Episode 5 - Storytime - TRANSCRIPT
(Alice) I don't know that I spend time with my loved ones in such a vulnerable state as they do when I'm reading with them.
This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.
EPISODE 5 - STORYTIME
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In the last episode, I shared with you my guiding questions - “How is reading picture books different from reading other kinds of books?” “How is reading together, different from reading alone?” And “Where does the magic of picture books come from?” It’s that middle question that I want to spend some time on in today’s episode.
“How is reading together, different from reading alone?” When answering this question with picture books in mind, many of the people I talked to spoke about the sacred space of storytime. About how reading together becomes a meeting place like no other - where you connect with someone you love or trust or care for - you block out the rest of the world and you bond.
(Vanessa) “I love that It's just like a part of your day where you sit down and you focus on each other and what you're doing for at least a moment before you go on and continue with your life.”
(Courtney) “but I really use picture books for us to come together and grow as a class and a family and to build social emotional learning with my students, but also for them to really see themselves in books but also for them to grow that sense of books are my happy place, books are not things we have to read, but they are things we want to read.
(Megan) “sitting down with a picture book, it's just such a way to join together with my kids and to be like, okay, here we are with this physical book. I will read the text aloud while you look at the pictures and it will be a meeting space for us essentially to come together and talk about ideas that are in the art and the story.”
That was Vanessa Nielson, Courtney Hinshaw, and, Megan Dowd Lambert. Later in the podcast, I’ll share more of my interviews with Vanessa and Courtney. But we’ll hear more from Megan in this episode. She wrote a book called Reading Picture Books with Children; How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See.
And in her answer to how reading together is different from reading alone, Megan suggests that a picture book promotes what’s called in reader response theory a “shared reading transaction.”
(Megan) You don’t have to read the picture book with someone else. You certainly can read independently. Um, even a child who can't read the words yet can certainly flip through the pages and read the story by reading the pictures. But I think when you have a shared reading transaction, a couple things are happening in the traditional storytime say the adult is reading the text aloud and so the child has the experience of hearing words and looking at art simultaneously, which is impossible when you're reading the picture book independently and your eyes are kind of going between text and image as you decode text and see the art.
So the child in that shared reading transaction, I think is having an idealized experience of the picture book where they don't have their attention is divided between the different parts of that multimodal text.
Multimodal - this is what we talked about in the last episode - the different modes are the words and pictures. And until I had read Megan’s book and interviewed her, I hadn’t thought of what an ideal spot the kid can be in during storytime - hearing the words while seeing the pictures. Perhaps this is another way to put the child at the center of the universe (like Dr Brazelton in episode 2). And as the child listens to the words and sees the art, they form in their heads that “composite text” that we talked about before - the text that only exists in their head.
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Here is a long and particularly poignant description of this sacred space of reading together, of storytime. This is from Martha V. Parravano in a book called A Family of Readers.
She writes, “consider a small child sitting on his mother's lap while she reads him a picture book. The picture book opens to a width that effectively places the child at the center of a closed circle - that of mother's body, arms, and the picture book. Or perhaps the child is too big or independent to sit on a parent's lap--he sits next to her, one person holding the left side of the picture book--the other the right side. Again a circle.”
Parravano continues “I don’t think it’s an accident that so much adult-child book-sharing forms and takes place within a circle, or that so many picture books open to a size that facilitates one. That circle, so private and intimate, is a place apart from the demands and stresses of daily life, a sanctuary in and from which the child can explore the many worlds offered in picture books. Despite all of our society's technological advances, it still just takes one child, one book, and one reader, to create this unique space, to work this everyday magic.”
I like that Parravano’s equation is so simple. One child, one book, one reader. It makes that everyday magic so accessible doesn’t it? Now, in my house the equation is a little different. It’s two children, multiple books, and probably more than one reader. And a dog or two. And, of course, when it comes to our nightly bedtime storytime routine I can’t say that we have a perfect record,
Or a perfect routine for that matter. In fact some nights the routine drives me crazy. We’re settling in for a story at bedtime. I start reading a book and - for reasons I have yet to discern in my 8 years of parenting - my kids start touching the books with their feet. Flailing legs in the air, waists wiggling, toes roaming, little bodies squirming and - rumpled page corners. I mostly attribute this habit to the gyrations and movements of their bodies which have kept them in motion all day and which can’t quite stop in a flash. A good old fashioned gyroscope takes a long time to wind down (literally).
