'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Guest Post: Beginning at Birth - Reading with Dr Virginia Lowe

Our  infant son was laid into a bassinette surrounded by picture books, open so he could see the pictures. His big sister had arranged them for him. At three, it didn’t occur to her that ten days might be a little young to begin his reading journey. So almost the first thing he met on arrival at home was books.

This was hardly surprising. After all, the whole house was full of books. In fact two and a half years later, he still had trouble coming to terms with the idea that there was ever a time when it wasn’t book-full, asking about ‘the books we’ve had forever’ and even ‘the books that the builder builded’. In other words, for him, houses had bricks, windows, doors – and books.

Though it was the same house and the same parents, his reading experience was completely different from his sister’s. Not in the quantity (or even quality) of the books scattered around chairs, tables, beds, floor and bookshelves, but in the way he encountered them. Their father and I firmly believed that picture books were works of art, with the text and the illustrations making up a whole much greater than the parts, and with delicious language. 

So we tended to read the text as it stood, or shortened if the little one was getting restive, but without the labelling which seems natural to most parents before the child begins to speak (up to two usually). Our daughter had heard the text of nursery rhymes, sung or recited on the relevant page, and of the picture books she loved, varying in length from Dick Bruna to Beatrix Potter.

However one book she loved was Shirley Hughes’ Lucy and Tom’s Day. It was the only one she had encountered that told of the day to day doings of a child such as herself, with, as an added bonus, a dark curly haired little brother, just as she had. In fact at four  she told me ‘sometimes I pretend that Lucy and Tom are me and Ralph’. And, in this text, Lucy, with Tom beside her ‘shows him the pictures’. Rebecca had already taken this to heart as what a big sister does, practicing it out on the babies and toddlers we knew.  So she brought it to her contacts with Clive as well. 

Not being able to read, she chose not to recite (which she could have, as she had many favourite texts by heart) but to practice the labelling game – to ‘show him the pictures’. Consequently Ralph had much more of the traditional labelling game (‘See the dog?’ ‘Where’s the birdie?’ ‘Look at the red block truck’) than she had had herself. So in some ways, his was a more common baby-book experience.

This may be why he was slower learning to talk, and did not acquire vocabulary from the books, at the same rate as she had. Nor did he use quotations and adapted quotes to come to terms with new experiences. He also talked in jargon for a long time, which his sister never did. But maybe the book experience had nothing to do with all this – maybe, as a boy, he’d have been a little slower at acquiring language, anyway. 

One can never tell what influences a person, only record what happened then and subsequently, and just make a story of the things that seem to be cause and effect.

It happened that, by the time Ralph was born, I had already been keeping a reading journal for three years, recording all Rebecca’s responses to the books she heard, and her reference to them in play and conversation. 

I had thought to keep the record up until she was five, based on the book I’d read when studying librarianship, Books Before Five (White). In this, a librarian kept a brief diary record of daughter Carol from two to five. Though brief, if showed that many assumptions made by the critics, were just wrong – little children are so often underestimated. I determined to keep a similar record when I had my own children, and indeed I did, enthusiastically supported by their father John.

But of course, being in the habit of recoding books and responses, I continued the Reading Journal. At first, I thought I’d continue until the younger child turned five. Then I realised this wasn’t the whole story by any means. Maybe I’d continue until they could read themselves at their interest level. 

For various reasons, this wasn’t until they were about eight. By then if seemed small minded not to keep jotting down relevant conversations, and even, when we all went overseas (they 13 and 10) and a lot of reading  aloud happened to keep us all entertained on train stations and airports, I fell into the regular nightly keeping of notes again. And if anything cropped up, right up until they left home at nineteen, it would be recorded. 

Even occasionally I will still record the comments of one or the other on the early reading process.

I chose to use pen and paper rather than a recording device, because I wanted to capture all references to books, not just record the reading sessions, which is more usual when you have to stop and set up a piece of equipment. Also the transcription of an hour of child-speech is said to take between four and ten hours. There clearly weren’t enough hours in the day. 

Another aspect is that I did not want them self-conscious about what they said about books. They knew I was writing a book about books, but not that I was recording their responses – for a while, anyway. The daughter knew from quite early on, and she listened to my articles being read. My son however had no memory of it until I began the PhD when he was nineteen.

Ultimately the record grew to some 6000 handwritten pages. It was all indexed, from the start, by author. About  twenty years from its inception, I used it as the basis of my PhD, so indexed it all under themes as well. Subsequently – another ten years later – Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell was published by Routledge (2007). In the meantime I have had over thirty articles published, and given more papers than that, at conferences. There are also three chapters in books.

It did take a huge amount of my time, but it was worth it because it is a unique record – the only one that treats a boy, that looks at sibling influence, that begins at birth, and that continues to adolescence. Rebecca and Ralph were not exceptional children except in the quantity of books they were exposed to. They were bright, and lived in an educated Western family on a quarter acre block, with pets, and most of all with books. They have both grown into book-loving, word-loving adults, committed to helping the world.

Dr Lowe has a PhD in children’s literature, and has been a judge for the CBCA Book of the Year Award. Her book - Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell - is a study of her son and daughter’s responses to books, from birth to adolescence. Signed copies are available at her website - Create a Kids’ Book – as well as workshops, e-courses, mentoring and a free monthly bulletin – createakidsbook.com.au.