Sunday, July 13, 2008

What We Learned From Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.K. Rowling, and Diana Wynne Jones

We do read alouds in our family, which means that I read while the kids listen. We do it every morning. It wasn't something I'd intended to do when we started homeschooling, or desperately wanted to do with the kids. It just started. It was a fluke, really, when I look back. 

It was like this: I had a book from the library.  It wasn't getting read, by anyone. It was a good book - I was sure it was. I couldn't remember reading it as a kid, but I knew it had Potential. And it had to go back to the library. So after breakfast I started reading it to the kids. I read four chapters, then closed the book and said, without looking at the kids, "Okay, now let's get on with the rest of the day." I looked up and saw my kids staring back at me, open-mouthed, with wide eyes. "Do we have to stop NOW?" they all asked, with a slight tinge of shock in their eyes, "that is SUCH a great book!" 

I thought about it. I looked at the book. Then I said, "If we get some good work done this morning I will read more at lunch." They did, so I did. And before you knew it, we'd read the first book in the Little House series: Little House in the Big Woods. I don't know why, but this series caught ALL our imaginations. We discussed Laura and her family as if they were our next door neighbours; the kids argued over who was nicer: Laura or her dad; and I blogged about them. We spent at least a few minutes each day contemplating the wonderful Garth Williams sketches ("Oh look! There's Jack chasing a rabbit!"). It was enthralling to read about someone who lived in a house they'd built themselves, not to mention people who didn't automatically expect a visit from Santa Claus each and every winter. We were gripped in a fever of people who worked hard, lived thoughtful lives, and did everything themselves. Where were their TVs, telephones, libraries, hot water tanks, flush toilets, dollar stores, and Lego sets? Not to sound too naive, but was a completely new Moral Universe for us, in so many ways.

Then I went to the library to get the next in the series, but it wasn't there. It was out. Never mind, we would take a page from the Little House girls and not complain. We would look on the bright side. It dawned on me that this new Little House Moral Universe was aiding and abetting my own Prime Directive as a parent.   

So we started with the Harry Potter series. Max and I had already read them, but the twins hadn't. We read the first one: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (unless you're in the US and have had your copy butchered to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Same response: pure absorption from the kids. We talked about Harry. We talked about Ron. We talked about Hagrid. And every so often, when we were all feeling heavy from the constant rain, I would wear a satin red cape (from my Welsh grandmother) and pretend I was Professor McGonagall, using a ripe Scottish accent to convulse the kids into enjoying their math. Even better, I found the DVDs for $5 each and bought them all, promising a viewing after each book. We read the first two books and watched the first two movies. And yes, I blogged about these books too. How COULD Draco be so mean? How COULD Dumbledore not notice the terrible things happening to Harry? And those awful Dursleys. Ugh. Another new Moral Universe to contemplate. Less clear cut, but it insinuated itself into our daily lives just the same: we'd magic away things that were bothering us; we shouted "Expelliaramus!" at everything just for the heck of it, and the kids were all very thankful that their parents hadn't died and left them in the care of people like the Dursleys. More assistance for the parental Prime Directive. I was liking this Read Aloud time a lot.

Then By the Banks of Plum Creek came in, recalled from the library. So off we went, back to Little House Land. Oddly enough, it wasn't such a tough transition. We just moved into a different neighbourhood, with new but equally exciting neighbours, albeit a little on the sedate side after giants, flying broomsticks, and spells. We read about wading in creeks, nasty girls named Nellie, party dresses, the perfection of cold, sweet lemonade, living in sod houses, reliable dogs named Jack, and such mysterious things as button strings. Even now, the phrase "plum thicket" whirls me back into a hot summer day, wading in the creek with my skirts up, bonnet strings dangling down my shoulders. I can only imagine what it does for my kids.

We read through By The Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and even The First Four Years, although by then the magic of the Ingalls' world was fading a bit. Detailed paragraphs about fabric and lace and sewing and marriage weren't high on my kids' list of Interesting Things To Read About. Still, to this day we talk about Laura and her family as if we knew them. When Max is peevish and unhelpful, I remind him how Laura had to look after her sisters for a whole week while her parents took Mary to the college for the blind, and she was just a few years older than he is now (and she spring cleaned the entire house!). When FDPG moans about dinner, I remind her about what they didn't eat during The Long Winter. That usually silences everyone. When we eat a meal composed entirely of garden produce - from our garden - Dominic says "this is just like a Little House dinner!" And when we hear a violin dancing on its own on the radio, Max asks if Pa played like that. 

When we finished the Little House series, I cast about a bit for something else to read. I blogged here about FDPG and the scariness factor of the Harry Potter series and how I didn't want to go on to the next novel, knowing how it (and the film) might affect her and her dream world. Plus, she and her twin were still only six years old, and I didn't think boggarts and Dementors were Suitable Subject Matter for six year old imaginations. Then we found Diana Wynne Jones, a British writer much akin to J.K. Rowling in that she writes about magic universes, but with less emotional emphasis and vastly more creative license. Suddenly such things as 100 league boots, fire demons, and magical suits were common parlance, not to mention the hilarity caused by chapter headings such as Chapter Eight: In which Sophie leaves the castle in several directions at once. We looked forward to those chapter headings, let me tell you. We'd ponder them, I'd ask why Wynne Jones used them - it showed the kids new things about writerly intent and comic appeal. They started creating their own chapter headings for moments in their day: In which Max learns how to wash a glass without incurring the wrath of his mother, or In which Toffee learns that wet food only comes his way once a day, or In which Dominic learns to make his bed. More fodder for the parental P.D. 

