Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever

by Mem Fox

illustrations by Judy Horacek

Published by Harcourt, Inc.

156 pages, 2001


Games With Books

by Peggy Kaye

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

351 pages, 2002









Take Three Books and Call Me in the Morning

Reviewed by Pamela C. Patterson


Any North American who grew up in the 1960s is bound to remember the television ads for the family literacy organization RIF -- Reading Is Fundamental (with the emphasis on FUN). I can recall seeing these ads and wondering why you would even need to urge someone to read a book. Of course reading was fun! Our family trips to the library were something to look forward to -- the lovely old musty, dusty smell among the stacks, the kindly librarian who always had a smile for you, and the promise of some "new" books to take home and treasure for a fortnight. What could be better than that?

However, as we all know from countless news reports on "Why Johnny Can't Read," not every child is lucky enough to be raised in an environment where books are considered an important part of everyday life. Far too many children arrive for their first day of kindergarten never having been read to. And if they perceive reading as a chore, rather than something fun, they are going to have a tough row to hoe for the next dozen years or so of school, if not their entire lives.

Enter Mem Fox. Before she was a bestselling children's author, this redheaded dynamo from Down Under taught drama and literacy for 28 years, retiring in 1996 as Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide in order to write and consult full time. And since literacy and children's books are two of her burning passions, it was inevitable that she would eventually write a book on how to get kids to be lifelong readers.

The secret is so simple, so obvious, that it seems silly to have to spell it out for parents, much less write an entire book about it. But there it is. In Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, the author tells us that reading aloud at least three stories to your children every day, from infancy on, without fail, will give them an abiding love for books that will help them to tackle reading on their own when they reach school age.

My own son is a perfect example of this. Ian was adopted from Russia at age one, and I rather doubt that he was ever read to at the orphanage -- certainly not while sitting alone in the loving lap of a caregiver. Ian was introduced to picture books on the long plane ride home from Russia. Only a month after his adoption, he was picking his favorites off the bookshelf in his room and bringing them to us to read to him.

Now, at 32 months, several times a day he toddles up to me with a book in hand and begs "Mom? Read?" And when we go the library, he never wants to leave and invariably has to be led to the exit kicking and screaming. Mem Fox might frown on my son's unruly behavior, but she would certainly approve of his lust for literature.

Fox' book isn't some boring, didactic treatise on how to improve your child's reading skills. In fact, she's not at all fond of the phonics fanatics, and even discourages making your child read aloud to show their progress. She tells the story of a little girl in Adelaide who said she hated reading: "When asked why, she said 'My legs get tired.' She had obviously been asked too often to read aloud in a physically and emotionally cold environment, standing in some discomfort at the teacher's desk, waiting in dread to be corrected at every second word."

Instead, she says, young children should be given every opportunity to hear stories read aloud, so that they can follow along with their eyes and see the words appear on each page without having to slow down and struggle to figure out each and every syllable on their own. Fox cites the three secrets of reading as the magic of print, the magic of language and the magic of general knowledge. Put all three together and presto! You have a child who enjoys reading because it finally all makes sense. Says Fox: "Reading is a grand guessing game, and if one of the secrets of reading fails to help us 'guess' or read correctly, the other two kick in to help us along."

Throughout Reading Magic, the author gives plenty of real-life success stories of the benefits of reading aloud -- along with a few tales of children who lagged woefully behind their peers because of the dearth of caring adults to read aloud to them. Fox once met a six-year-old who didn't know any of the most basic nursery rhymes: not "Humpty Dumpty," not "Jack and Jill," not "Hickory, Dickory, Dock."

Fox remarks, "I felt so dismayed about her future, I almost broke my own rule and started to panic. Then I got hold of myself, kept calm, and set about teaching her 'Three Blind Mice,' which she giggled over but took awhile to learn because she wasn't in the habit of rhyming. Or singing, for that matter."

Contrast this with a two-year-old who spied the advertisement for Commonwealth Bank on the back of a bus so often that he finally asked his parents what it said:

After that, he would read it aloud whenever it appeared on a bus. At first his mother thought he was merely recognizing the familiar logo of the bank. Then one day when her husband was reading the newspaper in which there was a headline about a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, the child pointed to the word commonwealth and said: "That says commonwealth."

Brilliance off the back of a bus! Yet most people would seriously doubt that a two-year-old could read a perplexing word like commonwealth. (He certainly didn't sound it out.)

Now, if that's not a stunning example of the first secret of reading -- the magic of print -- I don't know what is.

One of the things I loved about Reading Magic were the cute and clever little cartoons interspersed throughout. I laughed out loud at the drawing of a chicken reading to an egg and I smiled at the image of an owl winging home with a book in its beak to serve up to its three hungry offspring waiting in the nest. Perhaps the funniest one, though, was of baby Jesus lying in the manger, with the magi lined up to proffer their precious gifts. The newborn savior -- little whippersnapper that he is -- turns to his mother and quips, "I was hoping for books."