But, by cracky, we read our books anyway. Wiggles and all. “Feet down!” I say gently - or sternly if necessary. This is not the only speed bump to this nightly ritual. Often there is some dispute as to who gets to sit where in relation to mommy or daddy or in relation to the soft and cuddly dog who always inserts herself calmly but persistently into our routine. And who - by the way - is really good at sitting still. Unlike some people I know.
Usually Julia and Clara each pick a book and I might pick a third. I engage in the inevitable conflict resolution (which, by the way, why is THAT not a required parenting 101 course?) Anyway, frequently I sacrifice the book I want for the books they want. Whatevs. It wouldn’t be the first time I make a sacrifice and won’t be the last.
On the best nights we are all four there. Daddy, if he has just worked a night shift, ends up falling asleep part way through and if I’m lucky, I stay awake the whole time. We finish our books, retire to our beds and, little by little, we all drift off to la la land. Snores and drools and all.
I don’t really remember this kind of bedtime ritual from when I was a kid though I know it was there. I think those routines of my early life must have embedded themselves somewhere else in my heart and mind - like the tune for Caps for Sale - rather than existing as solid, separate memories. Instead, the only clear memories I have from when I was my kids’ age are either traumatic or singular.
Like, that time I hit my head and went to the hospital and got stitches. Or that first day of first grade. Or the “Units” outfit I wore when I turned 8.
You know what I do remember from when I was a kid - I had a gyroscope. Like a toy one - probably from one of those gadgety places like “Sharper Image.” Mine had a long, flexible, plastic, toothed piece that you’d thread into and around the motor inside the gyroscope, and then - as hard as you could - you’d yank that long plastic piece out and that would set the inner core spinning. Then the gyroscope would do its thing - the rotor inside would spin rapidly but the gyroscope would stay upright, holding steady as can be, without falling. It’d spin like a top. Somehow still, straight, and erect. With only a bit of wavering.
I didn’t understand it the science of it then and if I’m totally honest, I don’t understand it much better now. But I do understand this: the way a gyroscope works is - once you start spinning it, its axle wants to keep pointing in the same direction. Gyroscopes are navigational tools. Well, maybe my toy one wasn’t, but the more sophisticated ones are. They guide rockets and airplanes. They keep space stations oriented to the sun. They hold steady - even as they spin rapidly.
So even when my kids are wild and wiggly, even when we have disputes, even when some of us can’t stay awake and some of us can’t fall asleep … we read anyway. Because those rituals are what keep them - keep all of us - pointed in the right direction. And even if it’s not the beautiful pristine picture-perfect bedtime moment, storytime can still be an intimate and important space.
(Aaron) I think it was bedtime that really inspired me to keep these stories fun, light-hearted
This is Aaron Heim - author of, most recently, Hello Door and The Great Puppy Invasion - well you might know him as Alastair Heim - but at Hallmark where he and I are both Editorial Directors, I know him as Aaron.
(Aaron) Because I think that, especially at bedtime, and I would love to tell you as an author, as a writer, when the clock strikes 8:00, we shut everything down and we go in the room and we read for an hour every book on the shelf and that is just not the case for us it's times three. So for me, watching them experience picture books, seeing what they reacted to, what they responded to, the ones they kept asking me to read over and over and over again really helps shape the way I write and why I write. You know, I'm not trying to, as an author, I'm not trying to win awards. I'm trying to win bedtime. And I think it was bedtime that really inspired me to keep these stories fun, light-hearted, a bit of an escape for them because there's so much seriousness that they deal with. I'm inspired to sort of give them an escape. I want them to laugh, I want them to experience really silly. I want them to have sort of a heartfelt moment with a parent there. For me and what I'm trying to bring to the power of picture books. Again, is that did you smile before you went to bed? Do you want to hear it again tomorrow night? I've think I've done my job then and that makes my heart happy.
(PAUSE) page turn
You know who did have a perfect record of reading bedtime stories? Alice Ozma and her dad. In her book, The Reading Promise, Alice writes about the reading streak that she and her dad started together - reading aloud each night at bedtime starting when she was 9. They aimed for 100 nights in a row. When they met that goal, they decided to shoot for 1,000. Eventually, their reading streak took them all the way to 3,218 consecutive nights of reading aloud together - ending on Alice’s first day of college.
