Thursday, 28 August 2008

In the story

I finished reading The Phoenix and the Carpet to L. As I closed the book, L declared it to have been “brilliant”. The ending involves the delivery of an enormous box of presents, which is right up L’s street. As we shared the book, I was aware of how much I enjoy continuing to read aloud to the children. I guess that is why we continue to do it, but I am trying to understand what that enjoyment is all about. It isn’t like the regular punctuation of our day with picture books, when they were little. They can, and do, read pretty much anything they choose, so we’re not doing it as a way for the children to access texts. When they were little, they needed us to open up the words to them. But, of course, they requested the same books over and over again and I suspect that they could often have ‘read’ the books to themselves, long before they could read. What I think we got then, and continue to get now, is entry into a story, together.

Before the children could read, I felt obliged to read them anything they wanted – down to, and including, cereal boxes and Mr Men books! (Actually, that is snobby nonsense, because Mr Small was one of my favourites when I was a child. It struck a chord as I was always the smallest child in the class.) L, in particular, went through a phase of wanting hours of facts about dinosaurs, not stories at all. I have to confess to something of a feeling of relief when that passed and we could get back to stories! The stories we shared meant different things to each of us, no doubt, but their shared patterns and language were very important. The other day, we were on a bus, I happened to mention Alfie and Annie Rose. (I have no idea why this came up!) I reminded the children of Alfie Gets In First, and they both declared that this was not the best one. They were united in their opinion that the best one is the one with the babysitter and the leak – An Evening at Alfie’s. I was immediately back in a moment of toddler on my lap and child snuggled at my side, reading about the drip dripping and looking at that picture of little Alfie in pjs, paddling in the icy water.

These days, we discuss and agree books to share and the children’s different tastes mean that we don’t tend to share books as a family much anymore. I think the last series we shared in that way was the Series of Unfortunate Events books. But we still get to share stories – one to one. I love that feeling of the words surrounding you and the story carrying you both along. I have read things that I never did as a child – even though they were in print back then. I tended to be quite conservative in my reading choices when I was little and used to stick with someone I knew I liked. I think my top author was probably Noel Streatfeild. I loved those Gemma books. Does anyone else remember those? But, reading to the children has broadened my horizons considerably. Treasure Island wouldn’t have appealed to me at all (no girls!) but I got quite into it with L.

There are so many brilliant children’s book these days. I would never have chosen to read The Edge Chronicles for myself – but I adored the whole world and how I could share it with L. P likes all sorts of things and last Christmas (when she was feeling pretty ill) we both had our spirits lifted by the brilliant John Fardell. Reading Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry to P, I was aware that from fiction we can often bear conversations that are harder when they are prompted by new stories or history documentaries. But, even better than the conversations that get prompted, is the story itself. Sometimes, often in fact, there is no need to say anything. The story does all the talking that’s needed and we are there together, company for each other and sometimes a re-assuring hand to hold.

Our kids are busy people who do all sorts of things. I know that, at some point, they will probably stop finding the time to share books like this. Though, I once had a colleague who told me he would sometimes get home from work and find his wife reading to their sixteen year old son. I will miss it but I hope that we will keep that book dialogue going.

I think that books bond people – sometimes just for a few moments and sometimes for much longer. There are books I have never shared with anyone and they are important too, but I love the bridges books can build. Last summer I spent a while reading Miss Read books and they made me feel close to my sister, even though I never read one when she was alive and never discussed them with her. I was able to remember her curled in the armchair, dipping her hand into the twiglet box and flipping the pages of her Miss Read. I remembered the lined up orange spines on the bookshelf beside her bedroom door. Knowing she loved them showed me another part of her.

Books are a big part of our lives here and that’s not a home ed thing as I am sure we would be the same if the kids were at school. But I do appreciate the fact that we can sometimes fit in an extra hour of reading, here and there, in those in-between moments. For me, reading stories to the children is really living and something I'm doing my best to appreciate while I still have it.