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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Swallows and Amazons

The Reading Summer

A stressed mother of a first grader sought my counsel this week. The issue was reading. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expected to. There was talk of testing, remedial help over the summer, reading logs, etc. She and her spouse were dreading it, worried, and a little irked—not at the not-yet-reader, but at the expectations and the pressure. I listened for a long time and when she finally took a breath, I asked what she was most worried about—for instance, was she worried there was a learning issue that needed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m worried he’s going to hate reading if we spend the summer doing these things!”

And that response completed the time-warp I was experiencing while listening to her story—twelve years I vaulted back in the space-time continuum. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the culmination of an entire school year of frustration and concern. #1 Son was not reading—he’d staunchly refused to even try to read the testing selections his second-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there—a conscientious objector of sorts.

Our kids went to a wonderful Spanish-immersion school and there was a little extra time built in before they started suggesting interventions simply because the students learn to read first in a language that is not their first language. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time second grade was drawing to a close—The Other Children were reading well in Spanish, and some of them quite well in English, too. The school recommended summer school, a reading program, and a Spanish tutor for the summer.

I calmly asked if anyone was concerned that there was a learning difference/disability that needed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a reading specialist and wise mother and told her of the school’s recommendations. And then I told her that our collective parenting gut was telling us to decline any programming whatsoever in favor of simply reading good books together all summer.

She was silent on the phone for several seconds. And then she whispered (whispered!) that she thought this was a wonderful idea. I’d been a storytime reader in her classroom before and she said she wondered if #1 Son wasn’t reading simply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet—with all the inflection, voices, and fun. She said it was obvious to her that stories were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very early books in which each word is not longer than four letters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s harder to make them come alive.

“Take the summer and read!” she whispered, as if she was telling me a secret that reading specialists don’t impart to the masses. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did—we read all summer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motorcycle. We read Peter and the Star Catchers and Stuart Little. We listened to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vacation and read Swallows and Amazons in the tent while camping. We went to the library every Friday and then on a picnic where we read stacks of picture books (his sister was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We visited our local kids’ bookstore with regularity and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next paragraph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read—until I was hoarse, sometimes, I read.

At the end of the summer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-nonsense grandmother and she got his number immediately. I loved her just as immediately. She took away the Clifford El Gran Perro Colorado picture books and handed him Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal. And he opened that thick novel and started reading—just like that. 

It was a wonderful summer. She was a wonderful teacher. #1 Son is A Wonderful Reader (in two languages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “perform” until he was good and ready. (He still resists performing.)

I told the worried mother our story. She nodded smartly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actually a reading problem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a booklist. 

I envy the summer ahead of them. The Reading Summer was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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Skinny Dip with Melanie Heuiser Hill

9_30RamonaWhat’s the first book you remember reading?

Ramona the Pest. My elementary school was visited by RIF (Reading is Fundamental) twice a year—the best days of the year. You had to be in second grade to peruse the tables of novels that were set up in the entry-way to our school. It was enormously exciting—so many to choose from! I picked that slim Ramona volume from all the other books piled high on the table and I read it “hidden” in my lap during math class that afternoon. I can’t imagine I fooled my teacher, Mrs. Perkins, but she had commended me on my choice earlier, so perhaps she didn’t mind…even at the expense of math.

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year old self?

That someday I would actually love being tall. I was 5’10” at the age of ten and it was rough. I’m six feet tall now and really enjoy being tall—but it took a long time to get here. I suppose my 10-year old self would have just rolled her eyes—what an adultish thing to say to a kid! But it’s true and I wish I could’ve believed it then.

What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?  

Only three?! Well, I’d have to have a series of dinners, I guess. Here are two in that series: If I could invite three who are no longer living, I’d invite L.M. Montgomery, Arthur Ransome, and E. L. Konigsburg. If I had to limit myself to the living (reasonable, I suppose) I’d invite Virginia Euwer Wolff, Kevin Henkes, and Deborah Wiles. Now to plan my additional dinners….

Where’s your favorite place to read?

This week it’s my new bright red Adirondack chair in the garden. SO comfortable, big wide arms for a glass of iced tea and a pile of books, and beauty all around. It is bliss.

9_30SwallowsWhat book do you tell everyone to read?

