April 25th, 2010

big book


When the kids were little, we read to them nearly every night, as part of the bedtime routine. Sometimes Anders would read to them both, sometimes I would, and sometimes each of us would be reading to one child. They picked the books, from the several shelves of picture books we had: English books sent to us from my mom, birthday present books, much-loved and somewhat battered copies from my own collection of children's books, and Swedish books purchased monthly from the 2 mail-order book clubs we belonged to then: Go'Boken and Bonniers Barnbokklubb.

Most of the latter are long-gone now, relegated over the years to flea sale and media sale bags or to charities, but we still have a couple of shelves left: mine, of course, which aren't going anywhere, and one each for the kids, whom I suspect will continue to winnow through them as they grow up and need the room for more mature reading choices.

When I was doing the bedtime reading, and the kids picked a Swedish book, I would simply translate it on the fly as I went. Anders did the same thing when handed an English book, reading it in Swedish. The kids, if they noticed, didn't seem to think it strange, that the same book, on different nights, was read to them in different languages. The story, after all, was the same; the pictures what drew them in and illustrated the story being spoken above their heads.

The only time we ran into trouble was with poetry and rhyming books, and Anders, after several stumbling attempts, declared that if they wanted Dr. Seuss, they'd have to ask Mama to read it!

As they grew, so did the books they chose. Sometimes I actually got to choose the books, and as we moved into chapter books, we read several of the Narnia books, the first three Oz stories, Mrs Frisby & the Rats of NIMH, The Hobbit, and countless other excellent tales. A few years ago, however, bedtime reading by me sort of dropped out of the routine: too many activities, later lights-out, their desire to use the time up until they had to be in bed for their own pursuits and pastimes. It made me sad to think that the days of reading aloud were already over, though I was at least heartened to know that both of them continued to read on their own in bed after being kissed goodnight.

Several months ago, at one of the AWC book group meetings, while we were discussing Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, a guest one of the members had invited along, who is only in Sweden for 6 months for a research project at Lund University, told us about the book group back home that she and her daughter, now 14, belonged to for the past several years. It was a mother-daughter book group, and the girls chose the books. She said it actually worked really well, though the mothers did occasionally have to put up with reading choices that were less than...optimal, shall we say (Babysitters's Club, anyone?).

It struck something in me: maybe reading WITH my kids didn't need to be a thing of the past...maybe this was a way that I could share more beloved books with my children. I asked them both what they thought about the idea of us trying to start a new AWC activity: a parent-child book group, where the kids and the parents could choose the books together, read them either together or separately and then get together with other kids and their parents to talk about the books (bonus: all in English!) They both thought it sounded like fun, and were open to the idea, so I went ahead and started planning.

Martin didn't really care which book we chose for the first time out but Karin, who is much less of a natural reader than he is, was a bit unsure. I suggested she look through all the books in the young adult & children's collection in the playroom and see if there was something there that caught her attention. She pulled out a high fantasy story by Diana Wynne Jones (whom I adore) but after we talked about it a little bit, agreed that it might not be the best choice to entice other kids and moms to participate. I had a flash of inspiration then, and suggested Watership Down.

This was a book that my sister and I had devoured and fallen in love with when we were approximately the same ages as Martin and Karin are now. I was trying to figure out how to choose a book that would appeal to a wide range of ages, which I think will ultimately be the hardest part of this type of activity, and had tentatively settled on limiting the group to children aged 8-14. I still have some concerns that an 8-year-old and a 14-year-old might have very different tastes and levels when it comes to books, but the pool of children that I'm drawing from are mostly children who are growing up bilingual in Sweden and English isn't necessarily their best or even first language, especially when it comes to reading, so I figure that will even the playing field a little bit.

Even if Watership Down probably falls on the more advanced side of this scale, I figured that older kids can read it themselves, and younger kids can be read to. It's a well-known classic and fairly easy to find, even here in Sweden, and it's available in English in the libraries as well. I have a very battered, much-read old paperback copy and after looking it over, both kids agreed that it sounded interesting.

I put the activity up on the AWC website, but still have to "announce it," as it were, since the official new edition doesn't get published until tomorrow night. However, the kids were excited about getting started so we jumped the gun by a few nights and since they wanted me to read it aloud to them, we're already through chapter 7.

I hadn't forgotten how much fun it is to read aloud. Even if it's, ultimately, slower than reading by yourself, storytelling on that level adds another dimension of excitement and suspense to a book that's hard to find any other way. The best compliment I get, as a reader to my kids, is the plea, when I've come to the end of a chapter, to read "just one more, Mom!"

*Title from a quote by Lady Montagu, 1752