First Leap To Learning How to Read

First Leap To Learning How to Read

By Emily Brisse


I remember a frog—a green one, and speckled. He must have been on an adventure, leaping from one place to another—from land to a lily pad, or from a lily pad to land. I can’t say which; all I saw were his back legs, a tipped down and lazy V, bent and vaulting onto the next page. How do I know it was even a he, that frog? Did he have a name? Some larger purpose beyond that leap? I’ve tried finding answers to these questions—I asked my mother, librarians, elementary-school teachers, the Internet—those inter-webbed webs of message boards devoted to children’s books about frogs—but the pond is too big. Frogs that are just two green legs jumping from one white page onto another are as indistinguishable as water weeds.

Unless you’re me.

If you’re me, you remember those two green legs, those two green keys, as vividly as spears of light because they mark the moment when language unlocked and you started to read.

I wonder now if that’s why I can’t remember the frog’s body or face, because the moment was so bright, and all the illumination breaking open made me close my eyes so it wouldn’t escape—leap.

Whatever the reason, I remember it. I’ve always remembered it. I was young, maybe three? My mother was there. We each tell the story. “I’m reading!” I’d said, clutching the book, pointing at the legs and the letters.

It was memory, of course; I’d memorized the words from my mother’s repeated renderings. I watched the movement of her hands against the print, the way certain words were paired with certain images. There was a rhythm. A timing. A hop and a skip and a jump from one idea to the next. I’d put it together and had the dance, had the beat and the steps and the sound, I was swimming, floating, leaping.

It was performance. But it was for me. It was because I wanted to know the steps so badly, how to kick my two green legs in just the right way.

It was memory.

But it was reading.

I was reading.

You can’t unleap a leap like that. The pond is too big.

So I am reading still, tonight about a tiger with four orange legs. I have fewer questions. I know the story’s title. I know the purpose of the journey. I know the tiger—a he—has stripes, and why they’re there. He is wearing a top hat, which is part of the journey. He says funny things about dancing and top hats and green olives. Every detail, the rhythms, the timing, each word—I read it. I read it aloud, with a kind of gusto, the vim that arises from the best corners of childhood. And I watch my son, not yet three, sitting on my lap, yes, but not really—really he is in the book, in the story, finding his way among the stripes and the olives, the dancing and the letters.

I feel him stalking along behind those four orange legs, making his own discriminate leaps. I haven’t said where they will lead him, but even without the words, I know he understands.

Emily Brisse’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Literary Mama, Mamalode, and Two Hawks Quarterly. She teaches English at Breck School in Minneapolis and reads picture books every night.


Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader

Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader

Born Reading coverBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Wendy Griswold, a sociologist and author of the third book on this list explains that, “A reading class is a social formation, while a reading culture is a society where reading is expected, valued, and common. All societies with written language have a reading class but few have a reading culture.” Let’s just say that if you are a Brain, Child reader, you are a member of the reading class. Though you probably also know then that more than raising readers, it would be wonderful to help create a reading culture. That is the ultimate goal of these ten books together, which move from the theoretical to the practical and pragmatic. But of course we must also be concerned about the other iteration of raising readers—from basic literacy to love of a book to love of literature, etc. and each book individually addresses one of these issues in some way. As Jason Boog, author of book #4 on this list, explains, snobbery really has no place in children’s worlds; we should encourage them to read whatever interests them in any form including comics and eBooks in addition to treasured hardcovers and sacred board books. Happy Reading!

  • Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar

Maria Tatar, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, teaches about Folklore and Mythology—most famously about fairy tales. This trade book will appeal to anyone who fell in love with any book as a child. Using luminous language Tatar examines the stories we love and how readers think about, and remember, them. She also identifies themes that endure, along with ways of reading. For instance, she describes the “contact zone” created when a parent and child read together, and how bedtime reading was invented (around the time when kids started sleeping separately from their parents). On the creation of good night books, Tatar writes, “Books are our soothing syrup. We depend on them to build a bridge from waking to sleeping, to transform the alert, inquisitive child into an immobile, drowsy creature finally willing to stay in bed.” This book will help you wax nostalgic about your days as a young reader, while treating your own young reader with respect, especially as he or she prepares to delve in the talismanic, Talmudic, and sacred canon of children’s literature.

Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood by J.A. Appleyard

This book relies on psychology and literary theory to talk about how we read fiction over our lives (in fact, Appleyard heavily draws on the work of Erik Erikson, whose seminal book Childhood and Society was just reviewed at Brain, Child!). But Becoming a Reader offers us a guidebook for our children’s, and our own, reading journeys. Based on years of research Appleyard concludes that, “Many factors form the sensibility of a particular reader…but underlying these concrete circumstances there seems to be a set of capacities and expectations that develops according to a fairly orderly pattern and influences the way one reads as one grows from childhood to adulthood.” He argues that readers take on five roles over their lives: Player, Hero/ine, Thinker, Interpreter, Pragmatist. We may all long for the days when reading (or, more precisely, being read to) was pure pleasure; but we can also identify with the finding that, “Juvenile and adolescent and college-age readers distinguish between school reading and voluntary reading, but adults distinguish between escape reading and books that are challenging or demanding.” Brain, Child of course is a bit of both for its readers…

Regionalism and the Reading Class by Wendy Griswold

This short book by sociology professor Wendy Griswold is written about the reading class, for the reading class. What is “the reading class?” According to Griswold, “The reading class consists of those people who read for entertainment constantly. These are the folks who always have a book going, who never travel without something to read, who have print materials scattered in every room of their houses. This reading class is and will be modest in size but immense in cultural influence.” What is immensely useful about Griswold’s work is that she situates reading as both a social and historical activity. She points out that readers in most societies have traditionally been a minority (incidentally, mainly an elite activity) and that decline of reading refers not to literacy—as we live in a text-saturated world—but reading for pleasure. What many of us desire for our children then is to raise a member of the reading class and not just a reader.

Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age—From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between by Jason Boog

I’m spoiled his punchline a bit, but I love what Boog wrote on the last page of Born Reading: “This is the only parenting handbook that won’t make your life easier.” Raising a reader takes effort on the part of the parents, but for so many different reasons it is work that has a worthwhile reward. Born Reading is one of the most recent books on this list (released in 2014) and as such it talks a lot about screens in young children’s lives. Boog’s view is moderate; he explains, “This book also acknowledges that reading and learning—even for small children—is happening more and more on screens and online. Whatever your feelings about that, it’s a truth to be embraced, not shunned.” The focus is on interactive reading—asking lots of questions, making the experience kinetic and not just cognitive—which are tips that apply to board books, comic books, eBooks, apps, and the like. Boog provides 15 tips as part of The Born Reading Playbook, each with a “conversation starter.” For example: “Guess what happens next. These questions will reinforce a sense of narrative and enhance reading comprehension…Who do you think will win the race?” Overall Born Reading provides practical tips, suggested books and apps, Common Core suggestions, and the reminder that, “There are very few things a young child can control in this world, but a book is a simple and perfect place to start.”

I’m Ready!: How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Weitzman

I’ve previously declared my love for I’m Ready! and it hasn’t diminished—of all the books on this list I’m most likely to recommend this one for several reasons. This speech-language pathologist team combine the theory and research behind literacy and turn it into useful, directed, and do-able suggestions for parents. Moreover, this short book (only about 75 pages) is reminiscent of a child’s textbook, which puts you in the right frame of mind; especially because the target audience, parents of toddlers and preschoolers, tend to be a pretty tired lot (of course I couldn’t possibly be speaking from experience). Greenberg and Weitzman themselves have a way with words. For example, when writing about one of the five building blocks of literacy—vocabulary: “On any given day your child hears thousands of words. If you imagine those words as stars in the sky, it’s easy to see why no single star will capture her attention unless it shines and twinkles more brightly than the others.” By reading I’m Ready! you might even get some tips for improving your own story comprehension…

Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Babe to Age 7 by J. Richard Gentry

Gentry is a former Reading Professor and elementary school-age teacher, so he knows a lot about which he writes. He has very specific ideas about how to raise confident writers—the biggest of which is that he believes reading and writing are linked and that early writers tend to be early readers. He goes so far as to argue that this is the first book/program of its kind to link writing and drawing skills to reading. I confess that my own children are not old enough to make their way through the five phases of the program yet to say how effective it is, and there are some who think that learning to write too early is harmful (especially because many children have not yet developed adequate fine motor skills to grip various writing implements properly). But Gentry’s phases certainly start at the most basic level with no set timeline for progression so parents will feel little pressure to have their 6-month-old writing his or her ABCs.

The Reading Lesson: The intelligent reading program for young child by Michael Levin and Charan Langton

The “the” in the title is no accident. Levin and Charan emphasize lowercase letters in their reading method hence “the Reading Lesson.” Why lowercase letters? They argue that many kids do not know them as well as uppercase, even though 95% of print letters are lowercase. Over 20 lessons this husband-and-wife doctor-master’s of science duo lay out ways parents can help children learn decoding skills (an important distinction because this is not a book about reading comprehension). So many books out there claim to teach kids to read in “x” many lessons and it is important to be cautious. This guide is geared for ages 4-8 and suggests only doing one page per day until the child is five or six, and not more than three per day. It also emphasizes combing phonics and word recognition as most fluent readers employ both.

Seuss’ ABC

At the end of the day, no “planned” program can do better than basics like ABC books. As a child this was my favorite (Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz anyone?!), and my boys have enjoyed Elmo’s ABCs, Red Sox ABCs (sorry, Yankees fans), and Eating the Alphabet. The key here is repetition and fun interpretations—no matter how bored this may make the adults at times. At the end of the day, kids learn best through play, and that’s true for the ABCs as well.

Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Clement Hurd)

Maria Tatar refers to this book as the mother of all bedtime stories. It is a book that is mentioned by many who write about children’s literature and theory (for example, check out pages 105-111 of Enchanted Hunters and pages 25-7 of Born Reading). It was written in a single morning and as Tatar puts it, “The work’s spontaneous genesis reminds us that it is as much poetry as prose, a lyrical homage to things as well as an elegiac story about rabbits.” The illustrations also make it unforgettable and Boog points out that the integration of black and white images with bright colors are perfect for brand-new eyes. Speaking from experience here, kids request this again and again and there is always something new to find (even if parts start to seem off, even creepy). Our household is already on our second board book, it was so loved.

Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At some point you move away from board books, and eventually progress to chapter books (and of course, someday the kids read them on their own). A series, with action and deep relationships, provides a great oral and solitary reading experience. Boys and girls alike appreciate the frontier story of the Ingalls, and with nine volumes the works will keep you reading together for some time. The history adds another layer and could help develop a nonfiction interest for some readers. And this is one of those families parents will be happy to revisit as well…

Hilary Levey Friedman is Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor.

Evolution of a Reader

Evolution of a Reader


You start when he is two months old, you know it is important. All the experts say so, all the articles. Read to them, read to them incessantly. Do it early, the earlier the better. He seems like an alert baby, this one, wide-eyed and curious. The way he bats at his toys, the way he tracks your movements with a searching, soulful expression. Maybe all babies are like this, you aren’t sure. He is your first. You project onto him constantly—thoughts, feelings, skills—as if projecting will make it so.

Your mother sat with him when he was one week old, just home from the hospital, a sliver of a thing, and read him Pat the Bunny in that special sing-song voice you remember well from your own childhood. “Judy can pat the bunny,” she said, as your son stared into the middle distance, head lolling. “Now YOU pat the bunny.” She took the baby’s starfish hand, the nails still peeling from the wetness of the womb, and rubbed it purposefully against the fluffy bunny. And you couldn’t tell if it was ridiculous or adorable to be reading to a baby so new.

All the same, a couple of months later, you decide it is time to begin. Every night, every night without fail. Your husband gives the baby a bath, and then you coo at him, a steady stream of chatter as you stuff limbs into a sleepsuit covered with teddybears or rockets or stripes. You prop him up against you on the bed and read two books. Always two. Sometimes Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Sometimes Here Are My Hands. Sometimes you channel your mother and read Pat the Bunny with just the right intonations. You take it for granted that your son sits still at this age, that he tolerates the books without crying, when what he really wants is his milk. None of your other children will be so patient.

By the time he is one, he can pat the bunny on his own. He seems to understand you now, he has words himself, a bevy of animal sounds and an assortment of other babbles that mean something, finally. The floodgates of communication have opened; reading has become blissfully interactive. Your son loves books. You tell your family, your friends, anybody who will listen: “He loves books!” This makes you proud, as if it is evidence of an impressive feat of parenting or genetics. But of course he loves books, the shelves are lined with them, the house is strewn with them. Reading is your go-to childcare activity.

Over the next couple of years, your son becomes oddly interested in history. Or maybe it’s not so odd because you and your husband are both academics with a flair for the past. The chunky board books give way to early readers, to thinner pages telling tales of the Romans, the Greeks. But the Egyptians are his favorite. He loves the concept of mummies, he traces the Sphinxes with his still-dimpled finger. He becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, how Anakin Skywalker changed from good to evil. You read him endless books about it. He becomes obsessed with Jesus, even though you are Jewish, and you read him endless books about that too.

At some point, it is clear he is ready to read himself, but you don’t want to push it. Your instinct is that this process, this magical process, should happen organically. You talk about the alphabet with a concerted nonchalance, calling the letters by their phonetic names, because you are in the UK and this is how it’s done. M is not “em,” it is “mmmm,” as if the letter itself is edible, is utterly delicious. Your son is getting the gist of it, it’s a game to him. You, however, are newly overwhelmed by the mischievousness of the English language. Its absurd rules feel, all of a sudden, like inhospitable guests. So many exceptions, so many outliers. He can read “hat,” but how do you explain “hate”?

You breathe a sigh of relief when he starts school, that children go to school earlier where you live, and that you can pass off the task of explicating the idiosyncrasies of language to a trained professional. Your son comes home excited about the magic E, the way it makes the sound of the preceding vowel change, poof, just like that, and you think to yourself: thank god. He reads to you happily now, always out loud, in that halting, robotic voice most kids have at the beginning. When punctuation is optional, when the concept of “reading with expression” is a peak in the distance.

And then it happens. He starts to read fluidly and in his head to boot. It opens up a new world for him, an inner world. But it closes a door for you. His reading is a personal thing now, a private thing, he wants it that way. He is somewhere between six and seven, you can’t quite remember. You remember, though, that he read the whole series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid in quick succession, which left you considering what exactly he understood of the middle school dynamics. He is at that awkward age where his technical skill surpasses his emotional maturity and you are not quite sure what books to choose for him.

