Two days ago, I read a thought-provoking
article about the strategy (or one of them) that Dr. Seuss used to create his
work. He was challenged (it was a $50 bet in fact) to write a kids’ book using only
50 words that a grade 1 student would understand and handle with ease. Green
Eggs and Ham was born and if you haven’t read it yet, please do today
because that it will make your day, and beyond. It has rhyme, reason (obviously)
and quirkiness galore.
When the boys were little, we collected and read as much Dr.
Seuss as we could. Quirky and funny and rolling off the tongue is the
recipe for what children like in a book and parents can read many, many times
over without wanting to tear their hair out of sheer boredom. Not with Dr.
Seuss’s books. A healthy side-effect: They incited the boys to want to read by
themselves. Just to have that silly rumble of words come out of their mouths
instead of mine.
I grew up with books. Our living room had tomes lined up in tall bookcases covering entire walls, floor to the ceiling almost. When you’re a kid, that is as close to infinity as it gets. I loved climbing to some of the highest shelves and reaching to the back row where old books hid both enticing adventures and that smell of old paper that to this day is one of the most comforting smells there is.
That smell meant the world was all right. It still does, though much has happened since and my world changed in many ways over, some happier than others. Every year in the spring, the same mix of emotions and memories finds its way into my mind. Lilac flowers, bright morning sunshine, memories of my parents’ chatting in the kitchen over coffee, books to get lost in.
Many of the books I read as a kid and later on during adolescence were suggested to me by my Mom. No ‘you should read this’ but instead, she would tell me why she liked this or that book. She made me curious. Some stories came in many volumes, and far from being intimidated by the number of pages to read, I often felt a deep feeling of regret when the story was over.
I believe the writers of such great stories aimed to leave readers with that sense of regret in order to cultivate a love of reading and ensure they’ll search for the next written adventure. My parents would often make references to books that touched them in one way or another, which made me read them. You could say I was learning about my parents from a different perspective, learning the depths of their hearts and at the same time wading into getting to know mine.
To this day, reading brings me close to my parents. The love of reading they opened my mind and heart to was not confined only to books. They told stories too, some real-life ones of their own and many gleaned from books: fairy tales, adventures, sad stories, poems. Both my parents are gone now so my attempts to dissolve the very boundaries that separate our worlds are carried on with books.
I aim to do the same for the boys. We have many books in our home. Because we homeschool, we have entire shelves dedicated to subjects such as math, all flavours of science, grammar, history, geography, and languages. But we have adventure books, silly and serious, we have many entrenching conversations about books and we often fill the library book basket with treasures.
We read together, we read separately, each with whatever grips the heart and mind the most, and we marvel at treasures that we find in used bookstores, which we all love to get lost in occasionally, whether in Kamloops or on the road.
Yes, my Mom would beam to see all of this, and she’d smilingly approve of our bookwormy forays. It’s the thing that lasts when life as we know it brings itself to an untimely end. It’s what I wish my boys to look back on and smile at the memories we’ve seeded along the way.
Because of all of this and more, I was touched, not in the kindest of ways, by the latest news on book recycling in Kamloops. It won’t happen anymore. Makes one wonder about the plethora of books lying around. What’s in store for them?
If you visit thrift stores and used books stores you’re likely familiar with the overwhelming number of books that bend the shelves downwards. There are so many of them and very little, if any, room for more. A good thing, indeed, to be inundated by books, unless we stop to ponder on the ongoing shortening of children’s attention span nowadays and the overall little reading being done in our society. Blame it on the interminable, addicting TV programs and other types of screen-related activities, as well as the fast pace of life that makes leisure time feel sinful.
It’s not. It is perhaps more sinful to throw books in the landfill and at the same time, inundate the stores with more. An unfortunate consequence of mixing money with books, and at the same time preying on the very human curiosity regarding the next best thing… We have become so primed for it.
There are many beautiful, profound reads out there, and there is, unfortunately, a lot of fluff, for young and old alike, not that books have an age. The classics have been rendered boring and less engaging by many, and they are sold for peanuts, though the wisdom they hold is priceless. They are the first ones to see the landfill from up close.
So where to from here? Saving the books seems like a fool’s errand. I’d start with saving the love of reading. Saving our leisure and reading time from the bad time-thieves out there, and safeguarding stories and books and memories that our children can carry with them, literally and otherwise, all the way to the side of life where their children will once grow up and they will be encouraged to learn the value hidden in tomes.
My mother would feel honoured to know how much books mean to me because of her gentle nudging to reach for the ones at the back of the highest shelves. It’s been a worthy adventure.
It was a year or so ago that Sasha’s kindergarten teacher asked that we have a chat. She was concerned that Sasha’s early reading and writing skills were not as advanced as his classmates’.
“I am concerned,” she said, as plainly as possible.
“I am not,” I replied. I meant that.
Whether it was mama bear instinct or serenity based on some innate knowledge that only mothers can have, I kept a straight face while being told that my son will soon start to feel embarrassed because he will not be among those who know how to.
That he had no reason to feel embarrassed about anything is an understatement. His interest in Egyptian gods back then, plus his admiration for Steve Irwin, inspired him to draw beautiful colorful renditions of the said gods and also fill many pages of his notebooks with drawings of creatures, both real and imaginary. We read books – nature books, chapter books and picture books, although to be fair, he has always been more taken with the long reads. His vocabulary contained words that would take me by surprise.
