Living · Picture Books · Reading

Raising Readers

Summer is birthday season when you’ve planned kids on an academic calendar. This summer my “baby” turns 15, which is a kind of weird, arbitrary-sounding milestone (for a non-Latino family), but for this literacy-minded mama, it matters. It turns out that as children learn to read, it helps their fluency and vocabulary-building to read to them aloud. The benefits last at least until they are fifteen, when their visual vocabulary catches up with their aural vocabulary.
Kids understand more of what they hear than what they read on their own until they are fifteen. (I think I first got this number from Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, but I’m having trouble putting my finger on the reference just now.) The number, though, stuck in my head for years, and it makes sense to me that kids’ aural vocabulary (what they hear read in context, one presumes especially from a reader who reads with fluency and drama, so that the sense of new words can be gleaned from the context) is greater than their visual vocabulary (what they read by themselves) until they are fifteen years old.
So until 15, parents have a real, practical reason for continuing storytime.  I didn’t make this felicitous date with the little one, incidentally.  Regular storytime pretty much ended when she started high school and felt herself burdened with homework nearly every night.  (I’m not indulging my curiosity about how her homework load was so much more burdensome than her brother’s just two years before… with the same teachers and same assignments….  He had plenty of time for our evening reading, which means we kept going until he was 16 and she was 14.)
At any rate, now I don’t have to feel guilty any longer.  I didn’t really feel guilty. She’s ten times the reader I was at her age, and my goal was always to hook them on reading, not just hit an important date. Mission accomplished on both counts. They both read a considerable amount for pleasure, even in the age of video games, and since her eleventh birthday, my daughter has asked primarily for books for her birthday. I call that a win.
It’s her birthday coming up, so her reading journey I’m interested in tracking here.

In the picture book days, we read around an hour a day to her.  She loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough, which we had in an oversized board book format, perfect for propping on laps and reading together. It’s adorable, so I never minded reading it four times in a row. (One fear I always had was that they’d love something I hated, and I’d have to suffer through the same drivel a hundred times.  Reader, beware of this—read books before you introduce them to wee ones, who thrive on repetition.) When she learned to read (and she was well in to first grade), we scaled back to a conservative 45 minutes a night, and there we stayed, nearly without exception, until last summer.

Scholastic Book Club became my best friend. They have so many economical books, and you contribute to the teacher’s library too–everyone wins. She plowed through Daisy Meadows’s fairy books and Holub and Williams’s Goddess Girls series on her own, while we read a bit above her level at home—Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Peter and the Starcatchers. We also made a point to read things she might struggle with on her own—British books like The Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner, The Hobbit, and classics like Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and A Tale of Two Cities.  For some of these, she benefitted from having a mom who taught those books, but far more of them, we discovered together. I wouldn’t have traded this time for anything in the world.  

And as she advances through high school and in to adulthood, requesting Barnes and Noble giftcards for holiday gifts and brandishing tee shirts with the Ravenclaw crest or slogans like “The Book Was Better,” I take some consolation for the loss of storytime.


Summer Reading 2017

Younger me would never have stooped to reading anything but fiction or literature over the summer. As a student, of course, I spent much of the year reading what people told me to (with the caveat that I had some control over the classes I took). Summer was a time to read exactly what I wanted, which was a steady diet of classics and pulp like a literary salad.  No biography—who needed real people when imagined ones were so much more interesting, and no non-fiction—does that even count as reading?
Now in my mid-40s, the reading lists are changing.  There’s plenty of fiction, but more of it is modern (gasp—even contemporary—by LIVING authors), and I spend my days making connections from them to the past texts they make use of. And I am gratified that we keep re-using the same tropes and heroes.  There’s a Young Adult Odyssey, for instance, called Love in the Time of Global Warming (a double homage—playing on Garcia-Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera as well) by Francesca Lia Block, as well as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Carsten Jensen’s We, The Drowned, which also feels reminiscent of the Odyssey.  We really can’t go forward without looking back, and all those years reading old stuff is paying off for me in spades.
What’s more interesting, perhaps because I didn’t see it coming, is the non-fiction.  How much, after 22 years of teaching college English, I appreciate a well-wrought essay.  How endlessly interesting the world is, right here and now, without going to Narnia or Middle Earth or the forest of my beloved fairy tales.  How compelling research about the brain is, both for how I can teach better, and how I can learn better.  It’s a big world, and I’m grateful for the time to give more of it my attention.
This summer’s reading list is a hodge-podge, then:
1.       Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors because I haven’t read enough of his short fiction.
2.       Al Franken’s Al Franken, Giant of the Senate because I’m more political than ever, and that means I really need a laugh.
3.      Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever because I’m determined to keep learning languages, and I can’t afford to move to Europe for five years.
4.      Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad because just because I talked about it doesn’t mean I’ve read it.
5.       George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays because damn, that guy could write.
6.       Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain because apparently I now enjoy nature writing. Who knew?
7.       Georges Perec’s A Void because any novel written without a single ‘e’ must be quite something.
8.       Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower because John Green recommended it some time ago and I’ve never gotten around to it.
9.       Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies because they are the basis for so much, and because his imperfect knowledge of Latin gives me hope.  Best find at Kalamazoo this year!
10.    Italo Calvino’s Palomar in Italian, because that is the point of learning Italian.
More will trickle in (certainly some murder mysteries, which are my pulp of choice), and some may well fall out.  But that is the way of summer, as I experience it.  What’s on your reading agenda?

