Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Simple pleasures... and bedtime stories

Youngest daughter is home with a cold this week, and I'm grateful for the perks of being a mostly-stay-home-mom with a very flexible part-time boss. I worked yesterday morning while my mom stayed with Julia. After Grandma went home and we had lunch, we went to the bookshelf and sorted through old favourite children's books, and Julia spent the afternoon in bed surrounded with book characters she grew up with -- woolly wombats and happy hippopotami, Skippyjon Jones and Diary of a Worm, Sesame Street monsters and fairy tale princesses (not of the Disney variety). When she got tired of reading to herself, we read a couple of chapters of The Borrowers together, and it wouldn't surprise me if she was lounging in bed at the moment reading on by herself.

I have always loved to read to children. When I was teaching, the last 20 minutes of every school day were Miss P.'s reading time, and my students would relax, doodle at their desks, or sit rapt as we shared stories by E. B. White or Ursula K. Le Guin or Farley Mowat. We traversed African savannahs, American prairies, and the Land of Oz. When I left teaching to start my own family, I looked forward to reading to my own little ones, and have fond memories even of the books we knew backwards and forwards -- those repetitive, participatory stories like the Berenstains' "Big Brown Bear, Blue Bull, Beautiful Baboon, blowing bubbles, bicycling backwards..." and Sandra Boynton's hilarious little board book that had us all shouting, "But NOT the hippopotamus!" until we reached, "but NOT the armadillo!" at the end. And Hop on Pop... and Goodnight Moon... and how many chunks of stories can you still recite?

For years we lugged large bags of books back and forth from the local library, and discovered many favourites that sometimes still make their way back to us if my girls happen to spot them as they walk through the children's section. This week, in keeping with Valentine's Day, it's Slugs in Love by Susan Pearson, illustrated by Kevin O' Malley, in which Marylou, a very shy slug, keeps leaving little slime-trail love letters for Herbie, her chosen slug, but Herbie keeps getting conflicting reports about which of the garden slugs is Marylou. "I think she's the brownish one." "I think she's the pinkish one." It tells you something when even an avid gardener like me has a soft spot for these funny little slugs, but the humour of Herbie's ball cap (worn between his eyes), and Marylou's eye-ribbons and love poems completely won me over (though I still can't stand having slugs in my lettuce, and cover the patch with eggshells to keep them out).

Unfortunately, the bedtime story ritual has almost run its course with Julia only 18 months away from Junior High School (I try not to think about how fast she's growing up). These days, the only time I get to read with her is when she's not feeling great and it's a comfort to lean her head against Mom's shoulder and listen. Our other two girls are into thick young adult novels that it would take anyone half a day to read aloud, and they're such speed readers, they'd never be patient enough to listen since they could finish the book themselves in less than half the time. My husband and I read The Da Vinci Code together the spring that I had vertigo. I wasn't good for doing much else, so I read a couple of chapters every night until one Saturday afternoon when I sat in a lawnchair and read to him while he was painting our garage doors. Seems to me we ended up finishing the book at 1 a.m., and I was rather hoarse. It was fun, but not likely to be repeated.

I wonder, with all the changes coming via the e-book publishing industry, what will happen to future bedtime story rituals? Will children's libraries continue to exist? Will the powers that be come up with a larger Kindle (or whatever brand name you know) for the big glossy illustrations that little kids and parents love? How will they replace the chewable board book? Will we have to shop garage sales for the satisfaction of turning a page to find Waldo in a different situation?

Whatever happens, I hope to have more opportunities to share beloved stories with little ones, and that our children will be able to do the same. The bedtime story is a sacred thing, a sign that big people care about little people and want to share the best things with them, along with a cuddle. I'm so grateful to have had that opportunity for almost half my life.

Julia's up. Maybe we'll go read a few more chapters of The Borrowers together.

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