I’m really intrigued by Alice’s answer to the question, “how is reading together different from reading alone” because it brought up something I hadn’t thought of and provides another dimension to this equation.
(Alice) I think that reading is one of the most vulnerable things we do. Um, I think that we carry our walls with us throughout the day and you have to, there's so many things you are exposed to on a daily basis that if you stopped to think about them, you would break down crying. And so you realize that you are so accustomed to being exposed to big vulnerable ideas every day and not being able to be vulnerable with them. And I don't think we enter the world of reading with those same guards up. We don't need to.
We're allowing ourselves to go into the place of reading. And so I don't know that I spend time with my loved ones in such a vulnerable state as they do when I'm reading with them. Whether that was growing up, reading with my dad or now reading with my daughter. I accept that I'm going on a journey. I accept that emotions are going to come out in a way that I don't normally open myself up to. And so I think that kind of establishing the rules of the game ahead of time and saying, hey, we're going to read and we understand that reading sometimes brings up really strong emotions and we're going there together. It’s a bit - you know, I, I've never participated in group therapy, family therapy, that kind of thing, but that's kind of what I imagine it's like if you set aside time and say, let's be honest with each other, let's be vulnerable. Let's have tough conversations. I think reading is all of that. Um, but when you both sit down to read together, you set aside time and you kind of know where it might go. And you're saying I'm okay with that.
This intimate meeting space, the vulnerability it fosters, the way the picture books invite us to complete the text with ourselves ... all of that is part and parcel to that magic I’m after here - and the bond we create with the people we read with. Here’s more from Megan.
(Megan) Having a shared reading transaction allows multiple perspectives on what's happening in that multimodal text so that I might experience the book one way and someone else experiences it another way. Um Louise Rosenblatt who's uh, uh, who was a reader response theorist whose work I really like and I use quite a bit. She said books don't only happen to people, people also happen to books and I love that idea because to me what it says is we could all read the same book, Picture, book or anything else and have very different experiences of it depending on where we are coming from. And so if that's true in a shared reading transaction, what I try to do in storytime is make space for those different readings. So it's not my reading dominating it. And by reading I mean interpretation. Um, I might be reading the text aloud, but the way I feel about a book does not take over what other people feel.
Megan developed a storytime model called the Whole Book Approach which, at its essence, is a way to read picture books WITH children rather than reading TO them as the title of her book suggests. In this kind of storytime, children are active participants in making meaning of what they see and hear. Inspired by the open-ended questions and inquiry-based essence of Visual Thinking Strategies, Megan’s Whole Book Approach invites children to react to every aspect of the book - and I mean every aspect. End papers, borders, type treatment, the size and shape of the book, the way it’s bound together ... Everything. This creates readers who are fully engaged with the book as a whole. With this method, storytimes aren’t a performance - they’re a collaboration between the child, the reader, and the book. They are “co-constructive” storytimes instead. I especially love how Megan describes how affirming this can be for children - she writes “welcoming children to notice how layout choices inform their responses to picture books can feel like an intellectual hug, saying from the get-go that their perceptions matter in making meaning of the picture book form.”
(Emily) “but I think too the whole book approach really, it allows for that warmth that, uh, that I'm reading is so essential for positive outcomes, but it also allows for that exchange. Um, and so I love that, that it, that it opens up this opportunity to really validate a, a child's perspective. And um…”
(Megan) “yeah, it's all about centering kids and their ideas and their responses and facilitating that response in a group setting. So that one kid doesn't dominate the whole, the whole experience.”
Putting children in a more active role as co-creators and inviting vulnerability from both child and adult enable us to bond and strengthen relationships through reading together. This reminded me of something Dr. Kelly Baker said when she explained to me what it means that children are active learners...
(Kelly) it isn't just the physical activity and it isn't just the note, the notion of manipulatives. It's the notion of understanding that children are not blank slates and they're not passive mentally just waiting for somebody to give them knowledge but that they are mentally building relationships and really trying to figure out really all things life.
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There’s something else, though. My conversation with Megan Dowd Lambert really upended one of my basic premises. Something I didn’t even realize that I had assumed. Something I had taken for granted. Something I’d completely overlooked. This whole time I had been thinking about the power and magic of books, I’d been thinking of it just as a good thing.
