My mother has been a social worker for 27 years and 20 in a school system (MSW LISW), and in her last few years, working with children with disabilities. I've decided to ask my mom about children's literature, getting me to read, my struggle with with attentiveness and how it affected my reading habits. Ultimately, I have my parents to thank for being the author I am today because without them, I don't think I ever would have picked up a book!
ME: Bridget and I are two years apart (I’m older) but were very different in terms of reading skills. Bridget devoured everything. I remember she’d be curled up in a corner reading Anne of Green Gables...
while I’d be out running in circles or painting a picture.
(yes, that's really me)
Did you do anything different with us education-wise?
MOM: You, Bridget and Kaila all loved being read to. Dad and I and your two grandmothers all loved to read to you. Even though Bridget is the only one who turned out to be an avid reader, I still have hope for you and Kaila. I think you all have the capacity to love literature. Some people are just late bloomers.
Kaila (my third sister and seven years younger) seemed to be a little different than us. What were some of her favorite books? I remember she liked a book about a bear by himself. It doesn’t seem like a book that Bridget and I would like. Perhaps this is because we had each other and Kaila WAS by herself… in a way?
MOM: Kaila did love Bear by Himself. It was such a quiet little book. I liked it too, I guess because I agreed with the message, which was that sometimes you are your own best company. I think so many kids think they are "losers" when they are alone. But this book put a real positive spin on it. Kaila also liked to collect the Berenstain Bear books.
I remember you used to read us a lot of picture books. What kinds of books did you read to us? What was our bedtime routine like?
You, Bridget and Kaila all loved being read to. Dad and I and your two grandmothers all loved to read to you. You never wanted to skip our reading before bed routine. And it just so happened that you had the exact same taste in children's books as I had. I never dreaded reading to you because I loved the books myself, even the ones we read over and over again. We were lucky to be able to afford to buy luscious books with big beautiful art work. Even though we frequently went to the library, we always bought you books for Christmas.
One of my favorites was Chris Van Allsburg's The Wreck of the Zephyr.
I can still picture the illustrations even though it has probably been twenty years since I have looked at the book. I also loved the sense of mystery and wonder it provoked. It's funny but something about it reminds me of a picture of an imaginary scene we had hanging in my childhood home. I used to stare at it and imagine going there. I called it "babyland". I guess the connection was just that it stirred my imagination since we didn’t own picture books with colorful illustrations when I was a little girl. You of course loved the wild and wacky, In The Night Kitchen.
And when I was desperate to get you all to sleep, I would choose the lilting refrain of Goodnight Moon. I loved the colors in those illustrations.
Was there anything you got sick of reading?
The only books I used to get bored reading were the ones which I guess were supposed to teach kids vocabulary. I remember one that was given to you that was sort of like a picture encyclopedia, with pictures of everyday objects and little bears thrown in to make it more kid friendly. I really avoided books with crappy illustrations.
I remember that you didn't just read us picture books... you also read novels to us too. It was a mixture and even when we were at a young age. I really loved that.
We read the Roald Dahl books, BFG, and Witches.
We also read Robinson Crusoe and another book...
So Far from the Bamboo Grove--together. Bridget remembers that Aunt Carol got us a signed copy of that one. She did think that made it special.
I think going from picture books to novels was a natural progression as you got older and developed bigger vocabularies. It’s funny, you didn't like to read on your own, but you did have a good vocabulary and always did very well on standardized tests.
Dad also used to make up stories sometimes and I think both Bridget and I loved that. I think it really encouraged us to be creative. Do you remember that? Did you ever participate?
Yes, Dad did enjoy making up stories. He would be a natural at that. He is the best one in both of our families at recounting funny things that have happened to him , in a very entertaining way. I think you are too by the way. You have a knack for mimicking people. I did make up stories too, but I think Dad's were more memorable. You may not recall this, but I did tell you a made up story about walking upside down. I really used to love looking at the ceiling and pretending to walk on it.
Did your parents read to you when you were little?
My mother always read to my brother and I. We had an old anthology of children's literature. I think I just loved the fact that we were all snuggled up together peacefully. We had her undivided attention in such a positive way. I could tell that she was enjoying it too. That is what I enjoyed most about reading to my children. The stories in those old books were less memorable than the time spent together. However, I do remember the first book that was ever given to me.
I know there wasn’t a good selection back then and books were only printed in 2 or 3 colors, but do you have any favorites from then?
My sister gave me Eloise. I just loved it. I think it was the first book that I could call mine. It had a lot more illustrations than the old books and they were colorful and funny.
I had a lot of attention problems in school. Was this apparent at home or just in school?
