Being :: Talking Books

January 18, 2013

Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.

Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they choose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being. 

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“Why’s the bunny want to run away?”

My older son asked this, back when he was almost three, as we read Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. It was a good question. The little bunny seems awfully desperate to escape, particularly when he’s pictured crossing the sea, with ears expanded into (slightly creepy) pink boat sails.

It’s one of the first conversations about books I remember having with any of my kids. I don’t remember what we decided about the bunny, but I know we talked. I’m not one of those stop-interrupting-and-let-me-read sort of parents. This isn’t because I’m particularly patient or virtuous; I just like talking about books.

Questions about why bunnies might run away and why hungry caterpillars might snack on Swiss cheese and lollipops soon led to more complex wonderings. “Why does Almanzo’s family eat so much?” as we read Farmer Boy. “Why do John and Michael forget about their parents—but Wendy doesn’t?” as we read Peter Pan. “How can Pippi Longstocking live by herself?” (And why did we find this description of her strength—Why, she could lift a whole horse if she wanted to! And she wanted to. —so very endearing?)

I don’t mind all the wondering. I don’t mind when we listen to audiobooks in the car, and someone calls out, “Stop the story!” to raise a question or share an insight. There’s something about listening to books on car rides in particular that seems to promote conversation: maybe it’s the easy proximity to that stop button; maybe it’s the fact that being trapped in the car, there’s little to do but listen to one another.

Once, listening to an a old cassette version of Treasure Island, my older two, then five and eight, began complaining from the back seat that Robert Louis Stevenson had done a terrible job in developing the character of Long John Silver. His evil was too obvious, they insisted, it wasn’t subtle enough! I chuckled. A five and an eight-year-old critiquing a master! How cute! But it was more than that. Something shifts when kids begin questioning an author’s craft. For the first time they start toying with the notion that they might write the work better themselves.

“Why is it so funny when a villain like Count Olaf uses a word like yep?” my youngest asked one day, after demanding that I stop the story! as we listened to a volume of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s really Snicket’s fault that my kid was deconstructing words and humor this way; it’s what Snicket does himself throughout the series. My youngest and I ought to know: while I made it through most of the books with my older two kids, those kids grew up before the series was completed. My youngest and I began from the beginning and listened to the entire series, all thirteen books, consecutively, until arriving at The End. Many words and their nuances were dissected along the way.

Recently, while reading from Snicket’s new series at bedtime, under a pile of blankets that my kid calls a jumble of cozy, the two of us came across the line, “…Mrs. Murphy Sallis gave me a brief smile, and offered me her hand, which was as smooth and soft as old lettuce.” This cracked us up. We’ve been talking about analogies lately, and this was a good one. “Lemony Snicket never writes clichés,” my son said, as if it were both obvious and a revelation. What he didn’t add, but might as well have, was, “And I’m not going to write them either.”

Maybe it was the day when we finished Huckleberry Finn that it hit me. The older two, at ten and thirteen, had started up their own debate on which character was ultimately the most noble: Tom, or Huck, or Jim? The conversation got loud; much evidence was offered up. It was the stuff of a high school composition course, but the kids had taken it upon themselves, wanting to dig in and linger with a book that we’d come to love together.

I began to think about how my kids had become such insightful readers and writers. Sometimes they’ve seemed like strangely youthful English professors in their zeal and expertise. But none of what they know of literature has come from formal study or canned curriculum guides. It’s been built up from small conversations over the years: in the car, around the kitchen table, on the blue sofa in the family room, and especially, bundled with blankets on somebody’s bed.

When someone asks me to stop the story, I will always oblige.

This month we happily welcome Patricia Zaballos to the Being series.  Patricia is a writer, homeschooling parent, knitter and urban bee keeper.  Patricia writes about kid-centered learning and raising children to be writers on her blog, Wonder Farm, and recently published her first book, Workshops Work! A Parent’s Guide to Facilitating Writer’s Workshops for Kids.

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{ 7 comments }

dawn January 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

i love this. i love the “jumble of cozy” and can relate to it well – it seems my children most prefer reading, whether it’s alone or with others, snuggled up in blankets or a nook (or both) or right next to me, sharing the experience.

i love how you like talking about books. i do, too. reading in our house is frequently punctuated by the sounds of my daughter who feels compelled to argue with a character out loud or simply *must* share something fascinating she’s come upon. my son loves to read aloud with me, especially when i attend very closely to when he wants to read a passage to me, and when it is my turn to read aloud again.