He likes to read, but he likes other things too. You can’t tell yet if he loves it, if he drinks in the words like you do, if reading is going to be that balm for what ails him, though you recall you weren’t a particularly keen reader at this stage either. He doesn’t seem to read to get tangled in the story, to step outside of himself. His penchant is for nonfiction still, for facts, for science. He pores over statistics in his football magazines. He studies up on Minecraft.

Just when you wonder if he will ever get the taste for fiction, he discovers The Hunger Games. He returns from the bookstore, clutching the first in the series, and he can barely stop to say hello as he marches up the stairs to crack into it. He becomes, almost overnight, what people call an “avid” reader. He devours young adult sci-fi, the more dystopian the better, while you fleetingly deliberate if the subject matter is too old for him. He asks to read The Fault in Our Stars. You hold him off. He asks to read It by Stephen King. You hold him off again. He picks up the books on your night table and inspects the blurbs; Station Eleven catches his eye. For the first time, you borrow one of his books and you actually enjoy it.

Your son is nine, closer to ten. You lie on your bed together, it is late afternoon. He stretches out on one side, and you are on the other side, the only sound between you is the pages turning. You reach across and take his hand. He squeezes back, not meeting your eyes, so engrossed is he in the story. You watch him for a second, resting your own book on your lap. He is long limbs and angular features, but just for a moment you get a flash of the baby he used to be, and it is Pat the Bunny in his pudgy hands all over again.

I Hate Summer Reading

I Hate Summer Reading

By Anne Sawan

Cooling spray

I am a reader. Walking into any bookstore or the local library physically changes me. I am instantly intoxicated, overcome by the smell…the feel… the sight of all those gorgeous books just waiting to be swallowed up. My idea of a perfect vacation day is curling up on the sofa or sitting on the beach with a good book and reading, uninterrupted, for several hours, transported to far away lands and into the challenges of other people’s lives. I am also a writer and a psychologist, so I suppose it seems as I should be a champion of summer reading for children; but I’m not. I’m not because the biggest, the most important part of me, the part I am trying desperately to hold on to, the fun loving mother part, hates it.

I quit. I don’t want to do it anymore. For ten long months I have been the homework police, demanding my children sit at the table and finish their schoolwork when they would rather be outside with their friends. I worked hard to get them through the mountainous amounts of school projects and studying and I am tired of it. I need a break; they need a break. I don’t want to be the whip cracker anymore. I want to throw my hands up in the air and dash out the door yelling, “Last one in the pool is a rotten egg!”

This year my children finished school on June 25th and they will return to school on August 27th. That gives us only eight short weeks to shake it all off and have some fun.

Eight short weeks to let loose and swing from trees into the deep waters of the lake, run through cold sprinklers and hunt for skittery crabs at the beach.

Eight weeks to learn how to use a jackknife, put a worm on a hook, and build a fort out of broken branches.

Eight weeks to take meandering bike rides, have lemonade stands and chase the ice cream man.

Eight weeks to have a neighborhood game of flashlight tag, go night swimming among the fireflies, toast marshmallows and finally fall down on the bed, or the couch, or the floor nestled next to siblings, cousins and friends, happy and exhausted.

Eight short weeks to allow minds to open up and let imaginations soar as beaches are combed and woods are explored.

And eight short weeks to finish summer reading. Blah.

This short summer our school district has dictated that my middle school children are to read three books. Three books in eight weeks! I know adults—successful, happy, seemingly normal adults—who don’t read that many books in a year. I just spent the weekend with a tween girl who lives near us, in a town with a very well-respected school system and she is required to read one book this summer. One book. When my children told her they were reading three books she frowned. “Too much pressure,” she said. Smart girl.

Now, I know there are many children who, like me, love to read and these children will complete this three-book assignment quickly. To them, time spent with a book is relaxing and even fun. These children will choose to use their downtime sitting on the porch swing, book in hand, reading away. But, there are also many children who do not embrace reading, or who struggle with it, and for them, summer reading is a chore, or worse, a punishment.

I have five children, some are readers and some are not. I didn’t raise them any differently, reading more to one than the other, it’s just how they are wired; one of my children will choose to read as often as he can, while another would rather not read anything beyond the back of a cereal box or a sports magazine. Asking this child to sit and read a novel on a sunny summer when he could be out playing Wiffle ball with his buddies is akin to torture.

I am not even certain of the point behind summer reading. Are these mandated books incorporated into the school curriculum come September? Rarely. Does the school believe that my preteen children will forget how to read in only eight weeks? Seems unlikely. Does the school think that mandatory reading will make readers out of nonreaders? Highly unlikely. I would love if all my children were avid readers, if on a summer day they sat quietly in the shade of our leafy maple tree and read. But this is not who they are. Forced summer reading does not make readers out of non-readers; all it does is build resentment and create creative avoidance techniques.

