Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Know your reader

with 2 comments

Over the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my two-year-old niece, who lives just up the road in Oak Park and is a strong contender for the title of the best girl in the world. Watching her grow up has been a delight, and a source of reassurance, now that I have a daughter of my own on the way. My niece’s parents are raising a bright, engaged child using essentially the same approach that I’m hoping to take myself: give her a lot of love and attention, keep screens and other devices to a minimum, and surround her with books. One of the unexpected pleasures of being around a small child is rediscovering how good the books of your youth really were: Dr. Seuss, for instance, has become such a cultural icon that it’s sometimes hard to remember that, above all, he was a visual, verbal, and comedic genius of startling originality. The man could simply do anything, and it’s profoundly satisfying to confirm firsthand that his books really were that funny, inventive, comforting, and strange.

And it’s especially enlightening to read him, or any other children’s author, aloud. I don’t have many memories of being read aloud to as a child, and I’ve been able to read on my own for as long as I can remember, so my experience of Dr. Seuss and similar writers is a little skewed: I’m in awe of the inner imaginative associations that their works can evoke with a few words and a single image, but had never really thought about the process of reading aloud before. This will probably come as old news to anyone who has spent time with small children, but reading aloud to a two-year-old is really a form of interactive theater: you spend as much time talking about the illustrations as reading the words themselves, and often find yourself on an extended tangent about, say, the animals building snowmen of themselves on one page of Leo The Late Bloomer, to the point where the thread of the story itself is almost lost. (This is especially true when you’re reading the book in question for the fifteenth time.)

As a result, I quickly discovered that I had no idea what made a good picture book, at least not before I had the experience of sitting down and reading it with my niece herself. The Brownie and Pearl series may not be the first thing I’d chose to read silently on my own—whereas I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!—but as a source of objects to talk about and name, and of stories that suggest themselves at the edges of the narrative, they’re great. My niece loves pointing to pictures of things she recognizes and identifying colors and shapes, to the point where it’s something of a letdown when a picture in a book doesn’t give us enough to talk about. (At the very least, I demand a flower, a train, and maybe an elephant.) And an author like Richard Scarry, or a book like The Sesame Street Dictionary, presents an unimaginable abundance of riches. I’ve always loved these books, but it wasn’t until recently that I understood how they were really supposed to be experienced.

And this gets at a larger point about books of all kinds. Books are meant to be read, to serve as a stage for the theater of the mind, whether you’re reading them aloud or quietly to yourself, and they can’t be separated from the nature of their intended enjoyment, which is something that both authors and critics need to remember. Just as a horror movie, even a bad one, takes on another level of meaning when it’s experienced in a crowded theater with a screaming audience, a children’s book becomes something altogether different when a two-year-old is fascinated by something interesting happening in the corner of the page. More than ever, I have enormous respect for authors who understand, in ways I can’t, what children want to read. It’s humbling, after a lifetime of reading on my own, to need to be instructed on such an obvious point. But I’m lucky enough to have a niece who is more than willing to set me straight.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2012 at 9:55 am

2 Responses

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  1. Alec — Okay, so I’ve been popping across your weblog this evening because I was searching for a post like this: something on which I could legitimately leave the following as a comment.

    To replace wiring diagrams, [neuroscientist Gary] Marcus suggests a better analogy: the brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter — be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality — consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus’s analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen:

    Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises…. “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.

    I’m hugely enjoying Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and this bit … well, it felt like you were one of the people I had to share it with.

    Toddlers are awesome. I hope my daughter will challenge your niece as “best girl in the world,” but I understand we might just have to disagree on that one.

    Jinnayah

    November 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

  2. I like that a lot.

    And I have a daughter of my own on the way—so let’s just say that the title is up for grabs!

    nevalalee

    December 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm


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