The Little Things are the Big Things, or Thanksgiving in June

Graduation always makes me happy. It’s the best day of the year, as far as my job is concerned—the day we work toward with each class of students, our main reason we do what we do. If faculty do their jobs and students do theirs, the result is Graduation Day. And it’s glorious.
It’s also Big. It’s often the biggest day in a student’s life so far, although we certainly have plenty who have had wedding days or children’s births, or some other Big celebrations, but by and large, it’s a milestone. It’s a time to be proud of hard work and perseverance and a time of excitement (and anxiety) about the future.
In some very concrete ways, we’re taught to measure our life out in these Big Things, as if there’s a checklist everyone’s privy to. High School? College? First big job? First promotion? First car? Marriage? First home? Children?
With a laundry list like that to check off, young people might well be intimidated, might be inclined to feel lesser if they miss one or two or five of those accomplishments.
I’m here to tell you not that the Big Things are a lie, but that you can make your own list, and that you shouldn’t get hung up on it.  The Big Things are the frame of your life, the dots in the connect-the-dots image of you.  But the Little Things—that’s where you live.
And if you stay focused on the Big Things, you miss the Little Things.
It’s a balance, of course, as all things are.We have to pan out, like Ansel Adams, and see the big picture, how we want the shape of our life to look. But we can’t dwell there. Most of our lives are spent in the middle ground—dealing with people and surroundings we encounter. I’d like to advocate for as many close-ups as you can squeeze in—attentive moments where you really see how full of wonder the Little Things are.
Here is an underwhelmingly incomplete list of Little Things that I have come to see as Big Things in my life.  It’s just a matter of changing your lens. Have fun out there.

  • ·         Hot tea on a cool morning
  • ·         Sleeping in
  • ·         Sunscreen
  • ·         Walking dogs
  • ·         Thank-you cards
  • ·         Yogurt pretzels (sweet and salty, creamy and crunchy—what more can you ask for?)
  • ·         Dogs who pose for portraits
  • ·         Homemade bread
  • ·         Goodnight kisses
  • ·         Poems
  • ·         Tweezers
  • ·         Card games
  • ·         Used books
  • ·         Snail mail
  • ·         A good murder mystery
  • ·         Family photos
  • ·         Crossword puzzles
  • ·         Wildflowers
  • ·         Handmade cards (anything handmade, really)
  • ·         Squirrels
  • ·         Learning something new
  • ·         Running in to an old friend
  • ·         Stumbling across a favorite something you haven’t seen in a while

What does your list look like?


Confessions of a Word-Hoarder

I am a philologist.  But let me explain what I mean by that, because we’re not all in agreement. has three definitions, one that is first and “current,” a second it marks as older, which actually means quite another thing, and the third, which it lists as “obsolete” and is the one that I claim.  Of course.
The word comes from the Greek roots meaning “lover of words.” Philo-logos. This means in its oldest form, it could refer to people who study (and love) language or those who study (and love) literature, that which we make from words.
The current definition falls on the side of literary, but not in the sense we think of; it means literature scholars who act as sleuths, trying to place and date texts given the raw data of what appears in a manuscript or other text.  The “older” and therefore outdated meaning is the other side of that coin—historical linguistics, essentially, or the study of ancient sound systems and grammars and theories about how language changes.
Linguistics and literature go hand in hand for me and always have.  One must understand the language in order to read the literature, of course.  When I graduated from my undergrad institution, it was with a double major in English literature and French language. I knew I wanted to focus on the medieval period, and I looked everywhere for a graduate program that would let me do both literary and linguistic study (by which I meant historical linguistics and language study).  I didn’t find one.
Instead I found a wonderful linguistics program in a department with four medievalists, and I started in linguistics (for two reasons, really: 1- I was still laboring under the notion that the more scientific-sounding the degree, the better, and 2- I wanted to learn the languages and how they changed, so I could really dig in to the literature).  “Historical Linguistics” as a field, I was told on my very first visit, was dwindling, but I could certainly pump up my linguistics degree with medieval language classes.
Everyone felt my ill-fit.  In linguistics classes I brought up literary considerations, and in literature classes, I asked about the translation and original language.  My thesis for my MA in linguistics was really very literary, and I had to add one long, discursive, decidedly linguistic footnote to demonstrate my skills before one member of my committee would sign off on it.
One of my German professors laughed and told me I was born a century too late; I really belonged in the glorious 19th century tradition of German philologists, with the Grimms and others, who studied language and literature together.  That’s where that “older” definition comes from.  It used to be a thing.  But in the modern academy, we have specialized far more, and now it’s tricky to do both.
Tricky, but not impossible.  Some programs allow one to choose two specializations.  Comparative Literature programs always include instruction in multiple languages.  Or you can choose my way.  Get a degree in linguistics, and then get another in literature.  My way is not time- or cost-effective, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Some famous philologists you will have heard of include Jakob Grimm and JRR Tolkien.  I do not pretend to rank myself with them, just to ally myself on the grounds of similar affections, as a lover of words.

(The image is of the first page of Beowulf in the Cotton Vitelius A.xv manuscript, now housed in London’s British Museum.)