Category Archives: Reading

The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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The Adaptation of Children’s Literature

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Tennessee Williams

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Publishers who abridge, adapt, and condense children’s literature use the classics as a commodity. Although the expressed intention is to introduce these writings to a younger audience, this is not a enterprise done with love of prose in mind. These summarized novels are more like CliffNotes in terms of their inability to bring depth and understanding of the original works to children.

I was working with a fifth grader this holiday season and suggested that she read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She pulled a paperback down from her shelf and told me, listlessly, that she had already read it.  I glanced at the book and saw that it was an abridged version.

A Christmas Carol is a novella, short in length, but opulent in sensual imagery and fervid emotions. Books, unlike films, do not need to fit into certain time frames which necessitate condensing. The only reason, then, to abridge the work is to “dumb it down” so that the young reader has less work to do to get through what often is fancifully arcane and luxurious language.

But, isn’t that one of the gifts of reading the classics? To allow words to transport us, to give us the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of exotic places and to teach us, through this process, that human needs, fears, passions, cruelties, jealousies, hypocrisies, insecurities, and reckless braveries have always and will always be a part of the elegant tapestry that makes us human.

By reading only the adapted version of A Christmas Carol, my young friend missed such stunning passages as:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling, “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Instead reading:

“You are tied in chains, tell me why.” “I am a prisoner of the chain I made for myself during my life. I chose to wear it.”

I don’t blame any child for not being impressed with such insipid language. I suppose ”fettered” and “forged” are considered to be too archaic? The lyrical rhythm of the language, the repetitions that bring the readers’ attention to the importance of the ghost’s statement, have disappeared in the effort to be economical and simplistic with words.

Our children are more capable than they are often given credit for. A fifth grader should be able to read Charles Dickens without it being predigested for her.

Begin the process of introducing the sometimes odd, yet lovely language in classic children’s literature to your child when he is too young to read the originals himself. Resist the colorful Disney paperbacks of Winnie the Pooh or the Fairy Tales and instead read A.A. Milne and Hans Christian Andersen. Trust that your child will listen, and in this listening, not only become enchanted, but begin to build an understanding of the unique experience that reading can be.

A Christmas Carol was written almost 200 years ago, yet the story, because it is based on essential truths, is immortal. Don’t be a part of the wrong thinking that believes that the rewriting of the classics for easy consumption is a gentle introduction.

These works are a precious legacy from a passionate group of writers. Each carefully chosen word should be valued and respected.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) said about his writing,

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”

And Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) stated:

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Every word in a classic book, whether it be War and Peace or  The Little Prince, is vital. You might as well take the “excess notes” out of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi to make the melodies easier to follow.

We live in an age of sound bites and texts. It is healthy to balance this diet with something that demands an exacting focus. Better to read less dense classics such as as Charlotte’s Web or Charlie and The Chocolate Factory unabridged than to give your child an abridged version of Treasure Island, Peter Pan, or The Secret Garden.

Reading more difficult text builds both critical thinking (which stems from analyzing, predicting, and imagining) and self esteem (which builds as the child succeeds at tasks that at first seems arduous). When your child feels an eagerness to get back to the characters in a book and a vague sadness when the story has ended, that’s when you know that the bridge between learning to read and becoming a reader has been crossed.

If your child begins to read a classic and then discards it as being too hard, please help her manage, as you once held the back of her bicycle when she went from training wheels to two wheels. Read aloud to her. You may only need to read the first few chapters before she is pedaling on her own.

In the chaos that our modern life so often is, there is nothing more meditative than learning to turn to a book to remind you that although turmoil has always existed, so has abundant spiritual generosity and unbounded love.

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May Our New Year Shine Gloriously Bright with Hope.

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Learning to Listen

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A child must learn to listen before he can listen to learn. Experts agree that the conditions which most affect  literacy take place in the home, long before a child enters school. Children listen, understand, and speak before they read, write, and spell. Without the former, the latter is impossible. It follows that the more developed a very young child’s language skills, the easier time he will have learning the academics of literacy. Reading to your child from the very beginning will help develop listening skills that are invaluable later in life. At first your active baby won’t have the attention span to allow you to read all the words of a book to her, but just sitting together enjoying books, talking about the illustrations, is enough to start. As time goes by, a young child who has access to a bookshelf will soon be seeking out books and sitting quietly pretending to read. This activity is not, simply, adorable. For a child, the act of pretending is a major step in learning a new skill.

In order to help a child learn to listen, keep the home environment as free of unnecessary distraction as possible. Turn off the background noise. This simple act will help to create a more peaceful atmosphere conducive to contemplation…and to reading. Music is not usually a distraction, but the news and commercials that accompany radio and television certainly are. Children are sensitive and their hearing is acute, try to shield them from the constant advertising and, more importantly, the disturbing violent events that are, sadly, so often in the news.

