I just spent a weekend with Henrietta, my two-years plus three months granddaughter. Etta, as she calls herself, is very verbal, and while I don’t understand everything she says or feels, it is clear she has two passions: trains and board books.
Living as she does in rural Montana, she can see trains at some distance, as well as at the depot in the near town. Every sighting produces great excitement. Fun to share in that.
But it’s her engagement with board books that I found most endearing. The physical nature of these books enables her to flip through pages with her small fingers without ripping thin paper. That empowers her to go to her shelf of books, select one (two or three) work through them intensely, drop them on the floor, and go back for more. At the end of the day, there is quite a pile on the floor.
Most interesting to me is how she responds to the unfolding thick pages. No matter how often she has gone through a particular book, she is excited to see the passing images again. It is as if she can experience the images for the first time, every time, many times.
Also, when a picture of a cat appears—the word CAT—is boldly there, and she will cry out, “Cat” and squeal with delight. She is not reading the word but seeing the image and the word as a composite image. Because when she “reads” the book with her parents or someone like me, we inevitably say “Cat.” She will respond by saying “Cat!” It’s not so much learning to read, as she is experiencing CAT. Every turned page is a renewable discovery.
Wish folks could read my books like that.
What’s also important to note is that it’s clear she is also reacting to the circumstance of the reading: sitting on a lap, being cozy with arms snugly about, hearing a familiar soothing voice.
It seems to me that it would be wise, and productive, to try and replicate as much as possible of Etta’s book experience with older kids. (And why not with adults, as well?) That is, I something think we spend insufficient attention to the physical aspect of book reading:
An enfolding reading chair. Embracing arms, real or stuffed. The right light. The feel of a book in hands. The tactile sensation—if it’s there—of good paper. An illustrated book. (Howard Pyle, we need you again!) An intense focus on the book—with no distractions. The sensation of being in the book. And yes, a familiar voice reading the book out loud, reading well.
I’ve always felt that one of the best things a parent/teacher/librarian can do is take voice lessons. Not a big deal. Learn how to pace yourself. How to pitch your voice. To articulate. Build the drama. Learn how to choose the best books to read out loud. (Not all books lend themselves to that.)
When I write I’m very focused on how the book reads out loud. I want to hear the book as I write. I want rhythm. Alliteration. Gripping images. Establishment of a narrative flow. Tension one can feel.
Then everyone can have a reading experience like Etta enjoys when she opens a board book.
Watching Etta “read” board books is a great reminder that the last thing one wants is for the young reader to be bored.