My Granddaughter Learns to Read
My granddaughter, Gabriela, not quite 2, has her own version of reading. She toddles over to the bookshelf holding her collection of stories and chooses one to examine. She turns the pages, arranges them right side up, eyes the different illustrations, and as she moves through the book babbles her baby talk sounds. Interspersed among her vocalizations, many of which I don’t find intelligible, is the occasional “moo, moo”, “arf, arf” or “meow” to represent the cow, dog, or cat she has identified.
Sometimes after she picks a story from her bookshelf, she comes to the couch where I’m seated, climbs up, moves close and together we look at a book. We recognize situations and characters we’ve seen before. I read “Boo, hoo. The baby is crying.” Gabriela brings her hands to her eyes to mimic sobs. “Sh, sh. The baby is sleeping.” We each raise a finger to the lips to reinforce a need for silence. We look at a baby’s bellybutton in the book Where is Baby’s Bellybutton? and we connect it to the bellybuttons on all of us, on Grandma, Grandpa, and Gabriela. The world begins to make sense.
For Gabriela books are more than words. They are the brilliant hues of the frogs, birds, flowers, and other creatures in Goodnight Sweet Butterflies. They are the stark white and black colors in Tana Hoban’s books, the different textures found on the snouts, tails, and heads of the animals illustrated in Curly’s friends, and the sounds coming from The Wheels on the Bus when we press the right spot on the cover.
On occasion a word does gain attention as when she pulls a tag at the bottom of a page and drawings of a polar bear, a snowman, and a piece of chalk emerge from under previously flaps. I point to the printed markings that appear in the middle of the page and say “white”. Then it’s on to the next page where things yellow are pictured and again I mouth the written word.
We go the children’s room at the local Barnes and Noble outlet and maneuver past the gathered carriages and strollers encountering books everywhere. A nanny shows a book to an infant perched in a carriage. A ten-year old boy seated on the top level of a raised platform reads to his younger sister. A young mother with a child glued to each side of her relates a story to two entranced listeners. Children of all ages lay sprawled on the carpet in different corners of the room with eyes only for the book in hand. Quiet, noses buried in books, everyone reading.
Gabriela wanders through the aisles checking out books. She looks at little books, big books, thick books, thin books, books that give off sounds, touchy-feely books, and even books made of rubber that you can take into a bathtub. She finds popup books, books devoted to color, others illustrating different shapes. In time, she selects one to read and her little hand pats the surface next to her signaling me to sit alongside so that we can look at the book together.
Gabriela enjoys seeing the same book again and again. It gives her a sense of comfort to come across familiar characters. It also feels good to know how a story will develop and to have that sense of anticipation rewarded by seeing what you expect to see. A story is read many times and the experience of colors, sounds, pictures, and the warmth of a grownup’s body sitting alongside makes contact with books pleasurable.
We return home for lunch and it’s time for a diaper changing. A book softens the interruption to Gabriela’s constant exploration of her environment. Instead of reacting to a pair of adult hands fussing and fumbling below by kicking her feet and twisting her body, it all becomes bearable when she has in her hand a tiny book like Mary Had a Little Lamb and her grandma and grandpa sing the text as she is being changed.
The day ends with a book. A parent reading a favorite story precedes going to bed. The lights are dimmed, the noises of the day retreat. The inchoate, fragmented bits of reality that invade sleep are cushioned by the control Gabriela has found in the regularity and certainty of what she has found in books. The transition into the world of sleep becomes less perilous.
When I leave Gabriela after babysitting, I have visions of a girl grownup who sits in a quiet corner book in hand oblivious of everything but the story. I see myself as that little boy who loved the smell of libraries, who each night placed a book under his pillow to be retrieved first thing in the morning, and for whom Friday afternoon free reading was his favorite school time. In the years ahead it’ll be fun for Gabriela and me to talk about what we’ve been reading.#
Sid Trubowitz is a professor emeritus from Queens College, New York.