For the last ten years I tell everyone about Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series—mostly because American readers have almost never read it and it has been A Formative Series for my kids. It’s a series of tremendous adventures with quotidian details—somehow a magic combination. Several of the books feature the Walker kids—four dear siblings who are afforded a tremendous amount of freedom on their summer holidays and know just how to use it. In other books in the series there are frightful pirates and ne’er-do-wells. We have read them almost exclusively on vacations—a big novel each trip, me growing hoarse reading by lantern in the tent, on picnic blankets, and in hotel rooms. The audiobooks done by Gabriel Woolf are tremendous and hours and hours of time in the car have been filled with these books.

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In Which the Boy Cleans His Room …

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

We’re at the one-month mark before #1 Son leaves for his first year of college. This is big for our family. (I realize it’s a big thing for every family, but it’s feeling particularly personal for us right now—indulge me.) It’s entirely right, he’s absolutely ready, and he’s going to a place that’s a good fit for him. But my heart squeezes to think of it. (I’m trying positive visualization for the good-bye.)

ph_RRB_bedroomThis week, he’s cleaning his room—a parental mandate. His room will remain his room when he goes, but long overdue is this cleaning out of the science projects from elementary school, the soccer medals from the same era, the dusty certificates and papers and binders, the mess and detritus of a boy’s life well lived and now outgrown. He’s doing the closet today—he won’t finish. It’s like an archaeological dig with its layers. He says he’s saving his bookshelf for last. “It’s not so bad,” he says.

bk_Frog_and_toad_coverLast week, I sat on his bed and looked at that bookshelf. It’s one of the first my husband built. Floor to ceiling, nearly as wide as the boy’s wingspan. Or his wingspan a few years ago, anyway. It’s stuffed and it exhibits a peculiar combination of cluttered and organized storage. It’s obvious he once alphabetized his fiction by author. This astounds me—among all of his awards, there is nary a one commending his organizational skills. But he likes to find the book he’s looking for quickly, and so at some point he gave it a go, I guess.

Many of the picture books have moved on. A few favorites remain: Caps for Sale, an anthology of Thomas The Tank Engine stories, Clever Ali, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Quiltmaker’s Gift, Frog and Toad, several books about inventors, scientists, and explorers, Winnie-the-Pooh 

And then there are the glorious chapter books that consumed weeks and months and years of his life. Some we read together, but many he devoured on his own. The well-worn Harry Potter books in English and Spanish both, all of the Swallows and Amazons series, most anything Gary Schmidt has written…. There’s a section or two of math books—cool math, not textbook math—and there’s everything from stories of dragons and wizards to the biography of Mark Twain.

bk_SwallowsThe boy has always read widely. History is mixed in with science, which is mixed in with his banned books collection and various works of Shakespeare. Contemporary novelists sit piled under ancient classics. He has the entire collection of Calvin and Hobbes sitting next to The Atlas of Indian Nations, and various graphic novels are shelved in the midst of an extensive collection of Peter Pan prequels and sequels. I see both books he was required to read and books he could not put down.

I’m almost as proud of this bookshelf as I am the boy—it steadies me to look at it. With just a few weeks left until he heads out, I catch myself with panicked thoughts: Will he wash his sheets? Does he know the details of our family medical history? Is the salad bar in the dining service nice enough to tempt him to eat his vegetables? Does he know the signs of a concussion? Frostbite? Will he call home before he makes Big Life Decisions? WILL HE READ? 

That last one pops up a lot for this English major Mama. He wants to be an engineer. That curriculum does not feature much in the way of literature courses; though I’m impressed they have an all-campus-read that plays a significant part in orientation. Will our boy read for fun, or be so consumed with engineering and math that he won’t have time for stories? If he decides to have a beer, will he pick up a new novel or an old favorite to enjoy with it? (A mom can dream.) Will he find a banned book to read in September during Banned Books Week, like we’ve always done? Will he lose himself in the stacks of that fancy campus library and maybe carry a pile of books back to his dorm room? If he stays up much too late, will it be—please let it be—because he’s fallen into a story and can’t get out?

And then he shuffles into my office, laughing at another artifact he’s uncovered in the deep dark recesses of his closet. We agree it can be “passed on.”

“Hey Mom?” he says. “What do you do with your books when you go to college?”

I tell him there’s not much room in the typical dorm room to house books outside of those you need for your studies.

“Maybe I can just take a few favorites?” he says.

I ask which few those would be.

“I’ll have to think about it,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of favorites.”

Oh, I’m going to miss that boy.

 

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Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

I met her while knitting. She worked at the children’s bookstore next to the yarn store I frequent. I was knitting with the usual group gathered around the table at the yarn store when she came in. “Cat!” my tablemates called out that day. (I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it […]

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