Building A Book Nut

My five-year-old daughter is in a weird place as a reader. She’s reached the point where she can sound out letters and read some of the words that her brain already recognizes, but she hasn’t figured out the rules for letter combinations. For example, she doesn’t know that anytime she sees “oo” it sounds similar to “moon” or “look” or “good” — she still tries to interpret each “o” on its own rather than as a phonetic grouping; except, she has “moon” down as a sight word, so everytime I see her stumbling on the “oo” in something else, I remind her of the “oo” in “moon.”

That’s one example of letter combinations. She still doesn’t have “sh” or “ch” or “ee” or “ea.”

With that being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the only word she stumbled on while reading the first sentence of the above paragraph was “one.” She wouldn’t have much trouble with “combinations” — well, maybe with the “ti” part.

Anyway, the point is that, when it comes to reading a book to her, we’re at a weird transition stage.

She doesn’t yet like chapter books. She can sit quietly and be interested for the length of a few chapters and she can correctly answer basic comprehension questions (though definitely not all of them), but what she can’t really do is sustain a book over the course of a few nights. By the third night, her brain has checked out and she’s moved on.

She loves books though. Not as much as she loves television, and probably not as much as she loves dancing, but she does love books.

But what I’d like to do is get her over the next hump as a reader.

I know she’ll get there, so I’m not worried about it at all, and I could write this same piece about her video-game playing skills, her skiing skills, her conversational skills, and her sense of empathy. Being five years old means having another hump to get over in pretty much all facets of your life.

But this isn’t about that. It’s about trying to imagine a book that would be right for her right now, when she’s in this weird space.

It’s not just about her reading skills either. As much as she loves books, she doesn’t yet love reading, and that’s something that’s kind of an unconditional requirement for being the child of my wife and I. We need this girl to love reading because, if she doesn’t, our lives as adults who love to read will be compromised — she’ll demand our attention rather than finding quiet joy in a book, like us.

Anyway, she needs to love reading, so the last thing I want to do is make it feel like a chore. I want to give her the opportunities to read, expose her to as many words as possible, and then let her discover the joy of it in her own time.

But again, it’s not just about her reading skills. It’s also about the depth of the ideas she can comprehend. She’s in a weird space here, too. For the last three years, since she really started to speak, I have tried to talk to her in the same way I talk to all of my students, minus some of the swear words and sarcasm. When she asks me a question, she knows she’s going to have a lot of information coming at her and that not all of it she’ll be able to understand. But she also knows that she can ask me what I mean, and I’ll try to explain it again, using different (and not always simpler) words.

My wife talks to her much the same way (though better-er, because she’s a better teacher than I am). Except for Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, we’ve never really shied from telling her the unvarnished truth. While this has led to her possessing an unflappable concern about the fate of humanity when it comes time for the sun’s inevitable explosion, as well as semi-regular exhortations about her not wanting me to die when she’s an adult, it has also led to serious and deep conversations about a wide variety of topics where her line of questioning revealed not only her ability to comprehend a topic but to also synthesize it with some other experience in her life and then apply it later in a different conversation.

What kind of book do you read to a kid like that?

She’s not picky. Some of her favorite books focus on underpants, and nothing makes her laugh harder than a poop joke. But she also likes to look at atlases and ask questions about the various cultures. She traces her fingers over the drawings in a children’s book on evolution, asking relaxed but pertinent questions about our grandmother the fish. She knows the names and could even recall some of the details of Ahab and Queequeg, thanks to a young reader’s edition of Moby Dick.

But she can’t stick with a book longer than a few nights. She might know Ahab and Queequeg, but her interest didn’t last long enough for her to meet the white whale himself.

She doesn’t enjoy books without a lot of pictures. She’ll listen to them, but she doesn’t enjoy them, not in the same way. She needs something to focus on if she’s to keep her body still.

I’m looking for a book that is long enough to last three or four nights, but that also includes rich and detailed illustrations.

Essentially, a graphic novel for five year olds.

But it has to be more “read-aloudable” than most graphic novels. Graphic novels tend to follow the format of comics, with two or more speech bubbles on a page, making it difficult for the reader to signal to the listener when one speaker stops and another starts.

I also want her eye to move in a more linear fashion than what you normally find in a graphic novel, where each page is divided into frames and the eye is subjected to the talents of a graphic designer.

I don’t want to teach her the grammar of the graphic novel. Not just yet. That grammar definitely has its place, but I don’t think she’s there yet. She still needs to train her eyes and her brain to operate linearly (not too linearly of course, hence all the dancing).

The book I’m looking for would move from page to page, not frame to frame, and its words would flow in the same way, making a clear connection between each set of words and their attendant picture. It would be a book where the pictures almost wouldn’t need the words and where the words almost wouldn’t need the pictures, but where, because they exist together, deeper connections can be made than if each existed alone.

But it’s gotta be about something, and it’s gotta be about that thing in a novelistic (and hopefully non-pedantic) way. I want her to love the book the way I loved my first favorite books, the ones that I couldn’t put down and yet were too long for me not to put down. I want her to be eager for her mother or I to pick it up and read it to her, so eager that when we can’t, she sneaks upstairs to her bedroom to read it to herself, because she just can’t wait to return to the world of the book.

So it has to have words she can read or recognize on her own and drawings to enrich her understanding of how those words and ideas work together. It is has to have a story whose twists and turns she can’t yet imagine for herself, and a theme whose depths will set fire to her soul.

If she’s to escape upstairs and read it to herself, her curiosity for what comes next and what it all might mean will have to stoked to the nth degree; otherwise, her brain will find itself returning to the sensory bath that is modern children’s television.

So where the eff is that book?

One thought on “Building A Book Nut

  1. Wish I had that book to recommend, but sadly, I don’t. But I do have another idea. When I was a bit older than your daughter, I discovered that it was much easier to hold focus on books that we read as a family if I was doing something with my hands: making friendship bracelets, or drawing, or whatever. Maybe something to try? I also used to read along over my parents’ shoulders, which also helped my mind stay focused.

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