I resent having to cut into my children’s well-earned, unstructured, shortened-already vacation just so someone, somewhere, can check off a box that states the school has met its summer reading requirement. Downtime for families is scarce these days; childhood is short and our precious time spent hanging out together; laughing, playing and enjoying one another is unfortunately becoming lost as jobs and schools place increasingly high and often extraneous demands on us. I say it’s time we rethink summer and give our families a real break. Let those who want to read, read away, and those who don’t, well let them spend their time, their eight short weeks, as they please chasing clouds and having fun.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

The Books of Summers Past

The Books of Summers Past

Bookstore kids2 thumbnailRecently I told my older two kids that I would take them to the bookstore to make their first few summer reading choices.

Rebecca, 7, asked if they’d get prizes.

“Yes,” I said. “If by prizes, you mean books.”

She shook her head. “But what if we finish a lot of books? What do we get?”

“You get many trips to the library!” Poor thing was hoping I’d say toy store.

Sam, 9, was also confused. “Is it a competition?” he asked. “Will we earn money or something?” He thought that idea was unfair because the Harry Potter books he’d planned to keep reading (he’s on the third one) are so much longer than whatever Rebecca would inevitably pick.

I assured Sam that I had no such reading challenge in mind.

“Read whatever you want,” I said. “Tell me all about it. Pick out another one.”

They appeared unimpressed with the simple plan albeit pleasantly surprised by the lack of structure and direction.

It’s important to me that my kids read, that they’re always in the middle of a book or starting a new one. But I want them to exert some independence in their choices. They can often decide what to read during the school year as well, but summer’s relaxed homework-free schedule lends itself more to discovering the various possibilities on the shelves.

I try to keep my own summer reading unstructured as well. Most of the year, I’m beholden (or I feel that I am) to my to-be-read lists—both the stack of books next to my bed and the digital lists that live in my Kindle and in my library queue. I feel pressure to stay faithful to those titles, especially if I’ve spent money, waited for my turn at the library, or promised a book review to an author or editor. In the summer months, however, I allow myself the freedom to pick books by gut feel, to meander through a bookstore, or immediately start reading the novel that a friend presses into my hand and insists I will love. My book club takes a break in the summers, too. It’s three months of anarchy as far as reading goes.

I can remember some of my choices from past summers, even novels I read two decades ago. Much like certain songs can bring back memories of an entire year, person, or a special time, a book title can unlock images for me of where I was when I read it and how I was feeling at the time.

After my junior year in high school, for example, I spent a summer in Cadiz, Spain, where I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. When I hear that title in any context now, I picture the apartment on Calle Ancha where I lived with a Spanish family for six weeks. Intertwined with Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is a memory of my host family’s matriarch, Connie, who made exotic meals like tuna on pizza and periodically handed me the letters that arrived from my boyfriend, Matt. Connie would watch me cry while I read each letter twice looking for any sign that he missed me. “I’m worried things won’t be the same when I get back,” I told her. Too young to stay in love from so far away, she said in a soothing voice even though those words were far from comforting. Connie’s prediction was absolutely correct, as was my concern. Matt broke up with me early in our senior year. And like Newland Archer, I spent most of that year pining for someone I couldn’t have.

The Flowers in the Attic series, which I’ve heard about often this year because of Lifetime’s movie remake, brings me instantly to the summer I was 14, when I took a trip to Toronto with my grandparents. I happened to be reading one of the books in the series in the same weekend when my grandmother, frustrated over something I’m sure had nothing to do with me, screamed at me to get my suitcase myself then threw a pencil at me from across the room. Grandma Susie’s outburst bore no resemblance whatsoever to the outrageously abusive grandmother in VC Andrew’s story, but I picture that pencil bouncing off the wall behind me whenever anybody mentions that book.

The novels I read in college while traveling through Chile made the strongest impression. I arrived for a semester abroad in Santiago in January, which is summer break in that part of the world. Classes at the university would not begin until March so a group of us made plans to head south. Instead of packing books in Spanish written by Chilean authors, which probably would have helped me immerse in the language and culture, I found books in a used English bookstore. In those months before my courses began, I read East of Eden, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Chosen, and The Fountainhead. I loved them all, especially East of Eden, which is essentially a scandalous family soap opera. In fact, I seem to remember those books and their characters more vividly than the port towns where I stopped along the way.

So, how will I decide what to read this summer?  I’ll begin with my to-be-read piles and lists, but like all summers I’ll allow for the possibility of chance and curiosity. I hope my kids will do the same this year and in the process treasure their extra time to read before the hectic pace of the school year begins again.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Threshold to Summer

Threshold to Summer


IMG_1206It’s that threshold to summer moment. The other day I walked, not to go anywhere, simply to enjoy the air, and composed haiku in my head. I won’t tell you how long it took, although I will admit if you saw me walking yes, I did count on my fingers. Tulips, lilacs, gone/Peonies, irises, go./Next, summer. Roses.

