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Building on the Foundation

For my birthday, my husband gave me a stack of photographs as thick as a Harry Potter book. In almost every picture, I’m reading to at least one grandchild while crouching on floors, snuggled in restaurant booths, sitting on park benches, and all over our house and our daughters’ houses: at tables, in chairs, on porches, on couches, in beds.

In some of the pictures, my almost-seven-year-old grandchildren are toddlers, heads bent over Fox in Socks or a Sandra Boynton book about cows or hippos. In many, we’re all laughing; in others, we’re so engrossed in the story, we didn’t notice the camera at work.

In other pictures, I’m not reading at all. My husband is reading, my daughters are reading, my sons-in-law are reading. If I had to choose a leitmotif running through all of our lives, reading aloud would be it.

My grandchildren do have other interests. They play sports. They go to music class (“Hello, everybody! So glad to see you!”). They love crafts, LEGOs, and trucks. They ride bikes and make cookies, and just the other day my older daughter texted a picture of a sign my granddaughter had written and taped to a bed-sheet tent: “Open open open open,” said the sign. “There’s an ice-cream shop making a go of it in our living room,” my daughter wrote.

Books, though, are the foundation on which everything else rests.

Take Christmas, or rather, take the gathering two weeks after the actual holiday. Seasonal colds and the flu had left us with a stack of still-wrapped gifts that were beginning to look just a tiny bit disturbing in our living room, like a fully decorated Fraser fir in July. With the specific goal of “for goodness’ sake finishing Christmas before Valentine’s Day,” the family assembled at our house for an indoor picnic and a final unwrapping session. As we filled our plates, and in full view of the pile of waiting gifts, my granddaughter sidled over. “Can we read books?” she asked.

We did, in fact, conclude the afternoon with books. A son-in-law read aloud one of the gifts, Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe, about a girl who “was born the color of midnight,” and we all admired Vashti Harrison’s luminous illustrations.

Later, all three grandchildren and I piled in the same chair to read another gift, Ben Hatke’s graphic novel Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl from start to finish. This is the fourth book in the Zita series and the third in the Mighty Jack series. Both of the older grandkids have read at least a couple of the earlier books and knew the backstory and the characters well. They corrected me patiently (“That’s not Zita, that’s Jack’s mom”) when I made mistakes. Together, we whipped through that book like rolling downhill. Now I need to read the other five on my own.

And that’s the thing. My grandchildren and their parents have ventured so far into the world of chapter books and graphic novels that they’ve finished entire series. They’ve read Raina Telgemeier, Beverly Cleary, Annie Barrows, Roald Dahl, and Sharon Creech. They’ve met Ivy and Bean, Zoey and Sassafras, and -- old friends of mine -- the Boxcar Children.

Aware of my grandchildren’s growing comprehension and more mature thinking, I’ve looked for more complex stories: Heather Smith’s The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden, about neighbors who find comfort in “calling” the victims of a tsunami; Pablo Finds a Treasure by Andrée Poulin, the story of a sister and brother who must pick through garbage and avoid a dangerous bully to help their family survive; and Nicola Davies’s The Day War Came, about a girl who loses her family, her home, and her country only to be faced with ostracism in a new land. (That one was almost too harsh, tbh.)

Finding books with gripping stories and genuine literary value isn’t difficult, thanks to the quality of today’s children’s literature. But it does require pulling a lot of books from library shelves. Some -- I’m surprised by how many -- I put right back again because we’ve already read them. Others, I put right back because they’re inane. (Just for the record, and noting that this is my opinion only, I reject automatically any book in which farting is featured for humorous effect.) My library visits have become earnest field trips, during which I turn over the bibliographical landscape for stories that will help my grandchildren see the world, understand its complexities, accept the challenges, and, in time, grow into people whose empathy and intelligence will help them change their world.

Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.
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Christi Dunfee

Margo, you never cease to amaze me and I love your writing! Reading with grands is the best!

Posted : Feb 02, 2020 04:52


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