I am an avid reader, though these days I read fewer novels and far more children’s picture books. I’m not complaining; one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent is reading aloud to my children. And read aloud I do, all the time. Although a staggering proportion of children’s books are bedtime stories—on the final page the character either falls asleep or wishes the reader good night—in our home we read all day long, in every imaginable context. In the middle of our kitchen table sits a shtender, a wooden stand more commonly used to support volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Ours contains a line calligraphied from the Mishnah: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” When I bought it ten years ago, I had far more time to study Torah than I do now, but I have rehabilitated it by using it as a stand for the picture books we read at the breakfast table, including several food-related favorites: The Watermelon Seed, Pete’s a Pizza, Spoon.
While I am pushing the kids in the stroller—we have a 25-minute walk to and from their preschool every day—I recite to them from the books I’ve committed to memory, particularly those that are in verse. When reading rhyming books to my kids, I usually sing them to a melody of my own devising; as a result, I tend to memorize rhyming books pretty quickly, and can belt them out as we wait for the traffic light to change or make our way across the noisy four-lane highway. Dr. Seuss comes in handy in this regard, especially One Fish, Two Fish, which is essentially a delightful collection of nonsense verse: “The moon was out/ we saw some sheep / we saw some sheep/ take a walk in their sleep…” I want my kids to internalize various meters and rhyme schemes in the hope of cultivating their poetic sensibilities.
And I want them, too, to learn poetry, and towards that end we have managed to find a few children’s books that consist of illustrated poems, like Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (which all my kids can more or less sing by heart) and William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger” (they deliver a mean first stanza). Well, I didn’t actually find an illustrated children’s version of “Tyger, Tyger” – it is a song of Experience rather than Innocence, and therefore not standard children’s fare – but we owned a book about a tiger in a forest with awful text but dazzling illustrations, so I printed out the poem from my computer and pasted one stanza over the text of each page. I do this sometimes when we have books with terrific illustrations but terrible text; the book becomes a palimpsest, with another layer of text overlaying the original. Our copy of In My Nest, a silly board book with a three-dimensional felt bird that pops out on the last page, is now called “Shiluah HaKen,” and it contains the full text of the biblical verses about the commandment to send away the mother bird from the nest. This, too, my kids can sing.
When we have time for more complicated narratives—while waiting our turn at the doctor’s office, or sitting before daunting plates of meatballs and spaghetti—I read them longer books that are essentially short stories for children – like Otto the Story of a Mirror, a delightful tale about a mirror working in a hat shop who is bored with his job and runs away to reflect wondrous and magical sights; at the end of the book he arrives at the famous Isle of Koodle, which he had previously only read and dreamt about, where he meets another mirror, Miranda, and they set sail together. Instead of falling asleep at the end of this book, these characters fall in love: “The two mirrors reflected many wondrous things. But sometimes on a moonlit night, Otto and Miranda just like to look at each other, reflecting back and forth, back and forth, on and on and on, forever and ever and ever.”
And then there are the stories we read before bed, like Before You Were Bornand The Baby Goes Beep, two books edited and published by the gifted Deborah Brodie z”l; both are excellent transitions to “Now get in your cribs!” – a request often met with demands for an encore. Though it’s not a bedtime story, I unfailingly give in to any request to read our all-time favorite Wild About Books, about a librarian named Molly McGrew who drives her bookmobile into the zoo and gets all the animals hooked on reading: “Raccoons read alone / and babboons read in bunches. / And llamas read dramas / while eating their llunches.” I like to think that my kids fall asleep dreaming of insects scribbling haiku.
Most of the books we read are heavy on text; I tend to stay away from books that are illustrations only. I will not, for instance, read Goodnight Gorilla. I understand that the point is for the parent and child to come up with their own words, but I much prefer a fixed text. Nor do I stop to explain things as I read – it is more Mikra than Parshanut. Instead I assume that the kids will understand what they can understand, and internalize the rest nonetheless. Sure, there are dangers of this approach. Recently while reading my daughter an illustrated children’s book version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” we came to the line “Share the sweet wine and break the glass” and she pointed to the eyes of the bespectacled groom in the picture and yelled “break the glasses, break the glasses” before lunging for my pair as well. (I hope she marries a guy who wears contacts.)
Sometimes I wonder if I focus too much on memorization when reading to my kids. But it has been such an important part of my own learning. When I first started reading Shakespeare in high school, I committed to memory several sonnets and soliloquies, even though I only partially understood them. Over the years, a couplet or stanza would inexplicably pop into my head and I’d find that I suddenly understood what it meant, and how it was relevant. Likewise, much of the Torah I know by heart comes from leyning, practicing again and again to chant the verses aloud in synagogue until I know them nearly by heart. To memorize something is to be able to summon it at any time, and therefore truly to own it. Like those sages in the Talmud who were valued not for what they understood but for what they had memorized, I’d like my children to become “walking books,” able to recite the text of their favorite books to themselves and thus to sit down and “read” to themselves even before they are literate. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but when it does, I’m looking forward to some quiet time to finish reading my novel.