talking about the books has made me more sensitive and attentive to what each of them can handle, and when. my daughter periodically took breaks from reading the harry potter series when she was much younger; she knew to put a book down for a time when her reaction to the scenes or characters were overwhelmingly intense, and discovered how to test when she was ready to approach it again. now she devours darker stories by neil gaiman and can discuss some particularly frightening moments in fairy tales without getting completely out of sorts. my son gets very anxious when reading what many might consider to be innocuous, like dr. seuss’ ten apples up on top, because he wants to know why the bear would want to knock the apples down with a mop, especially with such an angry face. it’s not that he always needs a happy ending, but he does desire an explanation, a resolution, and when it does not come from the story, we talk about possibilities and alternatives and interpretations until he can come to a place of peace about it.

don’t underestimate, though, the power i am certain you have in the way that you have (or still do) read aloud. it’s not just the willingness to stop the story when requested, but the way in which you communicate the story, with its inflections and variations in tone and volume and dramatic emphasis. reading aloud is a performance art; the story is provided by the author, but the reader-aloud has the potential either to quell any potential enthusiasm for it or to bring the story alive, compelling the listeners to really attend, to involve and enmesh themselves in the story. it’s not just talking *about* the books, it’s *talking* the books. and it’s why i am so mindful of how i read aloud and why i choose the audio recordings i do.

ah, talking books…

Kristi January 18, 2013 at 11:19 am

Love this post. Now that my oldest is reading independently, I find myself racing to stay ahead of him (but he has so much more time to reading!). Must keep my eye on the beautiful big picture (as described in your post) rather than being overwhelmed by the stack of books on my night stand.

Cindy January 18, 2013 at 11:32 am

My 2 year old and I had what I jokingly call our first book club meeting this week. She brought me a SkippyJon Jones book and put it in my hand. I asked, “Do you want me to read this?” And she answered, “No, let’s just talk about it.”
“Oh,” I replied, “Ok, so what do you have to say about this book then?”
“SkippyJon is silly. Really, really silly.” And she took the book back from me and walked away.

Love this post, thank you!

Jennifer January 18, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Lemony Snickett escaped us, somehow. We were so Harry Potter-ish. My kids are 9 and 11 and old enough to appreciate irony and subtlety. Perhaps time to get into Lemony. How will we ever get through all our “school” work with so much reading? :-)

patricia January 18, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Dawn, thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment. It’s so neat to hear how “talking books” plays out in the homes of others. And yes, I think there are so many reasons why reading aloud is vital for our kids. I am a huge fan of audiobooks; still, there’s nothing like having a book read to you by a parent. One of the great joys in life, I think!

Kristi: Wow, you are still reading everything your son reads? Good luck with that! ;-) I suppose I tried that for a while with my oldest, but he outpaced me very quickly. Still, it’s great to have *some* books that you read in common, so you can talk about them together.

Cindy: That is hilarious! I think you have a future of fantastic book talk ahead of you!

Jennifer: I can tell from your comments on my blog, and your writing on your own blog, that you are a woman with a sense of humor. I don’t recommend Lemony Snicket to everyone–some people just don’t *get* it. But I recommend the books for you! Your kids are 9 and 11: the perfect age to understand the irony and subtlety. You must race out and get a book or audiobook! The audiobooks are fantastic. One thing our family likes to debate is whether Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) himself does the best job narrating, or whether Tim Curry (who narrates most of the books) does. Both have their merits. I think you are in for a fun ride.

Rita@thissortaoldlife January 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm

This brings back such good memories for me. I loved watching my children’s reasoning and questioning skills develop as we read books at bedtime. When they hit 6th grade (they are twins), their reading tastes started to diverge so sharply (and their schedules, as well) that a common read-aloud book was no longer do-able. Now they are in high school, and we rarely have those kinds of talks. I miss them–and they aren’t getting them at school, either (which pains me–a former English teacher–greatly). You’ve given me food for thought. Thank you.

Debbie January 19, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Loved this post, Patricia. Books open up such amazing worlds to us and our children. We’ve been reading to Isaac (6 1/2) since he was 2 months old. He taught himself to read at 3 1/2 because he just couldn’t get enough. We crawl into bed every night with a book and a belly full of anticipation. We also read together during the day, whenever it strikes our fancy. I love discussing characters and plots and whatever questions he brings up. And he has so much to say about what happens in the books he reads. We’ve just finished reading The Magic Thief trilogy (have you read this, yet?) and it was such a great series for him. Yes, it’s recommended for 9 and up…but he handled it beautifully…even the darker bits. He asked a lot of questions (whys and hows and whatnots) but devoured the story (as did I…staying up until 12:45am to finish the last book). He has now requested the Hobbit and so we are beginning that tonight. I want to thank you for this post, for reminding me why it is so important to invite the interruptions as part of the story reading process…as part of the learning process. I needed this reminder. xo

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