On the joy of small children and books….

When child 1 was born, I read to him from the very first day. I was the sort of parent that I had previously thought quite mad, who thought my best baby presents were those little black and white books that you dangle in front of a barely-seeing newborn baby, pointing out lines and squiggles and babies’ faces with enthusiasm while the baby stares blankly into the distance. (I was briefly enamoured of ‘The Baby Whisperer’, the child care bible of the moment, which suggested having ‘activity time’ with your baby. Books counted. Hell, for a newborn baby, just changing its nappy counted but didn’t have quite the same warm feeling of turning your child into a future genius) My grandma watched me doing this with a clear sense of bewildered wonderment; my mum, while being a great fan of books, clearly felt I was more than a little unhinged by pregnancy and birth, and my husband, who leaves all of the researching of what makes good parenting up to me (naturally, just how I like it) happily showed the book to child 1 on his daily stints of sole child care while I went out tutoring, and then spent most of his time lying on the sofa with the baby asleep on his chest.
And yet, even in retrospect, even away from the complete madness that makes up the first few weeks of a newborn baby’s life, when you are frazzled to the very core with the amazing wonder of this little creature that you were trusted with, and spend half the time working out how you can give him every fibre of the brilliant parent that he deserves, and the other half panicking that what you just did will scar him for life – even away from all that, I wouldn’t go back and not spend my time with those little books. It might not have turned him into a genius, but reading with him from such a young age created a child who would rather be read to than anything else you could offer, even Lego. For an English teacher mother, I don’t know if you can get much better.
As he grew, we progressed away from the little squiggly black and white books, although he always loved a particular baby book that my friend bought him when he was born, full of smiling faces and babies playing peekaboo. I still remember him gazing in wonder into the mirror at the end, looking at this whole other baby, his whole face lit up in a beaming smile. We moved on to the whole collection of Julia Donaldson, the queen of all children’s authors, where goats jumping on tables and mice defeating gruffalos and scruffy giants getting new clothes but realising they were much happier in the old ones were much loved, so much so that I can still recite ‘The Gruffalo’, word perfect. There was an extremely dreary Thomas the Tank Engine stage, where I thought if I read one more story about an insufferable little engine being taught a lesson, (or in the case of poor Henry, who was bricked up inside a dark tunnel until he became nicer) I might hurl the whole lot through the window. There was an equally tedious Octonauts stage, where that series of books soundly dispelled my theory that TV tie in books are great bedtime stories, as they’re so much shorter than proper books. (If you’ve ever read ‘The Great Christmas Rescue’ you will understand)
Child 2, of course, born around the Julia Donaldson stage, was never, ever read to as a newborn. I was too busy trying not to lose my grip on sanity; she was lucky she got fed. I had occasional attacks of conscience when she got to about six months, and would read her the odd age appropriate bedtime story instead of leaving her to chew on things and be in the same room while i read her brother’s bedtime story (she was in the same room! Surely there was some kind of reading happening by osmosis) Perhaps because she hadn’t been forced into reading submission as a tiny baby or perhaps just because at the time she was more or less the antichrist, her favoured activity with books was to chuck them across the room, or to attempt to rip the pages out before eating them.
As they grew and sibling infighting reared its ugly (and all too frequent) head, reading became a refuge. The best piece of advice I ever had or read when they were toddlers was from Jo Frost (in her book; we never reached the stage where Supernanny needed to move in or anything) was to read with them at breakfast time. Of course I didn’t want to. Who wants to read Peppa Pig stories that you’ve already memorised at seven am, when you could be having a cup of tea and reading scurrilous gossip online? But it was that or watch them kill each other, so we gave it a go. And it was pretty miraculous – some days after breakfast they allowed me to clean not only the kitchen table but often the entire kitchen as well before the violence started. I guess it was something to do with the undivided attention from me before they started the day; sadly Toy Story on repeat never had the same effect.
Today, working full time, those days of being able to read for an hour after breakfast or in bed before we got up, are long gone. I think of them sometimes like little memory jewels that I can take out and hold up to the light, those times when we had all the time in the world to read and talk. (This in retrospect; at the time I’m pretty sure I wondered how it was that those hours before we could leave the house could go so slowly)
Nowadays we manage to squeeze in child 1’s reading and a quick story before we all run out of the door to school or work. But those hours have left us with something equally as precious: children who love books.
The other night, I was reading a book in a series call Beast Quest to child 1. They aren’t my type of books, being as they are about quests and swords and overcoming evil curses. But watching his little face as I read, and hearing him say, ‘Mummy, what’s going to happen? Shall we read another chapter and find out? Can we read it now?’ means that the experience of reading them is far greater than any other experience of reading in my life so far.

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One thought on “On the joy of small children and books….

  1. Love it. I too find the reading time is a little lost, rushed in the morning as we read her school books and not always favoured now in the evening….although got to spend last night curled up reading mr men books….sharing the reading with her and listening to the squeals of excitement because she knew what happened next!!!! Keep your blogs coming xxxx

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