My wife and I have been reading to our daughter Rose since she was born on May 19, 2009. She’s now 3 1/2. She was born deaf so for the first nine months of her life reading had limited effectiveness. Still, she enjoyed sitting with us and looking at books, so we read to her during the day and, importantly, every night at bed time.
At 9 months Rose was implanted with Cochlear bionic hearing devices. Reading became a huge part of training Rose to listen to the world and to human voices. Since she had gone the first nine-months of her life without sound, it was very important to train her to listen well for the first time.
We began with Bill Martin and Eric Carle’s Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Obviously this had a thematic relevance to us. The first sound I remember hearing Rose imitate was my impression of an elephant trumpeting. It was a real triumph. In those early days we also read a lot of Sandra Boynton, Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown and Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Dr. Suess was added later, starting with the The Ear Book, The Foot Book, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? Also Big Dog, Little Dog and Go Dog Go.
We noticed early on that Rose had an aptitude for memorizing her books. We encouraged this by pausing while reading and letting her remember what came next. This was made relatively easy by the pictures in the books. It’s easier to remember what the Very Hungry Caterpillar eats each day because there are pictures of it. But Rose also showed that she could memorize nursery rhymes easily, even when the pictures didn’t necessarily tip you off about what the words were.
The biggest surprise came the summer after Rose turned two, when we began reading The Little Engine That Could, which was the first book delivered to us by the Dolly Parton charity book service. Rose loved this book and we read it over and over again. She insisted that we leave the book in her bed with her so she could look at it at night. This resulted in tears more than once when she accidentally ripped the pages, which were thin paper pages rather than the board books she had mostly held earlier.
One night we heard her in her room talking. But she wasn’t really talking. She was reciting the book. She knew every single phrase, every single word. It was an amazing discovery. Our daughter, born deaf, and obviously unable to read at the age of 2, had listened to the words closely enough that she was able to commit all of them to memory. In fact, she would insist that she be the one who “read” the book at bed time.
Around this time we bought Rose a few Thomas the Tank Engine books next because she liked the Little Engine book so much. Both feature little blue engines. The first one was Crack in the Track followed by Trains, Cranes, & Troublesome Trucks, Go Train Go! and Stop Train Stop! She quickly memorized these books as well. She fell in love with trains at this time. We bought her some engines to play with, and some track sets. This year for Christmas she said that her greatest wish was for “more train tracks.” (Also, her favorite color became blue. When we painted her room, that’s what color she wanted.)
Other books we were reading to Rose between two and three were the Suessians: Hand Hand Fingers Thumb, A Fish Out of Water, Green Eggs and Ham, Wacky Wednesday, and There’s A Wocket in My Pocket. I also picked up two or three (and later more) Frog and Toad books, which were a big hit with Rose. She memorized quite a few of these stories.
I came across a collection of Beatrix Potter stories at a stoop sale in Brooklyn and began to read them to Rose. She loved the little rabbits so much, although she was a bit afraid of Mr. McGregor. I think this might have been her first encounter with a “villain.” She had lots of questions about the villains. She wanted to know why Mrs. McGregor put Benjamin’s father into a pie. We decided to answer her straightforward: because she wanted to eat the rabbit. She wanted to know why Mr. McGregor wouldn’t share his garden with the rabbits. Why did Benjamin and Peter insist on going to the garden despite the danger? There were lots and lots of questions each night.
Rose shortly memorized the Tale of Benjamin Bunny, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Every word on every page, knowing exactly when to turn the pages. She nick-named herself Flopsy, I became Peter, her mother Mrs. Rabbit, her nanny Mopsy. Her unborn sister, for whom her mother and I had not yet settled on a name, was Cottontail. Rose began a habit of sleeping with these books in her bed every night, a habit that continues today. You can often hear her at night in her room reciting these books.
