Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for AlmanZo Wilder

At the beginning of this challenge, I wrote Post "A" about how one of the surest ways to help a child develop into a good reader later on in life was to pair reading to them with Love.  I went on to explain how I have read to my oldest daughter, Leah, almost every day of her life and that it was my favourite part of my day, each and every day of our lives.

Today, I shall write the companion piece to that post. I will expand upon the act of reading with my daughter, offering you a peek inside the world of the books that we have shared. I will conclude with a story that means a lot to me; one that I have shared before in situations where good-byes are in order.

When Leah was three years old and younger, our bedtime story ritual consisted of the two of us cuddling together on the floor or on a cozy chair and reading three picture books together.  We had a vast library at our finger tips from our own collection and from those books we borrowed, twenty at a time, from our public library.  Some books were read once and put aside, others were read, over and over again and still have a place on our bookshelves to this very day.  With each nightly session, Leah grew more familiar with the conventions of books; how the text flows from left-to-right, how the illustrations compliment the text and add depth to the author's meaning, how sentences were structured and what wonderful language there is in the world.

Because Leah had such a deep, rich experience with literature at such a young age, the day I stumbled upon a book entitled, 28 Good Night Stories, I knew I had found the perfect book to help us transition to chapter books.  This book is based on the relationship between a sleepy bear and a guardian angel trying to earn his wings.  The two tell each other stories over the course of 28 nights.  The beauty of this collection of stories was that Leah and I could still read our three stories a night but, we did so in a new format.  This book enabled Leah to understand that a story can be longer and can continue, day after day and, still be there the next night, even if we hadn't reached the back cover of the book yet.

The impetus to transition into chapter books was fuelled by a Christmas gift that Leah received from one of my wife's dear friends. It was a gorgeous, coffee table-sized hard cover edition of Peter Pan.  This book, despite its' politically-incorrect segments (which I omitted as I read) was the first book that told an entire story over the space of hundreds of pages.  It was a real step up in terms of the complexity of the character development and the plot lines for Leah.  She seemed to enjoy the new format of our bedtime stories and since then, we have never looked back.  Here are a few of the entire series of books we have read through since (and that Leah is now reading again, on her own!)

The series we started to read through in earnest first, was a fluff series called Rainbow Magic.  The Rainbow Magic series concerns two friends, Kirsty and Rachel, who help various fairies from the Fairy World, whenever they have trouble because of the nasty Jack Frost and his band of Goblins.  It is all very cartoon-like and the stories are formalistic but, they were the perfect entry point into the world of chapter books for my little girl.  The fairies all had names and, eventually, there was a Leah fairy and a Sophie fairy, too.  Those are the only two books of the series we own.  The rest we borrowed from the Library.  Thank goodness because it only took two-three days to finish an entire book from this series.

When we exhausted that series, Leah turned her eyes toward a much better series by Mary Pope Osborne, called The Magic Tree House.  This series revolves around two siblings, Jack and Annie, who travel through time via books found in a magic tree house that appears in the woods by their home.  Through this series of introductory chapter books, Leah was introduced to all sorts of historical events and famous historical people.  The books were short enough that we could read them and still have energy left over to follow our curiosity and check out the real stories behind the fiction described in these books.  The books were written by Osborne with the goal of introducing history to children in a way that would entertain, as well as, educate.  She has succeeded very well.  They are excellent books for beginning chapter book readers, as well as, being an excellent introduction to history from all around the world.

There were over 100 books in the Rainbow Magic Series and over 50 so far in the Magic Tree House series.   After plowing through both, we opted....ok, I opted, for series that were somewhat shorter and more contained.   Leah had started demonstrating an interest in history and, in particular, the story of the Titanic. So, we turned to Canadian author, Gordon Korman, and next read his Titanic trilogy.   Much like James Cameron's Hollywood movie, these three books take a historical fiction angle on the real story.  The books are good to incorporate real life characters in with the fictional ones and, as well, introduce readers to some not so famous details and characters such as Thomas Andrews in Ireland, who designed the drawings upon which Titanic was built and his "Guarantee Group" of workers who went on the maiden voyage and died there, too.   Historical fiction has become a favourite genre for Leah and the Titanic Trilogy by Gordon Korman was where it began.

From there, we stumbled upon two excellent trilogies. The first was called The Mysterious Benedict Society  by Trenton Lee Stewart.    These stories are detective/adventure stories invoking a group of four children, Constance, Kate, Rennie and Sticky.  All four of these children had been recruited into a special school run by a mysterious man called Dr. Benedict.  Each child has a unique gift but, not a supernatural gift. Their gifts were athleticism, intuition, logic and a photographic memory. The children are asked to decipher clues and solve mysteries throughout and are constantly reminded that they all have skills necessary to the success of the group when they work as a team, rather than as individuals. Leah enjoyed seeing intelligence celebrated and having the children solve problems using their brains rather than relying on magic or gizmos.  The stories are fairly lengthy and there was plenty of interesting background detail on all of the main characters.  We enjoyed solving the mysteries introduced in these books, along with the characters.