With summer, comes a sense of a season set apart. Without school—and here in a college town, that’s a profound difference not just in a household with school age kids but everywhere—the energy shifts. There are longer days, swimming pools to dip into and ice cream to lick outside. There’s dirt and sweat and a sense that we are supposed to have fun (“supposed to?”). For the past four summers on my personal blog I’ve created a Summer Wish List. I will do it again before the solstice. It’s a little wishes, a little resolution, a little what’s great to do in the corner of New England where I live, and a little bit of a note to myself.

My family, I think it’s safe to say about this particular year, is maxed out on “supposed to.” The school year wasn’t easy for every person and there have been big adjustments, like Kindergarten (love, love, love, but still, epic adjustment). There were challenging work disappointments and frustrations. If I were to characterize our recent months, I’d say we did a pretty hefty amount of coping. So, I both feel the ways we could use the breathy delights of expansion—explore, enjoy, just… be elsewhere—and the balm of rest and relaxation. Even if I write a long list, the truer list will be short. The truer list will be about whatever makes us feel good day-to-day and feels restorative.

Also, on my list will be to read books. The little gal has begun to read (and I have the biggest writer-and-parent crush on Elephant and Piggie these days) and it’s a true delight to watch and listen to her determined efforts and reap the benefits of increased fluency daily. My fifth grader has to be pushed to read—and only sometimes, rarely, accepts the nudge. That’s in stark contrast to the eldest guy, who pretty much read his way through childhood. He retains a physical attachment to books; he reads them and carries them and keeps them. I’ve been very hands-off about reading. For the eldest, I stopped insisting he put the book down every single night at dinner (some nights, just not all of them) because he found such comfort in them. I have been hands-off in the opposite direction too because not every kid loves to read and that doesn’t mean the adult version will eschew reading. Still, with him, I’d like to find a way to reintroduce the idea that just maybe reading can be fun and relaxing and interesting.

And my memories of my bigger kids’ elementary school years included some great read aloud times, either as they ate dinner or at bedtime. I want to find ways to recreate that pleasure more consistently for my smaller gal, despite the frenzy that takes place when there’s more activity around us—and more screens. Because these days, books aren’t as omnipresent in the household as devices with screens (my laptop included), and so I realize it’ll take a little effort to change our family’s current culture—and summer seems to present itself as an opportunity for this.

An opportunity for me, too: I have used my writer hat as a push myself to read, as in read a book and then write about it. This turns out to be a reasonable incentive. The thing is, whether I have to fabricate a little prompt or not, once I’m reading it’s such a pleasant thing to do (duh, I always won the summer bookworm contests in elementary school).

Even if it doesn’t happen often, I am going to hold out an image of us at home, lazing around and reading on a rainy weekend afternoon. The image alone makes me smile. Whether I’ll succeed and what success really means to me is anybody’s guess. I don’t want to attach a number of books or amount of time allotted to reading. I don’t want this to exactly be a list item, a de facto chore. I do want to read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle one more time, though. That radish cure is something every kid should hear at least once no matter how dated Betty MacDonald’s cookie-serving neighborhood seems in 2014.

The Society of Late Night Readers

The Society of Late Night Readers

0-25Although I can remember my mom reading on airplanes, in waiting rooms, and in every room of our house, I always go back to the same image; she’s sitting against the pillows on her bed, the lamp near her so dim that it illuminates only her hands and the page of her book. The rest of the room remains dark and blurry.

Before I went to sleep, I would peek in my parent’s room to see if my mom was awake.

“Mom,” I’d say too loud. She would put her index finger up to her lips and finish the sentence she was reading before she placed the book on her lap.

“What are you reading?” I’d ask. She’d show me the cover of her book. Usually she was reading a novel, but she also read nonfiction if she wanted to learn more about a topic. And she seemed to know everything: all the words in the English language, every historical reference in a movie or a play, and all sorts of random pre-Google information. I once saw her buy a series on the Kabbalah from a man selling books door to door.

“What’s this one about?” I liked to ask.

“You’ll read it one day,” she’d say. Around that point in the conversation, my dad would roll over and say, half-asleep but fully irritated, “It’s bedtime.” I never knew if he was talking to my mom or to me, but she would pick up her book again, the sign that I was to leave her alone to enjoy her quiet time.

I’d whisper goodnight then get into my own bed with a book and my own quiet time. I liked knowing that only my mom and I were the only ones awake, that I was a member of our household’s unofficial Society of Late Night Readers.

I do not mean to paint a picture of a child prodigy who read War and Peace or even Pride and Prejudice into the wee hours of the night. My first memory of late night reading begins around fifth grade and includes Sweet Valley High, a series I’d procured by taking my allowance to Chestnut Court, the long gone independent bookstore from my childhood before we had the expression “independent bookstore.” In junior high, I read the entire Flowers in the Attic series and as many Danielle Steele books as I could buy or borrow from my friend Jennifer.

