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Dad: Let's go home, Jason. Mom will be wondering where we've been.
Jason: Dad, that man was grumpy all the time while we helped him. I kept thinking he reminded me of someone else I know.
Dad: Mr. Harold did have a rather pessimistic outlook, didn't he?
Jason: He sure did. He was certain he'd have another flat tire just as soon as he got back on the road again. I know how he made me think of. He's just like Eeyore!
Dad: You may be right there, and while we're on the subject you remind me of someone. You make me think of Eeyore's friend Piglet.
Jason: I wasn't scared like Piglet usually is, Dad.
Dad: No, but you were as helpful and cheerful as Piglet; your help with Mr. Harold's flat tire made the job much easier.
If this conversation could have taken place at your home, it is a very special place. It was good that Jason could relate the character in a book to someone he met in real life, but it was even better that he could talk to his dad about it.
Literature enjoyed with someone you love opens the channels of communication. You see, real teaching requires a relationship. A relationship, of course, is built on mutual concern, but it also requires mutual knowledge and mutual experiences. Literature supplies that background. A conversation based on a piece of literature, its characters, the underlying message of the story, or the interesting setting (rather than just the plot) generates opportunities for worthwhile teaching.
Your child's verbal skills will be strengthened as you read aloud to him. Poets and authors are linguistic artists; they create beauty with language and take a child beyond spoken language to syntax and sound that broaden a child's thinking and communicating abilities. Hearing literature read aloud increases the vocabulary of a child at any age. When you read aloud to your children, you are advertising for reading. Young children become eager to learn how to do this wonderful thing, and older children are invited to launch into the variety of literature that you introduce to them.
The young child develops reading readiness skills as he sits by an adult and observes to reading process. He gets the idea that print has a message; he sees the adult's eyes and attention moving from the front of the book to the back, from the top of the page to the bottom, and from left to right on a line. Comprehension skills begin to emerge as the adult and child talk together about what the author has presented in the book.
A child's taste for literature develops as he enjoys good books with the people he loves and respects. A taste for good literature develops slowly. It requires "regular meals, attractively served--in portions your child can enjoy." Preschoolers and young children have special reading needs. They will listen to long colorful bits of narrative if the illustrations keep their interest. They like picture books with the same character doing something different on each page. They pay special attention to pictures that show gradual change as in Wood's The Napping House and Tresselt's Hide and Seek Fog. The sound of the language will hold then when there is repetition, as in Stover's If Everybody Did, and tales with plots that repeat a similar sequence over and over, like the story of the Gingerbread Man. They get a sense of satisfaction out of stories that end with poetic justice for the villains and happy endings for the heroes. Taste, good or bad, is contagious. Your child will learn to like what you like.
When choosing books for older children, you need to select a reading level that will stretch them. When they read independently, they need to read material with a few unknown words per page and sentence structure that matches their oral speech. This reading-instructional level should challenge them somewhat, but when you read to them it should be above that instructional level--material they could not easily read and enjoy for themselves.
You can plan a variety in the read-aloud diet. One second-grade teacher read to her class every day--but it was always the same type of book; in fact, it was the same mystery series, all year . . . every day. Now the children loved being read to, and she was faithful to give regular meals, but it wasn't very nourishing to have mystery every day. There were no mental images of settings in faraway places or behind-the-scenes glimpses of historical events--just suspenseful plot. Plot is just the skeleton of a story, the bones that hold together story life with its smile and tears and movement and spirit.
Biography and historical fiction help children gain a sense of history and an appreciate of people who made a difference that is still affecting them today. After reading The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day , Scott O'Dell's account of Tyndale's Bible translation, your child will not take his Bible for granted, but rather will have a feeling for the sacrifice that was made by men over the years to translate and preserve the Scriptures. Rebecca Henry Davis's With Daring Faith will provide you with a fast-moving plot that takes you and your child to the mission field of India. He will take a long sea voyage with the inventor of the sextant in Jean Lee Latham's Carry Me On, Mr. Bowditch. Good stories of the American frontier are abundant. The compelling story of a child alone in the wilderness in Milly Howard's Captive Treasure provides insight into that period of history from the Indians' point of view, while books such as the well-known Laura Ingalls Wilder books show the settler's life on the frontier. Dawn Watkins's Zoli's Legacy and Donna Hess's A Father's Promise will help your child get a sense of history out of the World War II names and dates and places of your Heritage Studies books. The list of historical fiction books is long and varied.
Fanciful tales offer another part of the reading menu. A universal truth lies under the metaphor of a good fantasy story. When the story is well written, the truth teaches itself. In Munro Leaf's Ferdinand the main character is "promoted to incompetence." Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle makes it clear that "it doesn't pay to use other people to get to the top." The friendship and character interaction of the Winnie the Pooh stories will spill out into your daily conversation when you and your children have made friends with them reading the Milne books a few times. E.B. White's Charlotte's Web teaches more about the meaning of friendship than an explicit realistic story ever could. In Jeri Massi's Bracken Trilogy, good always triumphs over evil and leaves the reader with a sense of how good right is.
Modern realism can support Christian values directly or indirectly. Patricia St. John's Treasures of the Snow teaches a child about bitterness and Christ's forgiveness in a way that he will not forget. The laughter and play that permeate Jeri Massi's Peabody series turns the growing-up struggles of the characters into lessons that can be learned. Animal realism appeals to nearly all children. Meindert DeJong's Hurry Home, Candy and Julie Nye's Scout are both compelling stories in this category. Eleanore Estes's The Hundred Dresses, a b piece of writing from a secular author, combines a compelling story and an urgently needed lesson in tolerance.
Unhappily, a negative note must be made at this point. All books published for children are not equal in value. Secular children's literature, especially in recent years, contains many objectionable elements. The fanciful stories often "cross the line" of creative fantasy to occultish themes. Modern realism may offer solutions that contradict Christian teachings. Often these stories leave the reader with a sense of hopelessness. When using the public library as your source for books, you will need to read each book before you venture to read it to your children.
A second problem you will face is the shallow content and poor writing of some books that bear the label "Christian." Often the solutions are gained without struggle, and the character changes are startling and unbelievable. Later when a child encounters a similar problem in his own Christian life, he becomes discouraged when he finds himself in a struggle rather than enjoying the "happily ever after: victory he read about.
A book should expand a child's understanding of reality, exercise his mind, and encourage him to love the sound and sight of words. It offers him pleasure as he gains understanding. When you read aloud to your child, you build a bond of understanding. You demonstrate to your child that reading is a pleasant activity, a marvelous alternative for TV. You model fluent reading, the first step in helping your child develop his own.
Hearing your voice and seeing your face as you read gives your child a vision that lasts: this book has an important message.
A young child owns a fresh, uncluttered mind. To what treasures will you lead him? With what will you furnish his spirit?
Note: Many of the books mentioned above are available from BJU Press.