And so we read through almost the entire Wynne Jones oeuvre: Charmed Life, Lives of Christopher Chant, Mixed Magics, Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week, Castle in the Air and The Game. We were introduced to the intoxicating world of Chrestomanci, a sensible fellow who seemed to have the wisdom of the world at his fingertips. We met treacherous sisters, silly ladies, goddesses named Milly, tricky Uncles and Greek mythological figures come to life. It was a truly magical few months, reading all those books: so many people, so many different stories, so many emotions and events. So many clever writers.

I could say that the kids learned how a good author can recycle something seemingly commonplace (a Greek myth) and turn it into something new and inventive. I could also say that they learned a great deal about telling a good story, plot devices, settings, and character development (not to mention those intangibles of moral courage and facing adversity). Because they did learn all those things. Not didactically, by answering chapter questions or writing essays, but more as an "along the way" experience, an experience that permeated their lives as they brushed their teeth, got dressed and played together in the afternoons. An experience that coloured the ways they interacted with each other, reflected on their own lives, and treated their friends and neighbours. And I've got my fingers crossed that they won't forget them any time soon. 


shaun said...

Oh my gosh, I hope this is the post you're contributing to the carnival! I am so inspired. I am hoping to start doing more read-alouds, mainly for the 5yo, but I envision it as a whole-family thing, and you have me so excited!

How old were your kids when you did the Little House series? My older has read them all, but I think they might be something she could enjoy aloud again, and my younger one could enjoy for the 1st time.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

We are just finishing up "Farmer Boy" as our read-aloud lunch time fare. Thanks for the Wynne Jones suggestions, I'll track those down.

sheila said...

It is, Shaun, thanks. I wrote it last night. The twins had JUST turned 6 when we started, and Max was 10. I was surprised actually how much Max enjoyed the books, but that might have been because it was such an outdoorsy, homesteading life. He liked the first 3 the best. Reading these books was certainly one of the highlights of the year, for us.

Alpha dogma, that was the one book we didn't read, but only because someone scoffed at it, but a couple of months ago someone else said "It's GREAT!" and I'm sort of kicking myself for not checking it out further. I did buy a copy at the 2nd hand bookshop so who knows. I notice you are in Canada - east or west? And do you REALLY know Knox and Whatsername's dad?

Mrs. G. said...

I love the Little House books. My daughter and I read them aloud, and I remember us both weeping when Pa made it home in the blizzard and escaped being eaten by the panther.

Susan T. said...

Sheila, this is such a wonderful post. Thanks for writing about your read-aloud experiences. Right now I'm reading The Lightning Thief to my son (age 8 1/2). So far, so good. I may try some Diana Wynne Jones later. Good suggestion.

Denise said...

Thanks for the book suggestions. Just yesterday, my youngest found a fantasy anthology edited by Diana Wynne Jones that I didn't know we had. I need to order some of her books from the library...

I used to read aloud at lunchtime, when our oldest kids were little, but somehow we got away from that over the years. It would be fun to start it up again.

Anonymous said...

read alouds are probably the best thing about homeschooling. Tigger read the Wilder books on her own but we've done plenty of others. Non fiction can work well that way, particularly if well written.

Have you tried Rick O'Riordan's The Lightning Thief? (not sure if I've got the author name exactly right but the title is) That was one of Tigger's book club books and because she was putting it off (new genre) we read it together and loved it.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. The Little House people are live and well here, too, thanks to read-alouds. I can truly say that reading aloud is the best thing our family does. It enriches us all, singly and as a group.

Vivian said...

Great post! We're going through Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. Greek mythology, action, humor, strong boys and girls. My kids love these books!

Green Darner said...

Here are some read-alouds that we have enjoyed:

House of a Million Pets by Anne Hodgman - The (real) adventures of a "mom who actually wants to have more pets". My dd picked this one and I reluctantly started reading it and now it is one of my favorites LOL. This book had us laughing hysterically...and looking up such things as 'bulbuls'...and searching the woods for luna moth cocoons. Beware that there is a lot of 'poop' talk, but it is about animals after all.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket - If your family enjoyed the literary device of titling chapters "In which so-and-so does so-and-so" then you'll love this series of books. The writing employs a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor and interesting vocabulary. The plot revolves around the misadventures of three orphaned children placed in the hands of their diabolical uncle.


sheila said...

Thanks for the comments and book suggestions, everyone. Max has read The Lightening Thief, but I thought the plot sounded very ingenious, so I will check out his Percy Jackson series. I like series, I find myself getting very attached to the characters!

And thanks for the House of a Million Pets recommendation, G.D. I will definitely check it out.