Mama culture these days is big into nutrition. We are encouraged to watch what we eat while we are pregnant, breastfeed, serve whole foods to our toddlers and preschoolers, and avoid fast foods, hydrogenated fats and processed everything with our older children when ever possible. Ironically, food marketers have caught on to this push, and now offer "trans fat free" Coco Puffs and candy made with "real fruit juice". McDonalds reminds us that their chicken nuggets contain "protein". On a bad day, these processed, pretend healthy foods can be easy to give in to. We can say to ourselves, "Well, at least it contains real fruit" as we hand Jonny his third package of electric blue fruit snacks to keep him quiet during rush hour.
In a similar way, we are encouraged to do all kinds of strange things to boost our child's brain power and early literacy skills. Flashcards with giant photos of apples and red triangles are made of chunky cardboard so we can start using them with our 6 month old (does chewing a book count as an early literacy experience?). Books of computer generated, flat characters with badly rhymed couplets teach our toddlers about counting and opposites. Television characters of every description appear in "learn to read" books that are really just brief summaries of an episode of their show. Kids eat these books up as fast as the fruit snacks or fries, and we can think "Well, at least they're reading something."
But are they reading something that will encourage a healthy enjoyment of literature in the future? Will it help them develop an awareness of word and language play? Will it give them an appreciation of plot devices, character development and story structure? Will the pictures encourage their enjoyment of colour, line, form, movement and expression in art? Will the book feed their minds and souls, or will it simply fill up their empty tank of literacy experience with garbage?
You might be thinking, "There are no picture books that can do all that!". I beg to differ. If you look at many perennial favorites -- the books our parents read to us and our grandparents read to them -- you will find books that develop more than just early literacy skills. They develop an enjoyment of playful language, vivid characters and fast moving, interesting plots.
Take a Dr. Seuss classic like Green Eggs and Ham for example. It contains two quickly drawn but distinct characters - the grumpy, pessimistic naysayer and the ever hopeful and enthusiastic Sam-I-Am. It contains all kinds of repetition, rhyme, and language play. Its plot is basic but contains a conflict (will he eat the eggs and ham or not?), a rising action (the various animals and vehicles are added to the words and pictures), a climax (the train careening into the boat and everything crashing), a reversal (he likes the eggs and ham) and a conclusion. Seuss' simple line drawings contain all kinds of expression and action and silly sight jokes to be found by the attentive viewer. This book introduces children not only to literacy (the ability to read words on a page), but to language play, plot structure and simple comic devices.
I love reading books like these to my boys. They giggle and laugh at the same places every time. They repeat the phrases over and over. They insist that I read these books to them for weeks at a time. They sit and look at the pictures and point out subtle details of expression and action to me. It feels good to read them to my children again and again, just like it feels good when you can sit down and serve your family a home cooked meal.
So do yourself and your children a favour. Don't buy into the hype of prepackaged, processed reading materials. Search out good books for your kids. And read them together whenever you can. And if they occasionally want to snack on a horrible summary of the latest Spiderman movie, let them indulge. You know that generally, most of the time, their minds are well fed.
There is a great list of Twaddle free books over at Simple Mom. Check out her top ten favorites, and then scroll through the comments for a huge list of authours other people (including me) love.
What is your favorite Good Book to read to your child?