I could not understand why at the age of five and a half he was expected to write, as in write down most of a word based on the sound of it as the word was dictated by the teacher. He was expected to read simple words and slowly make his way up the reading skill scale, I was told. Like many kids his age, he could not care less and he was not interested or ready to do so. I let him take the lead and do it when he’s ready. He became ready.
So here we are, a year later, plopped on the sofa every afternoon, opening tiny books with tiny stories about jolly pirate captains that drop their hats in the water and don’t mind, and dinosaurs that eat dragonflies and cockroaches. Accurate stuff, wouldn’t you say? Sasha reads, I listen, and there’s no “you’re amazing” uttered every third word but my proud looking at him matches his sparkling eyes. His pride shows too.
We celebrated his first reading of a tiny book with my eyes growing big and surprised. “You’re reading! Isn’t that nice?” Their room has a huge red bookshelf that holds an army of books. Every week or so we bring a couple from the library. Think of all the books you’ll be reading, I told him. But there’s no hurry up and do it now that you know how. I love our cuddling reading times, just like he loves my reading with different voices and sounds. And yes, the cuddling.
What I wanted him to know most of all is that reading is supposed to be his big breakthrough and no one else’s. He is equally loved and accepted and appreciated for everything that he is. The fact that he is prying open the writing and reading doors and looking at the world through different colored lenses should make him look forward to new adventures to come.
Not that he did not have any until now. His world has been enriched by exploring the world in his own way, by daring to do so, by listening to stories being read to him, by asking many questions, by getting down and dirty every step of the way. The human mind is always pushing forward when the time is right.
Being told or suggested to that they need to do it because everyone does it is not only unfair to children, but also deleterious to the way they perceive reading. Back when I wrote the first post on the topic I argued that it could lead to feeling inadequate and that is the wrong feeling at such an early age when enthusiasm and curiosity and confidence work so well together. Let’s call it creativity for short.
Curiosity must remain the perpetually hungry, perpetually wild beast that will make our children explore further and find richer feeding grounds as it grow. If we don’t spook it with silly milestones that are not set by anything else but the pressure to engage them in the rat race sooner that is.
Ultimately, monumental achievements such as reading and writing should happen because nothing else would be enough anymore. Joy should be part of it. Just like stepping stones, you know. You can’t move further away unless you step on a certain stone at a certain time. But of course, I am merely speaking for my children. I am not a teacher after all…
It’s after school. We’re driving to the big library downtown. In the back, the boys are reading (Tony) and munching on the rest of his lunch sandwich (Sasha). It is one of those picture perfect end-of-September afternoons. The air is still crisp yet at this hour one could say that it was softened into submission by the sun.
We park by the big round building with the appearance of a coliseum that has “Please come in” written all over it. If you haven’t seen this landmark building in Vancouver (and if of course you’re not on the other side of the planet at the moment, not that that would be necessarily be a hindrance, stranger things have happened) you have to make your way there. It’s a good place to be.
There is a piazza, you see, covered and abounding with coffee shops and eateries, and not the fast, pack-an-artery/have-a-sugar-crash-shortly type. People are reading, staring, eating, chillin’… We walk in and go straight to the kids’ section. Sasha’s interest these days revolves around reptiles and prehistoric life. Tony wanders and finds treasures to feed his newly discovered Harry Potter passion.
We then go on an escalator joyride (is where you go up and down just because and then you do it again, despite people staring at you). A by-passer throws me a “You know that can get you all nauseous?”. Nah, I shrug, thinking he should’ve seen the Budapest subway escalator plunging all the way to the centre of the Earth and back up again.
An armful of books later we wade through the river of people and drive back across the bridge to the laid-back life on the other side. Traffic wraps around us like caramel. The boys look through an oversized book of snakes they got from the library.
“If you were a snake what kind of snake would you be, Mom?” There’s not an ounce of jest in Sasha’s voice. He means it. Well, a yellow one, I say. “I’d be a black and red one,” he says. Tony picks black, red, yellow and blue. We talk about camouflage and poisonous snakes. They’re good with being poisonous as snakes. I settle for a mellow corn snake. I think of snakes driving a car and the idea slithers into my head for a future project, pun intended, of course.
“Can we stop at the beach?” Can’t pass by the beach without stopping, and today’s dry sand and sunny skies make it an obligation. We go to the beach. We eat dates and play Cro-Magnon. I’m a mammoth. Tony’s a saber-tooth tiger but he takes too long to succumb to the hands of Cro-Magnon Sasha and the little Cro-Magnon has a fit.
There’s fighting, laughing and crying hanging like little bats onto the boys, there’s tears and screaming, and then, there’s me. Just sitting in the golden-glowing sand of Jericho beach at dusk and thinking that hungry kids and Cro-Magnon games just don’t mix well. We head home to have dinner and bedtime finds us reading more about… well, Cro-Magnons. We look through the snake book because there is this black snake I am told I have to see. Tomorrow I’ll look for the yellow one.
Later on after bedtime hugs and kisses Tony whispers “You’re so precious, Mom.” I am ready to say “Oh, no, you see, I am not perfect…” but I bite my tongue. He did not say that I am perfect, he really did not mean it that way. The way I see it, perfect means fault-free. Well, I’m far from that.
Precious means real and it means loved. Faults and all. I hug him tight and then my teary eyes and I tippy toe out the door. The house is quiet and dark. It’s my quiet writing time, so I make tea and write and I can almost hear my heart sigh a sleepy happy sigh as it cuddles up with two sleepy boys. If I were to paint it using just one color, I would not use perfect but precious. Just like sunlight, the latter has the whole spectrum.