Another aspect in teaching children to learn to listen is to listen to them! The respect that you show when you pay careful attention to a child’s stories and questions teaches him the importance of listening. Ask interactive, open-ended questions that offer the child not only an opportunity to express himself but to develop cognitive skills. Avoid “baby talk” or talking down to a child. Children love “big” words; adults often underestimate their insatiable curiosity and innate ability to learn them. Books add a multitude of new words not used in daily life that enrich and enlarge your child’s vocabulary exponentially. The art of thoughtful listening is fast becoming obsolete. Help your child become attentive in a culture rife with sound bites, twitter, and the abbreviated language of texting. It is only in listening closely that we truly learn.

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To teach is to share knowledge joyfully; to learn is to listen with equal joy.  Teachers are all around us:

The Power of Poetry

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Poetry is often looked upon as irrelevant, a part of another era, when people had more leisure time, less distractions; when conversation was an art, and life wasn’t so frenetic. Yet, it is well documented by linguists that children who have early exposure to poetic verse and the phonemic and syllabic sensitivity it brings, have an easier time recognizing individual sounds and learning to read.

Poetry is the heartbeat of literature. Begin a rhyme in a room full of children and watch what happens…a sudden attentive stillness. Even babies, who can’t yet understand the meaning of the words, are entranced by the patterns, repetitions, and rhythms:

I am Sam

Sam I am

That Sam-I-am That Sam-I-am!

I do not like that Sam-I-am

Do you like 
green eggs and ham?

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

I do not like 
green eggs and ham.

Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham

Rhyme draws attention to the ending sounds of individual words – alliteration to the beginning. The musical language of poetry rings and reverberates, creating in the child a fundamental joy in literature.

But should the reading of poetry end with nursery rhymes? The emotions that poetry evokes are universal. As children grow older, the reading and writing of poetry can help them to cope with vulnerable truths that are too fragile to share in other ways…love, pain, death, transcendence…feelings not likely to be discussed on Facebook:

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Reading aloud one’s own poetry creates a forum for individual expression that inspires confidence and pride. To communicate profound feelings and see that others share them is a transporting experience. In a school system that stresses the head – test taking, memorization, grades, and competition – poetry celebrates the heart. In this increasingly homogenized culture, poetry’s power lies in its originality-whether wild with rage as in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or soft with the tenderness of e.e.cummings’ somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond, poetry connects us intimately and immediately to our deepest feelings.

The language of poetry encourages inventiveness with words. Hope is “the thing with feathers” (Emily Dickenson). Eyes are “the window to the soul”(Shakespeare). Poetry conjures images that broaden and enlighten the mind. Metaphor and simile invite the reader to look at life in different ways, using unexpected correlations that inspire creative thinking:

The fog comes

on little cat feet

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on

Carl Sandburg – Fog

From the rocking rhythm of early lullabies to the healing strength of dirges, the simple truths of poetry cross all cultures, all boundaries. Introduce poetry early to share the wonder of words with your child, but don’t lose track of how poetry’s elegant, eloquent elucidation can inspire us throughout our life

Literacy – How it Begins

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“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oral language is the foundation of literacy. Within a few short months an infant’s cries become babbles, then, suddenly, talking! Soon, the young child understands the meaning of thousands of words. The acquisition of language happens at a remarkable speed. Every time a child learns something new, it becomes a part of his knowledge base. Since words are simply articulations of concepts and feelings, it is evident that a child’s vocabulary should be measured not by how many words he knows, but by what he knows about each word.

The more ideas that the child is exposed to, the deeper her understanding of certain terms: A child whose favorite book is Goodnight Moon understands the conception of the moon in a more visceral way once she has seen a bright full moonrise, or watched the moon disappear behind a cloud lined with silver. Thereafter, whenever the book is read to her, these images flood her mind allowing a richer appreciation of both the word moon and the familiar bedtime story.

One of the most giving words in the English language is the word, “Look!” When you invite a child to look, you give him the gift of your time, attention, and awareness. You joyfully invite him to join in a shared experience and with this simple word illustrate how communication bonds us. “Look! A dragonfly!” Fills the child’s mind with dragons, butterflies, fairies… “Can it breathe fire?” I have been asked. These opportunities to enlarge your child’s perspective happen daily, and books are a wonderful way to extend this rapid accumulation of knowledge. While the opportunity to see a rainbow doesn’t happen everyday, books, both fiction and non-fiction, can share the beautiful imagery of a rainbow with your child, reinforcing such basics as color recognition, but more importantly, encouraging him to see the wonder and glory of the natural world…and to look for rainbows everywhere.

Children are born scientists – curious and eager to explore. Knowledge is not a mere collection of facts, it is alive, pulsing-a process of discovery. Books provide an access to worlds that we cannot, otherwise, enter. From the bioluminescent depths of the sea to the mystical outer edges of the known universe, books satisfy the need and the love for communication that begins with the infant’s first cries.