I began to notice that you had a little attention deficit when you were pretty young. But I would not have used that term. I just remember being aware that it seemed noteworthy that I had to ask you a half dozen times if you wanted orange juice or tomato in the morning. I recall being sort of astonished that you wouldn't answer. You were always pretty wired at home. Do you remember asking us to count laps as you ran around the house? Your uncle Ted was probably the first one to comment on your temperament. You were tiny, I mean maybe just weeks old when he held you and said, wow she is very alert. Your hair stuck up like you had been electrocuted. I mean you were wired. You were well behaved in school but let it all hang out at home. You were never mean or destructive, just lively and we did enjoy you.
When was did you first notice that I had attention problems?
Your fourth grade teacher (who had a hyperactive son) was the first professional to mention it to us. Or maybe the third grade teacher said it in a very vague soft way. But Mrs. A. referred you to a neurodevelopmental pediatrician
I remember going to a doctor to be tested but I was never told what it was for. I thought it was some sort of intelligence test. It really stressed me out. Why didn’t you guys explain what it was for? Or did you and am I just not remembering?
I am afraid I don't remember what I told you about why you were going. I usually try to explain things so I would imagine we said it was because the teacher thought you were having trouble paying attention. The funny thing is, that you were first referred for a test to see if you had auditory processing problems. That came up negative. And the Dr. who wrote an evaluation on you, left it up to us, to decide if you should be tried on stimulant medication.
Bridget was a huge bookworm. I really didn’t like reading all through school. I don’t remember you forcing us to read but I do remember having to read a number of books during the summer months as a requirement to get into the next grade. I always tried to get the smallest book possible. You really can’t make someone be a reader I guess! Were there any tricks you tried on me? Or did you just let me be?
(I wrote a report on this book in the 5th or 6th grade because it was small)
I do think I tried to get you to read. We went to libraries and bought books and encouraged you to read during the summer for fun. But it just wasn't fun for you. I wonder if you would have liked books on tape when you were younger. You seem to enjoy them now. You could have listened while you did other things. I would tell parents of kids who don't seem to enjoy reading to try that.
What do you think of the books you’ve seen kids reading today? And do you think it’s important to let the child chose the book? Or should the parent?
I think it is important to let kids choose some of the books they read. But they need to be exposed to different kinds of literature too. That is why it helps to read to children when they are little before they are overly influenced by pop culture. But sometimes kids have better taste than their parents. I saw a mother at one of your book signings rip one of your books out of her hands and insist that she buy a book about Barbie and all her outfits. The girl loved Aliens Are Coming by Meghan McCarthy. It was hard to watch.
I remember when I asked you to read my first attempt at a novel. You said something like: “Bridget is the writer in the family. You should stick to art,” or some such. You later explained why you said that. You really thought my writing would be terrible and was trying to save me from embarrassment. But this is why I ALWAYS ask you for advice on my writing before anyone else--because you are honest and I value your opinion. I think we have the same taste in writing and art. Sometimes honestly is hard to swallow, but it always works out for the best. What did you think of my early writing attempts? You can be honest. I won’t cry.
I think you struggled with writing in school for the same reason that sometimes made it hard for me to figure out what you were trying to tell me in everyday conversation. You tended to start telling me something as if I was inside your brain. I remember having to ask lots of questions to figure out where your ideas were coming from. This is a really simplistic example; "Mom, she was there when it happened." And I would be totally puzzled and have to say, who what where and when. Consequently your writing was confusing. I think you also had trouble organizing. Remember your little index card to help with a math test. You were allowed to bring one index card with some helpful facts to a math test. You filled both sides with microscopic letters and numbers with no spaces between them. It was like looking sanskrit .
Your notebooks came home with huge holes where you must have erased right through the paper. I used to marvel at them.
Basically your attempts to help yourself learn, produced chaos. So I was astounded when you began to write coherently. when you were in your twenties. I think that part of your brain just matured late.
You are a social worker in a school district. Explain your job.
I work as a school social worker in a special needs educational program. Our teachers read to all the students even those who will never be capable of reading themselves. I often witness group reading sessions where books on tape are used. To me, many of the children look distracted and I wonder if it is just an exercise in learning how to sit in a circle. A few love the routine. I guess my main impression is that the books do not seem that interesting, visually or orally. I wonder if we used volunteer readers for one on one sessions if it would be more productive. It would certainly allow for more experimentation in choice of literature. It is almost impossible to come up with a book that even a small group of six or seven students could all appreciate because their interests and comprehension levels are not the same.
You’ve worked with kids on and off for many years and have come across kids who have minor problems, such as attention deficits. What would be your recommendations for handling kids who need to work on problems with reading, etc.?
My father never read novels. He read the dictionary, math books and poetry. Choose something you're interested in. If a novel doesn't interest you, choose something else. But I guess from my perspective as a mother and a social worker, I think a love of literature can be taught by pairing it with something most kids love, ie sitting close to someone who cares about them.
I want to thank my mom for taking so much time to answer my many questions! I hope you enjoyed reading. As an update, after finishing this interview with my mom, she decided to retire this past summer. This school year she has been volunteering several days a week at an inner city school, helping ESL children learn to read