Hot on the heels of that series, we came across an awarding book called Chasing Vemeer  by Blue Balliett.   We didn't know that this was a series until we were finishing up the first book and looking for others by the same author.  Chasing Vermeer concerns three children who live in Chicago and end up involved in a mystery that revolves around a painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer entitled, The Lady Writing.
  Again, the children use intelligence and courage to piece together the clues to who is involved and what is behind the theft of this painting.  Again, the historical fiction genre proved to be right up Leah's alley and she enjoyed this book thoroughly, as did I.  The two follow-up books were equally good.   The Wright Three  was about a mystery at a famous house built in Chicago by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, called Robie House.  The third book was called The Calder Game and had, as its' focus, famous sculptor Alexander Calder.  All three books involved mathematics, art, poetry and seeing the patterns that exist in numbers, geometry and Nature.  These books were accessible reads for any child but, would really be appreciated by intelligent students because intelligent students were being featured and celebrated throughout the series.

In between the Magic Tree House and Titanic, Leah and I read the entire Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I have saved this series for the conclusion of my post because it was the most special out of all the times we have spent together reading books.

As noted at the beginning of this post, Leah and I reading together has become woven in the fabric of our lives.  It is part of our relationship together that we both treasure.  We read together because we
love one another.  We love one another so, we read together.  It all fits together so perfectly for us both. It is hard to imagine that the day will come when Leah will say to me, "No reading tonight, Dad. I'm going to go out with my friends" or something similar.  I will feel my heart crack on the spot but, because I love her, I will tell her to go and be with her friends. I will tell her to have fun with someone other than me.  I will watch her grow up and leave.  I know that this is a part of Life but, just the same, I am not yet ready for our reading time to end. So, with that in mind, I was definitely caught off guard when we came to the scene in the Little House books where Laura has fallen in love with Almanzo Wilder and has agreed to get married.   As we read that scene and, in particular, the scene where Pa Ingalls had to help Laura climb into Almanzo's wagon and drive away to live at his house as his wife, I definitely became emotional myself.  I choked back my tears and soldiered on but, inside, I was dying and, all the while, Leah was wondering what was wrong with my voice all of a sudden.   I attempted to capture that moment in a poem that I like to share when it comes time for good-byes.

As this is the final post in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, let Damn You, Laura Ingalls serve as my farewell.

Damn you, Laura Ingalls!!!

A pioneer life,
lovingly revealed,
each night
in the soft glow of lamplight.

My young daughter's body
melts into mine,
as Pa covers Laura with blankets of fur
to keep winter's chill at bay.

Builder of homes, provider of food, protector of the family,
Laura's Pa can do anything.
That I can, too, is confirmed
by her hand reaching for mine as we read.

We are comfortable in the warmth of her pink bedroom,
flannel jammies and slippers, too.
Yet we feel the bitter winds of The Long Winter
And thirst for sunshine,
in the starlight,
in our home.

Pa warms up the fiddle
"In the starlight, in the starlight..."
Together they sing.
Together we hug and whisper in time to Pa's tune.
We smile. Our hearts fill.
As did the Ingalls that night, so many lifetimes ago.

The bonds of family.
The foundation of Home.
Timelessly on display
in the pages of our most treasured of books.
The lessons, obvious.

Her small heart beats with vigor.
She is ever becoming Laura;
stronger, more able, more a young woman
With dreams,
..........with dreams.
With dreams that cause my heart to ache.

Pa helps Laura into Almanzo's wagon.
I stop reading aloud.
She turns,
her eyes to mine.
I have to juggle my many emotions,
managing to meekly clear my throat.
Together we watch that wagon drive away
Damn you, Laura Ingalls!

The story of family and of trails blazed across space and time
is now a road map for my daughter;
a way forward,
a yardstick for her to measure success and love.

The final pages read.
I tuck her gently under a downy comforter.
A tender kiss.
A lamp turned off.
"Daddy loves you," I say in the darkness.
"I love you, too, Daddy."

I leave the room
and her,
to her dreams,
whatever she makes them to be.

As we say good-bye, Leah has shown an interest in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis. We have started off with The Magician's Nephew. These books are a definite intellectual step up, just like Peter Pan was an intellectual step up from the picture books we used to read together. After the first four chapters, I stopped and told Leah that if she felt the storyline was too scary or too hard to understand, that we could stop. She replied, without hesitation, "It is the exact opposite, Daddy. I love it and can't wait to find out what happens next. "

Like a flower, Leah's mind blossoms and turns toward the light as we continue to read together; time standing still.

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