Thursday, January 28, 2010

Family Literacy Recommendations from a Literary Mom: Carrie Snyder

In between mothering her four children, writing fiction, a blog and a parenting column, and all the other things that people do, Carrie Snyder found a few spare moments to write this beautiful piece about reading with her children. Carrie Snyder is the author of Hair Hat (which is currently competing in Canada Reads: Independently). Her most recent publication was three stories in The New Quarterly 112).

My favourite picture book of all time is A Day with Nellie, by Marthe Jocelyn (the original version, not the board book, which cuts some of my favourite sections.) This book has been with our family since my eldest was a toddler. He and I read it so often that we had it memorized. Both of my daughters loved it, too, and my youngest is now 22 months and "Nellie!" is far and away the first book he goes looking for on our shelves.

The charm of this book is in its simplicity. A preschool-aged child goes about her day: from waking to getting dressed, greeting her friends (mostly stuffed animals), eating breakfast, and so on. She plays indoors in daddy's shoes. She plays teacher in the backyard--her students include the neighbours' cat. She makes mud, slips and falls, gets dirty, takes a bath. Each page subtly illustrates a new concept: textures on the breakfast page, emotions on the naptime page, numbers on the picnic lunch page, et cetera.

But what elevates this book to greatness is Jocelyn's original fabric artwork. It looks touchable. Each page is beautiful and colourful, and we could look at it for hours (and we have, and we do!). The pictures are full of narrative all on their own, which makes them perfect for the pre-reader. There is so much to point to and talk about in each picture. Nellie pouring water on her head. Nellie watching the big kids come home from school. (Particularly poignant for me, now, as I remember reading it with my eldest and watching out the window as the big kids walked home from school--and now he is one of those big kids walking home from school). I've never yet gotten bored of the book. And that's high praise indeed.

I also read chapter books out loud before bedtime. The older ones are able to read to themselves, now, but they still love cuddling in on the couch and being read to. I would recommend heading into Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. The first book, with its terrifying panther stories, is not necessarily the best place to begin (Little House in the Big Woods); that book also opens with very detailed descriptions of a pioneer family preparing and storing their food for winter, including how to build a smokehouse. (In fact, there's a great deal of lost knowledge contained in these books, from how to make a door with no nails, to how to rig up a lamp from a button and some axle grease. I'm keeping them for further reference, because you never know).

The second book in the series is the best known and perhaps also the best place to start: Little House on the Prairie. The television series based on the books bears little relationship to them: there is no superficiality. This is the real thing. The writing is quite astonishing. It is straightforward, classic, and true. It amazes me every time I read it (I was about seven when my mother first read the series to us, and I've re-read it many times since). There is little to no analysis in her writing, no self-consciousness, just pure storytelling. That leaves room for questions, for interpretation, and it means that the experience of reading the books as an adult changes them: my perspective as a parent added new flavours and nuances to the story. Best of all, all of my children were drawn into her writing, even my eldest who is a boy. And it lead to many imaginary games of Laura and Mary and baby Carrie.

Reading to my children: I looked forward to it before becoming a parent, and it's one of my favourite activities as a parent. I rarely get down and play on the floor with the kids, but they're pretty much guaranteed to get my attention with a book (I'm picky, though, and they know it: Mama doesn't read Dora ... actually, there's a pretty long list of books Mama won't read; that's what Daddy is for; and literacy).

There are so many wonderful books out there, with whole worlds waiting to be discovered. When I read to my children, I get to travel into those imaginary worlds, too. We get to go there together.