Although Mem Fox is dead serious about her mission (and being the daughter of missionaries, she knows all about zeal) she also knows how to keep things light. Her recipe for making reading pleasurable is so simple that even she says it almost seems too obvious. But her mantra is clearly "Read aloud." (Repeat after me: Read aloud. Read aloud. Read aloud.)

Kids learn by example and osmosis, not necessarily in that order. So, pay attention to the Wise Red Fox: read early and often to the children in your lives. And while you're doing so, says Fox, you'll be "playing those teaching-without-teaching, fooling-around, being-silly games."

This sentiment segues nicely into Games with Books by Peggy Kaye. Kaye is the author and illustrator of the "Games for" series, which includes Games for Reading, Games for Math, Games for Learning, and Games for Writing. She has worked for more than 25 years as a classroom teacher, private tutor and educational consultant -- so I'm guessing that by now she probably knows a thing or two about what makes learning fun.

Peggy Kaye and Mem Fox are on the same page (as it were) when it comes to the importance of reading aloud. In her introduction to Games with Books, Kaye begins:

One of the best things you can do in life is to sit with a child and read a good story aloud. You will enjoy yourself, and so will the child. By reading aloud and turning the pages and admiring the pictures and the print, you will teach the child to treasure books -- to see books as beautiful objects, offering many delights. But you can also linger over the book a little longer by playing a few carefully chosen games, and in that way you can teach many other lessons, too.

With that goal in mind, Kaye has designed games "to help children sharpen some very specific and crucial academic skills." For the 28 books she's selected -- 14 picture books and 14 chapter books -- there are games incorporating counting, measuring, geometry, the alphabet, reading, writing, poetry and spelling, along with a handful of other skills.

Kaye has chosen some classic children's books such as Harold and the Purple Crayon, Caps For Sale, Pippi Longstocking and Winnie-the-Pooh, along with some newer (yet no less popular) stories like Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, author of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (one of my all-time favorite children's books).

Chrysanthemum is the story of a little girl mouse named -- you guessed it -- Chrysanthemum. She'd always thought her name was simply wonderful -- that is, until she started school and everyone made fun of it. One classmate even makes a point at naptime to announce to everyone that there are 13 letters in Chrysanthemum's name. Thirteen! "That's exactly half as many letters as there are in the entire alphabet!" she exclaims triumphantly, before the teacher tells her to put her head down.

Needless to say, Chrysanthemum begins to wish for a simpler name. But then she meets the music teacher -- Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle -- and things start to look up.

One of the games Kaye devised for this story involves drawing two rows of 13 boxes. The first row she filled in with the letters of Chrysanthemum's name. In the second row, she asked a child named Max if he would like to see how long his name was compared to hers. Then she wrote "Max" in the second set of boxes. Soon, she had Max figuring out whose name was longer and by how many letters. Max then wanted to make more rows to fill in with the names of his brother, his cat and his best friend. Together they counted the letters in each new name, all the while comparing them with other names on the growing list . Presto! A mini math lesson.

Another game has children clapping while they say different words, to see how many syllables there are. But to keep the game fun -- and less confusing for very young children -- Kaye doesn't call them syllables. They are simply claps. Chrysanthemum, for example, is a four-clap word.

The last game for Chrysanthemum isn't really a game at all, but it's tied into one of the secrets of reading -- general knowledge. Kaye asks: "Does your child know what a chrysanthemum looks like? How about a delphinium? After reading the book, consider wandering over to your neighborhood florist. There, if the season is right, you and your child can sniff chrysanthemums or gaze at delphiniums. You might even buy a mixed bunch to take home."

Kaye has designed three games for each of the books featured -- which means that there is plenty of material to keep everyone busy, no matter what their age. Included in the mix are hands-on projects such as making paper dolls, creating blueberry treats, or sewing a stuffed bear.

And speaking of which, that book about the Bear of Very Little Brain has a wonderful game for working on spelling skills. Called "Wobbly Letters," it draws on Pooh's dilemma with his spelling: "It's good spelling," says Pooh, "but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places."

The "Wobbly Letters" game involves writing a sentence with one word that is scrambled, or "misspelled." Then the child has to unscramble the letters to come up with the correct spelling. The context of the rest of the sentence offers helpful hints. (Unfortunately, Peggy Kaye doesn't answer the question of who's responsible for the sign that says "WOL" on Owl's front door. Who? Who?)

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read a good book. Aloud. | May 2002


Pamela C. Patterson is the associate editor of January Magazine. She reads a lot: because she wants to, because she has to and because one small lad's future SAT scores may depend upon it.