My mom cringed when she saw me reading those books. She tried to get me interested in what she called “serious” literature by suggesting Catcher in the Rye on several occasions. Since Holden Caufield liked to swear and disobey his parents, she figured any kid would enjoy it, but she eventually gave up when she realized that she too loved the freedom of varying her book choices. She read quick mysteries as often as she read the latest well-reviewed literary tome. I would find those “important” books in my own time, she knew.

And I did. Once I got to high school and had to read certain novels for assignments, I stayed up late with those books, too. I remember loving Catcher in the Rye not for Holden Caufield’s use of forbidden words, but for his desire to keep the people and memories he loved in a big glass museum case. I’d find favorite quotes about life in those teacher-assigned books, underline them, then copy them into a journal, a habit that continues to this day. I have snippets in there from works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. We in The Society of Late Night Readers are not literary snobs.

Like my mom, I still stay up too late reading a variety of books. Like my dad, my husband gets frustrated by the smallest beam of light in the room. And like the young version of me, my seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, stays up past her bedtime with books. If she knows I’m awake, she finds me in some room of the house (usually the kitchen) and proudly hands me whatever library book she’s finished. She’s a proud albeit unknowing member of The Society. The worrier in me thinks she should get more sleep, but I’ll never tell her to stop reading. Another unofficial rule to our club is never telling one of our own to turn off the light.

When I lose myself in a book and when I imagine Rebecca doing the same, I see that well-preserved forty-something-year-old version of my mom reading in her bed. The purely positive image reminds me of Holden and why he spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Holden says, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move . . . the only thing that would be different is you.”

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Reading (With Children)

Reading (With Children)

By Kris Woll

0-11It’s mid afternoon on a Saturday.  The windows are open and the warm air dances in through the screens.  Come sunset, that air will be cool—so cool the windows will need to be closed.  But not yet.  I’m sitting in my favorite chair and the breeze is at my back.  The weekend line up on Minnesota Public Radio mumbles a kind of white noise.  Just those radio mumbles and the breeze—the only noise in the house.  The toddler is still napping in her room.  The big kid is constructing his newest Lego set in his.  And I’m here, in the living room, about to savor a little time, about to read a book.

It is a peaceful moment, packed with promise and peace.  I look around my little house and feel grateful.  I open to the first chapter, considering as I do that this would be perfect if I had a cup of tea, and maybe if I also lit that new scented candle.  Yes, tea and a candle.  I scurry off to the kitchen to boil water and find a match.  I close drawers and turn nobs as quietly as possible.  The sun is blazing into my little kitchen.  It is bright and delightful in here, I think, and I wonder why I don’t notice that more.  While I wait for the pot to boil, I put away a few of the dishes that were drying in the sink.  I try to set bowls on shelves with steady hands, try to make no noise.  I keep an eye on the pot, hoping to catch the warm water before any whistle sounds.  A whistle would wake the toddler, would bring the big kid out of his room in search of a snack.  I light the candle and catch the water when warmed but not loud.  I pour my cup of tea and walk from sunny kitchen into my breezy living room, feeling triumphant.

I walk past the crumby floor where my children ate their lunch.  I try to ignore it, try to walk right past.  But when I sit down in my favorite chair and feel the breeze on my back, I notice the crumbs still.  They are staring at me.  They may have gotten bigger.  Did one of them move?  Is that a bug?  I take a sip of my tea and set it down on top of my book, the one I am about to read and really can’t wait to start, and walk to the closet to grab the broom.  The closet creeks, so I try to open it just enough to grab what I need.  I reach my arm into the dark and feel around.  I grab the long handle with minimal disturbance.  I sweep the lunch crumbs from the floor—only crumbs, no bugs after all—and walk to the kitchen to empty the dustpan.  I open the lid of the garbage manually instead of stepping on the erratic foot pedal; the foot pedal can send the stainless-steel lid swinging back too far and it can crash against the wall with a clang.  No clang—just the soft sound of dust and crumbs landing in an empty plastic bag.  I lean the broom against the fridge, not willing to risk returning it to the creeky closet.  Now I can read.

I wander back into the living room.  I sit down and exhale.  I pull a pillow onto my lap.  My tea has cooled just enough. The breeze still blows there.  The book waits, its pages still crisp, with just a little ring on its cover from my now-cooled hot tea.  I grab it and think all sorts of nice things—What a beautiful day!  What a great little spot to read!  What lovely kids I have, on this quiet afternoon!  What a well-swept floor!  What a nice-smelling candle!—as I open again to Chapter 1 and look out the window in satisfaction.  I wave at a neighbor walking her dog past our place.  I look down at the page and begin finally to read …

“Mom,” the big kid shouts from his room.  “MOM!” he shouts even louder when I don’t immediately answer.  I drop my book and hustle to his room.

“Shhh … You’ll wake the baby,” I say.

“I’m hungry, and I can’t find this gray piece …”

I proceed to the kitchen to get some pretzels before I join the Lego hunt.  I quietly open the cabinet; I try to control the crunching of the plastic pretzel bag.  I curse the smallness of Legos.