As you can probably tell, we have a lot of books in our lives. We read two stories every night, one story on the floor by her bed and another in bed. Reading is one of Rose’s favorite past times so we read a lot outside of official story time also. I couldn’t list all of the books if I tried but some of the notable titles that became favorites of Rose included: Leo Lionni’s The Biggest House in the World, The Alphabet Tree, little blue and little yellow; Swimmy; The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater; Eric Carle’s Papa Please Get the Moon For Me, The Grouchy Lady Bug, The Very Lonely Firefly, and the Very Hungry Caterpillar; too many Sandra Boynton books to count, but especially Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaur, Pajama Time, Snuggle Puppy, Hippos Go Berserk, and Night, Night Little Pooki; and Nancy White Carlstrom’s Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear?
Sometime around Rose’s third birthday I picked up a series of books about Quakers in Nantucket that center around a little boy named Obadiah. It became obvious reading these to Rose that she was becoming very interested in the plots and characters. In retrospect, we realized that this was one of the reasons she really loved the Peter Rabbit books. They had many characters with many motivations, and the lead characters were flawed, troublesome youngsters. They took place in new, and exotic settings (or at least, settings that were exotic to a Brooklyn raised three year old). And the plots were somewhat suspenseful. Would Peter get caught? Would Obadiah win the race with his sister Rachel?
By the way, these elements also made them very fun for adults to read. You can only read so many sweet rhyming books, or even silly rhyming books, before your eyes glaze over a bit. Stories with characters, settings, plots and surprise really shine after a few years of rhymes and simpler stories. (Not to knock those too hard; I recommend every single book I’ve named above—with the exception perhaps of the Thomas books, which are too simple for my tastes.)
Around this time our daughter began to sing with her nanny a lot more. Her first nanny had shown her a few songs from Sesame Street on YouTube, including Feist singing “One Two Three Four” and Elmo singing the Alphabet song. Her next nanny began playing some more grownup fair, including Judy Garland singing “I Was Born In Michigan” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Rose knew these songs by heart.
Now Rose had long had a set of finger puppets of characters from the Wizard of Oz. The nanny taught Rose about the characters by playing their songs on YouTube. Rose grew fascinated with them. I eventually showed her the scene of the Wicked Witch of the West melting, something that frightened her not at all. At some point, a few months after Rose was 3 years old, my wife watched the entire film with Rose on a rainy day when I was out of town. Rose was enthralled with Dorothy and her friends. In her mind, she went from being Flopsy to being Dorothy.
I decided to buy a copy of the L. Frank Baum novel that was the basis of the movie. I had never read the book but had always been curious about it. I picked up the 100th Anniversary edition, which is a facsimile of the 1900 first edition, including 24 full-color plates and 130 two-color illustrations.
Now The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is over 200 pages long, spread out over 24 chapters. Attempting to read such a thing to a three-year old was at least a little bit crazy. All the experts in reading say you do not really introduce children to chapter books until much later, and even then they should be much, much shorter—100 pages at the most.
I had no right to expect Rose to have the attention span to follow pages crammed with this many words, much less a story that went on for so long. At two chapters a night, it would take us nearly two weeks to finish the book. Nights I had to work late would test her attention span because the period in which she had to keep the story in her mind would stretch out even longer. Looking back on it now, I think it was not only foolish but a bit selfish to read this book to her so early. Was I really reading it for her or because I wanted to read it?
Perhaps because she already knew some of the story and identified so strongly with Dorothy, she was engaged immediately. Her attention span never wavered. She had lots of questions, many about the difference between the film and book. The good witch who meets Dorothy in Munchkinland is not named Glinda, is not from the South, is not young, and is not pretty. The magical shoes are silver instead of ruby red. Nobody sings.
We didn’t end up reading the book every night. I was working late a lot at this time, so I read Wizard of Oz only a few nights during the week. My wife read other stories on nights I wasn’t home. This meant it took nearly a month to read the entire book.
Rose never seemed to lose interest or lose track of what was happening in the plot. She followed right along. The finger puppets seemed to help. She would act out the scenes with her puppets. This was so adorable we eventually upgraded her to rag dolls that were much larger—and less easily misplaced—than the finger puppets.
As soon as we were done with book, with Dorothy safely returned to Kansas, Rose wanted to read it again. I was a bit wary about my own patience for reading a full-length novel twice in row. But the second time around I got better. I invented special voices for each of the characters: a soft, child like voice for Dorothy; a robot-like voice for the Tin Man; a growl for the Lion; a goofy, simpleton voice for Scarecrow. Rose really loved the book the second time through it, which meant we were in for a third reading.
