Sixteen Insights from Children’s Books, with Apologies to the Bobbseys

I loved my grandparents’ house for many reasons. Crafts, Boggle games, the pond, the swings, strawberry plants, the cookie jar (thoughtfully located in a lower cupboard, accessible to even the youngest child), croquet, the purple tandem bike, and, of course, Grandpa and Grandma. I also loved the book stash. Grandma was both the church librarian and a school librarian, and, as such, inherited custody of the cast-off books. Although most had achieved their “withdrawn” status by becoming almost too tattered to read, they were still readable as long as one kept track of the molted pages. Walter the Lazy Mouse, Pippi Longstocking, the book about the bunnies and the weasel (I forgot the title): I loved them all.

Well, almost all. Love doesn’t describe my opinion of the elderly copies of The Bobbsey Twins. These books held enough of my interest for me to scan them, but little more. It wasn’t the adventures I found so implausible (although for a family from the early part of the 20th century they were suspiciously well-traveled) but the four protagonists themselves. Such goody-goodies. Seldom was their behavior inappropriate, and when it was, they repented immediately and with great remorse.

These “four youngsters” were what teachers would call “a good example to others.” They often smacked of a lesson. Let’s just all acknowledge that few books that trot out lessons are enjoyable literature.

I much preferred Pippi.

Still, many beloved children’s books do contain a bit of wisdom—not that which clobbers kids with the sense that they should emulate Freddie and Flossie and their ilk, but a gentler variety, subtly woven into the story. They offer insights that I hope penetrate my kids’ outlook on others, themselves, and life in general.

Insights such as these:

1.  “The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.” The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.

2.  “All children have gifts; some open them at different times.” Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.

3.  “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster.

4.  “Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae.

5.  “‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

6.  “[May] understood people and she let them be whatever way they needed to be. She had faith in every single person she ever met, and this never failed her, for nobody ever disappointed May. Seems people knew she saw the very best of them, and they’d turn that side to her to give her a better look.” Missing May by Cynthia Rylant.

7.  “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.

8.  “Olivia’s mother gives her a kiss and says, ‘You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.’” Olivia by Ian Falconer.

9.  “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Loebel.

10.  “’I like it better here, where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.’ Ferdinand’s mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

11.  “I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

12.  “How can we feel so different and be so alike?” Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.

13.  “Talent is something rare and beautiful and precious, and it must not be allowed to go to waste.” The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

14.  “You never fill your own bucket when you dip into someone else’s.” Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.

15.  [On the closing of a library] “There will be consequences!” Aunt Chip and the Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polocco.

16.  “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Inspired by these and similar quotations worth pondering, I asked Sonny and Ace what they had learned from books. Surely one of their favorite stories had offered some epiphany on the human experience. Surely they had not only subconsciously internalized wisdom such as the aforementioned but even consciously reflected on a worthwhile message or two.

And they had. Both spoke up promptly.

Sonny: “I learned that before the Lions were a Detroit team, they played in Ohio and were called the Spartans.”

Ace: “I learned that Zane, the White Ninja, is also known as the Titanium Ninja.” *

Fair enough. Read on, everyone, and learn what you will. Enjoy your books.

*He then proceeded to deliver a Ninjago quiz, which I failed miserably.

 

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Why I Read to My Kids

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether it’s possible to read to one’s kids too much. Is reading several (sometimes many) books to them per day too indulgent? Is this too neglectful of, for example, the laundry festering in piles in the basement or the weeds in the garden?

Everyone knows the advantages of reading to children. Reading promotes a larger vocabulary. Reading encourages listening skills. Reading expands knowledge. Reading raises academic performance. And these are all reasons that I read to Sonny and Ace. But academic benefits aren’t the only reasons for my doing this (if they were, I’d give equal times to math games, which is decidedly not the case).

My friend mentioned that she reads to her four kids so often because it’s guaranteed to get them to stop talking all at once and all the time. Brilliant. This started me thinking about why I read to my kids.

  • It’s built-in cuddling time. Both Sonny and Ace like to snuggle (as do I), at least occasionally, so why not do so while reading? Curling up together on the couch with a book is cozy and preferable to trying to snuggle while I’m ironing or putting groceries away. (I know because my kids have attempted this.)
  • Kids’ books aren’t just for kids.  As C.S. Lewis observed, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The Little House books. The Hello Goodbye Window. When I Was Young in the Mountains. Poppleton. Frog and Toad. One Morning in Maine. Chicken Sunday. We All Went on Safari. Charlotte’s Web. What’s not to like?                                                        (Conversely, some children’s books are in fact only enjoyed by children. Really, why does the world need SpongeBob books?  And why do my kids know precisely which library shelf houses these? And am I the only parent who sometimes surreptitiously slides these into the book return slot on the way out of the building, moments after we checked them out?)
  • When the three of us are sitting on the couch reading, nobody is trashing the house. (My husband is a neat freak, so no worries there.)
  • Sometimes it’s irresistibly convenient to hold up book characters as role models. Not often enough to be annoying (I hope), but sometimes it just slips out: “Almanzo stayed outside all day, and it was 40 degrees colder than this, and his mittens weren’t even waterproof like yours! So it’s really not so bad out here, is it? ”
  • My kids are learning that reading is a pleasure, not a chore, and that someone who likes to read should never be bored. Reading definitely soothes them. The other day Sonny said, “I’m feeling nervous about school starting. Can we read?”
  • Books give kids vocabulary to express their emotions and questions. Familiar with Have You Filled a Bucket Today, Sonny and Ace often discuss filling or emptying people’s invisible buckets. (“She said I was getting big. That filled my bucket!” “He yelled at her. I think that emptied her bucket.”) And when we read Badger’s Parting Gifts before their grandpa’s funeral, Ace asked softly, “Is Badger coming back?” (It broke my heart to say no, because I knew what he was really asking.)
  • Reading gives the kids more folks to relate to. Wemberly worried about starting school, too.  Wilbur doesn’t want to go to the dentist, either. When I commented to Ace about his love of drawing, he nodded and explained, “I am like Tommy.”
  • If I read to my kids, then I did something right that day. Maybe the kids watched a little too much TV. Maybe my to-do list (written with such optimism . . . two days ago) remains untouched. That three-hour chunk of time when I was going accomplish something was eaten up by a car emergency. Maybe I pretty much feel like a failure today. Well, I’m going to read to my kids now, so take that, unproductive Thursday.

I just asked my kids why they like to read together. Sonny: “I like to learn more about soccer and hear what Henry and Mudge are doing, because they are funny.” Ace: “When we read it is quiet in the house.”

That’s good enough for me.