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Reading together across the miles

critter1When I became an aunt two years ago, I lived within driving distance and saw my niece at least once a month. I've not-so-subtly tried to fuel her interest in books, giving her new board books whenever I see her. I've really enjoyed watching her development as a reader: from receptive listener to board book chewer to active storytime participant. Eight months ago, however, I moved back to Boston, making it more of a challenge to see her as often.

dinosaur-danceSkype helps bridge the distance. One day, not long ago, I was Skyping with her and her mom. I asked my niece about a new book her mom had given her, and she ran off-screen and came back holding Sandra Boynton’s Dinosaur Dance! for me to see. Without prompting, she opened it and held the first page up to the monitor. "A story!" she said. That's her way of letting us know she wants us to read to her. And so I did, with her helping by turning the pages, holding the book up, and dancing along.

After this encounter, I started thinking about how, even when I'm far away, we could build on the bond we've developed during these first two years of her life. That's when I remembered something my aunt and uncle, who live halfway across the country, do with their East Coast grandkids. In between actual visits, they read with or are read to by their grandkids over Facetime. My niece and I could make a habit of this, too. Perfect for a girl and her bookish aunt to do together each week!

critter2We've been trying different things: sometimes it's the Dinosaur Dance! technique, or we'll read a book we both have and that she’s familiar with (Kevin Henkes's Old Bear worked well this way). Sometimes I pick a new book from my shelves to see how she responds (she enjoyed naming the animals in Alison Murray's Little Mouse). I can't wait till she's old enough to be able to read to me.

dinosaur-dance2Some pro-tips: most board books are small enough that a whole double-page spread can be viewed close up on a screen, making the experience similar to what the child would see in person and easier for him/her to be engaged with the book. I had to get used to reading upside down or from the side. Picture books are a little trickier; their large size often limits screen space to a single page. Virtual shared reading involving lots of double-page picture-book spreads and/or a lot of text make reading upside down difficult, and it’s harder for a young viewer to follow along. I suggest choosing books that feature lots of white space, spot art, and/or single-page illustrations. For early readers and novels, I recommend that--when possible--you each have your own copy to follow along.

Even when you're far away from a loved one, the wonders of modern technology make it possible to stay connected and read together across the miles--and that's worth a "dinosaur dance" any day.
Cynthia K. Ritter
Cynthia K. Ritter

Cynthia K. Ritter is managing editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She earned a master's degree in children's literature from Simmons University.

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