Her younger sister—formerly known as Cottontail and now known as Madeline—was born in early October. Rose had no doubt what she was going to be for Halloween. She was Dorothy. Madeline was Toto. I was the Tin Man. My wife was the Scarecrow.
As we walked around Park Slope Halloween night, trick-or-treating at the local shops on 7th Avenue, Rose would point out the witches. “Look, Daddy, another witch!” A friend asked if Rose was scared of the witches. So I asked her.
“No, Daddy. I’m not afraid of the witches. They’re afraid of me. Because I’m going to melt them,” she said.
As amazed as I was that Rose had the attention span to listen to such a long book, I began to dread the prospect of reading it a fourth or a fifth time. I also worried. Was it healthy to read the same book this many times? Rose often talked to the witch alone in her bedroom, arguing over the shoes and threatening to melt her. It’s a bit creepy to hear a toddler talking to an imaginary witch. Isn’t that how those demonic possession movies start? Rose wore her Dorothy costume around the house quite often.
I bought a couple of other big books in an attempt to turn her away from the Wizard of Oz. I started with the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which is called The Marvelous Land of Oz. It follows the further adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in Oz. Rose lasted a few chapters before growing restless. She wanted to know where Dorothy was. She wasn’t interested in the main character, an adolescent boy named Tip.
So I bought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It featured a young girl chasing a bunny into another world! Sort of Dorothy meets Peter Rabbit. But Rose wouldn’t bite. After a chapter or two, she was demanding to go back to Dorothy and friends. I failed also to interest her for very long in Winnie the Pooh or Laura Ingals Wilder. We got through a chapter or two or three before the craving for Oz returned.
I should note that during this time, my wife had no trouble reading shorter books and little stories to Rose. At school, too, Rose was very happy with small, more age-appropriate stories. But reading with Daddy now meant reading big books, long books, and especially the Wizard of Oz.
One day, while looking for Christmas themed books, I spotted C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This was one of my favorites as a child, although I never encountered it until I was much older than Rose. But it began with a story about a young girl named Lucy. It had a lion and a witch right in the title. The illustrations were quite meager but I somehow convinced myself this one might do the trick.
It’s not the easiest book to be read out loud. I’m sure C.S. Lewis never intended it to be read that way at all, certainly not to three-and-a-half year olds. But right from the beginning Rose loved the book. The strange creatures—a faun, a dwarf, a giant, centaurs, dryads—provoked lots of questions. What was Turkish Delight? Why was it always winter and never Christmas? Who is Aslan?
Rose began to play out scenes from the book using her Wizard of Oz characters. I can’t remember if this was her idea or something I suggested. Dorothy was Lucy, Miss Gultch (the wicked witch) was Susan, the Tin Man Peter, Scarecrow Edmund, and Glinda as the White Witch. Of course, the Lion was Aslan.
There are a lot of similarities between the Oz story and the first adventure in Narnia, something I’m not sure anyone has ever noticed before. Rose noticed. For instance, in both books small, grey field mice place a very important role as the saviors of the lions.
A note of caution. Rose’s favorite part of the Wizard of Oz is the field mice rescuing the Cowardly Lion. But her next favorite parts were “when they killed the Wicked Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West.” Her favorite part of C.S. Lewis’s book is the Lion killing the witch. Yes, she beams when Aslan returns from his plight on the Stone Table. But it is his vanquishing of the White Witch that captures her heart. I’m not sure all parents would be comfortable with they’re pre-schooler admiring killing—even if it is killing the wicked—so much. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me.
My plan had worked. Narnia had saved me from Oz. Instead of Munchkinland, we were at the lamppost; instead of The Emerald City we had Cair Paravel; instead of the kind of accident that allows Dorothy to destroy her witch, we had the allegorical sacrifice and resurrection that results in Aslan’s triumph over Narnia’s witch.
Yesterday we finished reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for the second time. I suggested to Rose that we pick a new book to read. She smiled up at me and said, “Okay, Daddy. We can read the Wizard of Oz.”