But I forgot ... there’s rarely a good witch without there being a bad witch too. Our superheroes and our villains often have similar powers but different motives or goals, right? If we’re going to say that books are magic, then we’re saying that books are powerful. And if books are powerful, are they always a force for good? Do all readers feel positively affected by the power of books?
(Megan) “I mean, one thing about any phrase of the magic of reading or the magic of picture books or whatever that I end up resisting a little bit is the idea that it's all good because I think if we accept the idea that reading is magic for the good, then we also have to accept the idea that reading can be very harmful depending on what messages and what is communicated through those books. Um, scholars like Debbie Reese and, um, Ebony Thomas and others, primarily people of color and indigenous people, have really been leading the way. I think in saying here we are talking about the magic of reading, the power of reading as though it's always a good thing, but we can certainly encounter texts that are harmful or that perpetual perpetuate stereotypes and harmful messages. And so I think -”
(Emily) “that disenfranchise people”
(Megan) “Yeah, and I think that it's just as important therefore to be teaching kids critical thinking skills. Not only to immerse themselves in story and in art that's inspiring and empowering, but also to give them the tools to resist story and art that can be hurtful. And that can, um, somehow denigrate children or undermine them. So yeah, I would say that.”
(Emily) “I love that you brought up that distinction because I do think we’re quick to, to just say “the magic of reading”
(Megan) “books are wonderful books. Well, which books? Which ones are we talking about?”
I’m not sure that an “intellectual hug” can happen - that any kind of warm, positive interaction can happen if the books we’re reading together wield a power over our kids or ourselves that … makes us feel misrepresented. A book that tells us we aren’t seen or aren’t understood. That we aren’t worthy. That we don’t matter.
And even if my kids and I see ourselves represented accurately and lovingly in the books we read, I am doing my children a disservice if we are reading books that misrepresent other people. If we are really going to authentically and accurately understand ourselves and each other, then we all need both mirrors and windows - and not broken mirrors or dirty windows.
(Emily) “And I so appreciate the work that, that Debbie Reese is doing because I feel like it really just flips that switch and enables you to begin to see these things that you wouldn't have seen before-”
(Megan) “well, that you wouldn't have seen before if you're a white person”
(Emily) “exactly, thank you, yes.”
(Megan) “because I think that what she's saying in part is um, and she and some other scholars actually have developed a whole site through, um, I think it's teaching tolerance and it's they call this site or the blog “see what we see” and it's all just about changing your perspective and realizing like the way I see things is because of my history and my socialization and my culture and it's not the only way to see things. Which brings us back to the whole book approach and story time and welcoming in and centering different perspectives and trying. Whether it's by resisting as an adult a nostalgic impulse or just anything that's, um, myopic. Trying to resist the idea. Like, but this is what I think. And getting defensive about it. Or, you know, getting hung up with nostalgia.”
So … if books are magic. We must take them pretty seriously. For me this also means taking children very seriously, too. Which is precisely what the Whole Book Approach to storytime allows me to do.
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I’ve been remembering Fred Rogers lately - both a biography and a documentary about him came out in 2018. Revisiting his life’s work as an adult - especially as a parent - makes me appreciate it so deeply - and because I grew up with Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, I feel like I’m seeing or feeling it kinda from both sides, as a child and an adult.
Mr Rogers - now, that’s another person who put children at the center. He had an immense amount of respect for their intellect - for what they bring to any exchange - their capacity for understanding difficult topics, but also he was so keenly sensitive to how they process the world around them - and the world inside them.
So for today’s episode, I want to end with this quote from our dear friend Mr Fred Rogers. He said, “You know, I think everybody longs to be loved, and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And consequently, the greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.
This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.
Special thanks today to Vanessa Nielson, Courtney Hinshaw, Megan Dowd Lambert, Aaron Heim, Alice Ozma, and Kelly Baker.
And thanks to you, too, for listening.
Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com.
Garrett Um, my name is Garrett and I’m 5 years old.
Emily 5 years old?! And you are already on the 5th book from Harry Potter. This is amazing. Okay so now I think I’ve already given away the answer but tell me your favorite book.
Garrett Um, Harry Potter!
Emily Do you have a favorite one out of the whole set?
Garrett Um, not really. No.
Emily No, do you like them all the same.
Emily Can you tell me what you like about Harry Potter.
Garrett Mmmmm. I don’t know. I like that there’s magic.
Emily How does reading make you feel.
Emily Me, too! Give me five!