It has become popular to brag about how many books our young children can read alone, but I believe an equal testimony to good parenting is this: the quality of the books we read aloud to the young ones entrusted to us. This is not to say that carefully-gauged, phonics-based books do not have a place in a child’s library. But the most engaging stories do not always comply with lists of words or sounds. Long before most children can read proficiently, their ears can enjoy listening to “big words” and “little words” alike.
If we truly wish to raise readers, it is best not to wean them too soon from the Time of Listening. In addition to the art of reading, the art of listening deserves careful nurturing, if we really want to raise well-rounded and respectful adults. Even a child who longs to hear the same story – again and again and again – is paying a high compliment to parent and author alike.
Each family is sure to have its own favorites, and different children will express their own tastes, but here is a varied list of fiction, which I believe would be a great asset to any family’s library:
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies
The Tale of Jeremy Fisher
Peter in Blueberry Land
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain
The Snowy Day
The first book on this list is among the most famous, and for very good reason: it is wonderful.
The original copyright was 1909, but The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies possesses a timeless quality, as do all books written by the inestimable Beatrix Potter. The fact that Beatrix Potter was both a gifted artist and a gifted author is amazing. Charming prose wed to charming imagery produced a book so fantastic that an American four year old, over a century later, will still ask for “the bunny book” before bedtime.
When it comes to children’s books, nobody’s critique speaks more clearly than a child’s requests: “This book, please” or “One more time.” The art of listening improves with each story-time, and language itself flourishes. Consider the opening sentence of the Flopsy Bunnies:
“It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.”
Now that is a sentence! It is a sentence which has been read by thousands and thousands of parents. What makes this opening so appealing is hard to say, but I believe it is anchored on one, nice big word: soporific.
The accompanying illustration is one of six plump baby rabbits encircling a lettuce, on their backs and completely asleep.
The author continues:
“I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit. They certainly had a very soporific effect upon the Flopsy Bunnies!”
And then we turn the page… It is so simple, yet so enticing. For a young child, there is no need to create great pathos or overly-mature events. With six little rabbits so calmly sleeping, something is bound to happen. Indeed, the dreaded gardener, Mr. McGregor, soon enters the story. He puts the bunnies in a sack, and I hope it is not a spoiler to relate the helpful actions of Mrs. Tittlemouse:
“Benjamin and Flopsy were in despair, they could not undo the string. But Mrs. Tittlemouse was a resourceful person. She nibbled a hole in the bottom of the sack”
And what did the rabbits place back into the sack, as a ruse for the antagonist Mr. McGregor?
“Their parents stuffed the empty sack with three rotten vegetable marrows, an old blacking-brush and two decayed turnips.”
Never mind that “veg-e-ta-ble” is too large a word for most four year olds to sound out. They know what it means when they hear it. And never mind that they have never tasted a turnip. All the Young Listener needs to know is that someone who cares about them is sharing something of interest and value with them.
Meanwhile, parents reap benefits from speaking such appealing prose, as well. Each time a charming tale is shared, cynicism slips further away from the corners of our minds. We become more grounded, and well-rounded, as we share both our tales and our time with the next generation.
Next Week: The Tale of Jeremy Fisher will be the second installment in this five part series.