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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 con­tin­uüm. 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 né’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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