“MOM!” he shouts again.  “The baby’s awake.”

I turn to the kitchen door and see her standing there, rosy cheeked and drowsy eyed, dragging Cookie Monster with one arm.  “Carry, Mama,” she demands, and I lift her into my arms.  On our way to deliver pretzels to her brother, we walk past the scented candle.

“Birthday,” she says, and pretends to blow out a candle.   “Me do it,” she demands, pointing at the flame.  A little wave of smoke climbs from the jar after she blows the candle out.

We deliver the pretzels.  “I can’t find the piece,” the kid complains.  I want to do something else.

“Story, Mama?” the groggy toddler asks, and so we select a book—something by Richard Scarry, something they both like—to bring back out to the living room where we will snuggle up together for a few minutes to read.

Kris Woll is Minneapolis-based writer.  

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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Stealing Time, And The Joy Of Reading

Stealing Time, And The Joy Of Reading

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-12My daughter has a secret. I discovered it this summer, late one night when I returned home from work to a still, quiet house.

I poured a glass of juice, had a snack, then crept to the bedroom where my husband and son were sleeping, Gabriel’s arm slung across his father’s chest. The fan hummed softly; all was peaceful. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and glanced down the hallway at my daughter’s closed door. She locks it at night to keep her brother out in the mornings; she’s always the first thing on his mind (Is Abbey up? Will Abbey play with me? Can I wake Abbey up now?).

Surely she won’t mind if I sneak in and steal a kiss or two, I thought. Her face is always angelic to me, but even more so when she’s sleeping. It’s not easy trying to balance on the narrow steps of her bunk bed, but it would be worth it to see that face.

I turned the lock with my thumbnail and slipped inside, only to see a quick rustle of bed sheets and hear a loud snap. “Abigail?” I said, alarmed. “Are you awake?”

Abbey’s head popped out from underneath the covers. The triangle of hallway light illuminated her face, and her expression was guilty. Defeated. Crazy wisps of hair wavered in a static arc above her head. “Hi, Mom.”

“What are you doing?” I hauled myself up the ladder to inspect the scene, wobbling painfully on the balls of my feet. “It’s eleven o’clock at night!”

“I know, but I just wanted to read a few more chapters. Don’t tell Alex! He said lights out at ten.” I yanked the covers back to find my battered copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And a flashlight.

I started to giggle, and soon Abbey joined in. “Don’t tell Alex!” she repeated, in a whisper. “Promise!”

“I won’t,” I whispered back.

Now, I don’t believe in keeping secrets from my husband, but this was something I could understand. I’d done it too. I brought her a glass of milk, told her firmly, “Lights out, for real,” and made it all the way to the door before turning and saying, “Just tell me which part you’re on.” She popped back up and we had an enthusiastic discussion about how much we love to hate Dolores Umbridge.

What can I say? Abbey brings out the girl in me. Since uncovering her devious plot to steal more reading time, I’ve had some laugh-out-loud moments recalling my own sly strategies. I’ve always been a voracious reader; at Abigail’s age, eleven, I read a lot of Sweet Valley High (identifying with the level-headed twin, Elizabeth, who was a total bookworm and worked on the high school newspaper), but two years later I could usually be found with a Stephen King or Sidney Sheldon novel. I was fascinated with Stephen King’s dark, gory tales, where nothing was off limits. Children were murdered (IT), evil prevailed (Children of the Corn), and scariest of all, a string of bad luck could lead to horrific conclusions with no dark forces responsible (Cujo).

For years, I thought Sidney Sheldon was the most brilliant man alive. I was Tracy Whitney in If Tomorrow Comes, a cunning thief who steals from the greedy and plots the perfect revenge against those who’ve wronged her. I was Jennifer Parker in Rage of Angels, a beautiful, talented lawyer making a fool of the district attorney and mesmerizing the dark and dangerous mobster Michael Moretti.

In high school I was appalled at being assigned the hefty text of The Grapes of Wrath, until I started reading and lost sleep traveling to California with the Joad family, seething at how unfair life could be, seeing the skin plastered over bones in starving children I’d come to love.

And I was enchanted by a rabbit named Bigwig. I still am. He will always be my favorite, not the cunning Hazel, the genius Blackberry, or the dignified Silver. Bigwig was the heart of Watership Down.

I remember days at school, propping textbooks in my lap at the back of class, reading the paperback unfolded inside. What a good, quiet student I was. Needless to say, I am much better at Scrabble than Trivial Pursuit.

How can you fault a love for reading? Isn’t it what we try to instill in our children from day one? I kept Abigail’s secret, at least for the summer. But now that school’s in session, I make sure the lights are truly out at 9 p.m., that there’s no reading paraphernalia stashed under her pillow, and that Abigail knows her weakness and the trouble it can cause her. Chiefly, that she has a beautiful mind, but one apt to drift during long days in the classroom. This year, I’m advising her to choose seats in the front.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website