Recently, we have been listening to the audiobook of ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ in the car. Ma and Pa have been getting ready for winter, preparing for a season of staying indoors. Food is grown and caught, prepared and stored. It is a lifestyle without excess – one of ingenuity and hard work. They live mostly in harmony, and sometimes fear. Winter is bitter and wolves are approaching their land.
I have thought about the Ingalls family as I have stood in line at the supermarket this week. How their story overlaps, how their story is different. They have barrels of salted fish in the pantry, smoked venison and ropes of onions hung in the attic. Their very survival depends on their cooperation. We have extra bags of pasta and tins of tomatoes crammed in our cupboards, trolleys full of cereal boxes, an empty bread aisle. Shopping habits suggest our survival depends on toilet roll.
My book group is reading ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles. It is a time of tumultuous upheaval in Russia and Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the attic of the Hotel Metropol. It is a very timely read.
Both these books offer escapism, but they also offer perspective. We need both, I think, in March 2020, and in the weeks ahead. Amongst the uncertainty and cancellations and closures, reading is accessible and free and portable. It is a gift. It is uniquely suited to self-isolation *and* to having your kids at home.
Reading has not been cancelled. How can we stock up?
Dr Daniel Willingham (in this podcast episode) encourages parents to make it really, really easy for their child to choose reading. He suggests having books readily available in places that they typically get bored, and putting limits on some other things, such as screens. He discourages coercing your child into reading, or rewarding your child’s reading. The wonderful Sarah MacKenzie says that we should cultivate a Book Club Culture at home.
If you don’t have an abundance of books at the ready, maybe consider a Covid-19 Library trip to stock up? One of my favourite mottos is that Reading is a Feast, not a Ladder. Stock up on books *we* want our kids to have access to, of course, but free choice is also crucial to raising a reader. (One of my daughters still picks up board books with flaps, alongside novels. I bite my tongue and she checks them out.) There are also lots of high quality picture books that expose kids to great art and that use much more sophisticated language patterns than the chapter books our children may be reading themselves. Picture books are part of the feast, not something we outgrow.
Perhaps having a family Read Aloud time seems as old-fashioned as making your own butter and packing your venison away for the winter. However, it has huge emotional and cognitive benefits, *especially* as our children get older and learn to read themselves. Jim Trelease (author of The Read-Aloud Handbook) writes that reading aloud has proven to be so powerful in increasing a child’s academic success that it is more effective than expensive tutoring. “People would stand in line for days and pay hundreds of dollars if there were a pill that could do everything for a child that reading aloud does. It expands their interest in books, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, and attention span. Simply put, it’s a free “oral vaccine” for literacy.” We can also tailor what we read aloud to our children’s interests and personalities, and to what is happening in our lives at that moment. Best of all, it’s pleasurable.
Friends often tell me they would love to read more, but simply don’t have time. In these very unusual days, as an increasing number of things on our calendar are being cancelled or postponed, many of us may have time to read more. Open that book that has been waiting on your shelf or go on your own Covid-19 library trip (dettol wipes at the ready!). Book swap with friends while we still can or sign up for Audible (audio books are reading, too). If you know me IRL nothing would make me happier than to match you up with a book or 2 from my shelves for the weeks ahead, so please just ask.
Here are a few recommendations of books I have enjoyed recently. Please add your own suggestions for surviving a lock-down in the comments!
A Gentleman in Moscow, mentioned earlier.
The Choice by Edith Eger. A trusted friend gave this to me and now I am constantly recommending it to people. Desmond Tutu calls it “a gift to humanity”.
The Stationery Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali. A sweeping love story spanning 60 years and 2 continents. One of my favourite books of last year.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. A beautiful, literary thriller.
The Ministry of Ordinary Places by Shannan Martin (Christian spirituality). This is a timely book about paying attention, staying put and investing in the lives of our neighbours. I loved it and underlined half of it.
Reading has not been cancelled. It is a gift, to ourselves and to our children. Let’s stock up.