle and squeal with delight when sharing playtime with these new friends.
For instance, Monica Wellington’s colorful companions, All My Little Ducklings or Baby in a Car, are especially welcome after they have been shared in an enthusiastic reading session with a senior partner.
All My Little Ducklings, by the way, provides a wonderful opportunity for a senior partner to practice reading with expression: “Plunk Plonk Splish Splosh.”  No wonder playtime books soon become baby’s best friends, both in the early weeks and right along into toddlerhood.
While I browse the shelves of my favorite bookstore, I notice that many of the small, board books contain “bells and whistles,” a marketing ploy used I suspect to attract adult buyers. Even some of the classics are now packaged as board-books complete with buttons to push and tabs to pull – adding squeaks and toots and whistles to enhance the “reading” experience.
First of all, this is fun. Second of all, don’t make the mistake of forgetting that the real reason for selecting a book is to introduce baby to the reading process. If baby (or adult) gets too focused on the noises accompanying the story, then the real purpose will be lost.
Faced with a collection of “noisy” books (many are too cute to pass up), a senior partner can first read the story (or supply a made-up story for those books without words), share the illustrations, and then go back through the book, letting the enhancements become the final reward, the frosting on the cake if you will.
Simply Storybooks
Unlike board books, other book friends, storybooks, call for serious reading time – bedtime, nap-time, or just plain sharing time. In the first few months baby will give the most attention to storybooks with simple stories and nice rhythms and rhymes. For these reasons, the simple and pleasant rhymes from Mother Goose remain an all time favorite.
Baby also prefers storybooks with bright colorful illustrations. Complicated or muted illustrations are too difficult for baby to focus on and hence to capture a little one’s interest.
The same principle applies to the story. A few characters or even just one character engaged in a simple plot will usually receive the best reception. Like The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats where a small boy, Peter, shares with the reader (and listener) the magic of a winter’s day.
Other all time favorites like The Ugly Duckling and The Three Little Pigs are perfect for reading to a very young partner. Of course the reader, or senior partner, can add all necessary expression and sound effects (“huff and puff and blow your house down!”) to make even a relatively unsophisticated story exciting for baby.
Simply Literature
In addition to small board books and books with easy-to-read and listen-to stories, don’t hesitate to expand baby’s circle of book “friends” as baby’s interests grow. If you haven’t already, add to the bookcase shelves a selection of children’s literature. These are the books that have endured the test of time, and for good reason. Their stories touch us all. Could we ever forget Madeline? Or Make Way for Ducklings? Or Curious George?
Children’s classics are so lyrical in style, they are always a joy to read. Their plots are suspenseful and exciting. Can we ever get over Madeline’s appendectomy? Or the breath-stopping experience of eight little ducklings crossing the busy street? Even the very young listener will enjoy the rhythm and tone – and suspense -- found in these favorites. And don’t forget to share the illustrations.
Share the illustrations with even the littlest partner. It will all become part of the pattern. Soon the young emerging reader will expect to share in the illustrations as well as the story itself. After all, illustrations are a critical part of the story.
Over and over again, the excellent and highly creative illustrations accompanying these stories capture a child’s as well as an adult’s imagination. The picture of George, the too curious monkey, landing in prison or flying over the city hanging on for dear life to a bunch of balloons is forever inscribed in our memories.
Or Michael the policeman raising his hand to stop traffic so the small ducklings can safely cross the street. What a comfort to a small child. No wonder we celebrate these classics each time we read them, as each time we learn something we didn’t know or understand or overlooked before.
Young or old we never seem to outgrow the timeless stories that are forever bound into the pages we call children’s literature. They will always be our friends as well.
In contrast, commercial ventures into publishing children’s books in order to capitalize on recent film or television characters often result in thin plots and undeveloped characters, at least from a literary point of view. While the whole idea of these books might generate excitement in the beginning -- the little but intelligent reader quickly becomes bored and yearns for something more, something of substance.
It is best to stick with the stories like Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty in the original form. Their language is much more engaging and little reading partner-friendly.
Still you don’t have to be a literary snob when deciding which books to buy for baby. If baby becomes enamored with books identified with movies or television shows? Then fine. Respect baby’s preference. Even a book published for no other reason than blatant marketing has value if a child enjoys it.
Don’t forsake the classics, however, if you wish to instill in your child a love of reading and all the riches and pleasures that are inherent in time-honored books -- to be read over and over again.
Pop-Up’s? Talking Books?
What about pop-up books or books that talk (some actually read the story). They entertain baby too. They’re fun to read and handle and most them are accompanied by colorful illustrations and significant stories as well.
Keep in mind, however, that when it comes to learning language, it’s the stories that count. Wiggling cutouts and computerized voices can never replace the personal warmth of a familiar voice and the attention of a loved one reading a bedtime story. Above all, do not let a novelty book replace you.
Someone Baby Knows – and Trusts
Whatever story or book you select, remember to read to your infant everyday. A regular reading schedule will establish reading as a natural event in the course of a child’s day, just like bed time and meal time or any other valued family time.
As you read, be mindful of what is occurring in your infant’s wonderfully active brain. Your little partner will be using his or her mind to absorb, process and store whatever he hears you read. Baby is developing important listening skills.
Don’t be fooled into thinking all this brain activity happens all at once. But bit by important bit, piece by important piece, word by important word, story by story baby’s brain works at top speed to process, to understand all he or she experiences in the course of listening to you read a story.
And just as the pioneers knew, your child’s reading experience has the greatest value when your child is sitting securely in your lap or in your arms, is listening to your voice, your words. A recording (or a stranger) simply will not do. It has never worked before, and it probably will never work in the future.
We always learn best from someone we know and trust. Story time should not become a special event, like eating and sleeping it most certainly needs to be a natural part of baby’s day.
Suggested Titles
Board Books
  • Baby Animals by Kimika Warabe
  • Baby in a Car by Monica Wellington
  • All My Little Ducklings by Monica Wellington
  • Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Byron Barton
Nursery Rhymes
  • My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Opie (ed.)
  • Sylvia Long’s Mother Goose by Sylvia Long (illustrator)
Classic Storybooks with Simple Plots and Wonderful Illustrations
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? By Eric Carle and Bill Martin, Jr.
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
  • Clifford: The Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
  • Curious George by H.A. Rey
  • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
  • Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle