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Jackie and McLain and I spend 30-45 minutes reading good books every night. Why did I italicize good? Because this nightly reading time doesn’t just belong to my children. It’s my time, too. I love it, as long as we read the more interesting, fresher books in our home library. And, considering that I’m the only one (until recently) who knew how to read, I had all the power.
It used to be easy. I’d ask Jackie and McLain to each pick 3 books for reading time. When McLain returned with Duck Soup (which we’d just read the previous two nights), or when Jackie brought me any book with flaps or any other types of moving parts other than the actual pages, I’d send them back to the shelves to try again. My wonderful wife was complicit, comfortable with her authority over most other aspects of our home life.
If a selection didn’t have a plot, I’d reject it. Jackie and McLain, accustomed to making multiple book submissions for approval on any given night, would go back to the drawing board and find something their father would accept (like some of the favorites below).
Lately, reading time is changing around here, though. I’m losing control. The dictatorship is being democratized. My daughter is empowered, and it’s partially my doing.
Last April, Jackie and I started lesson one in Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, which is an adaptation of the DISTAR method. She wasn’t quite four and a half years old, but she had been ready to learn to read since she was three. At a rate of about three lessons a week, Jackie was reading at an end-of-kindergarten level by lesson number 75 sometime in September. We stopped following the lessons after she had mastered all of the 40-odd phonemes in the English alphabet.
Now, she’s reading at about a first-grade level. I secretly recorded her with the Berenstain Bears, a book that she was reading for the first time:
Those 80 or so lessons taught me as much about parenting as they taught her about reading. About a one-third of the time, the lessons made one or both of us angry, or at least very frustrated. It’s never easy to correct someone, no matter how old she is or the relationship you share with her; it’s never fun to be corrected, no matter how you slice it. For a child who is extremely bright, it’s important to understand that hard work and dedication trump raw intelligence.
I think Katie and I are realistic about our children’s strengths and weaknesses, just as we acknowledge the good and could-be-better in ourselves. Jackie is a verbal whiz kid. She’s making her own books now, and is quick to remind me that she’s the author and illustrator of these original works. I suppose McLain is next to learn lesson-by-lesson how to take control of storytime (although mini-Charlie Chaplin might be a little more gifted in comedic dramatic arts).
As I get older, and as time flies faster, I find that my happiest moments occur when my interests converge. The more I can combine the things I love, the richer life seems to be.
Of course, the variables in life often disrupt planned convergence; a thunderstorm ruins an outdoor concert on a spring night, or a mundane phone call interrupts a meaningful face-to-face conversation.
Nightly, I appreciate one example of happy convergence at our house:
Kids + Books + Dogs
Every night that we’re home, we read for at least 30 minutes (usually closer to 45 minutes). Inevitably, one of the books we read has a canine protagonist. I’m very critical of kids’ books (and ice cream, and sports-celebrity tweets, and car model names, and most all things), and I decided to evaluate a literary genre that gets a lot of run around our house.
I’ve made a list of our top ten kids’ books about dogs, and I already know what you’re thinking — for some strange reason, this guy is putting his favorites in this list and his kids probably don’t care if the books are about dogs or robots or guinea pigs building sand castles. Well, that’s true. But, I’ll tell you the secret requirement that every good young-children’s book MUST have: adults have to enjoy reading it to them. Otherwise, it’s not as much fun for reader or audience.
Our favorite children’s books about dogs
The Best Pet of All
There’s something about the illustrations in this book that I love, even if I can’t put my finger on it…something about the Californian, 1950’s style. More importantly, I never get tired of reading this one. It has some very funny parts, and the moral of the story is evident from the title.
Go Dog, Go!
If I judge this book by the typical criteria for kids’ or adult books, then it’s a dud. There is no plot, and there are no characters. However, it works as a great beginning and ending to early childhood (bookends, if you can excuse the punny metaphor). It’s simple and colorful enough to engage a baby, and the clear connection between text and images make great material for a child learning to read.
The Blue House Dog
I have read this aloud to my kids only four times total. Each time, I was sobbing uncontrollably before getting halfway through. I mean full-on weeping, unable to speak. Jackie and McLain give me confused looks, and assure me that “it’s okay Dada.” In fact, the last book that sparked this kind of emotional outburst in me was Where the Red Fern Grows. That book, and this one, reveal why dogs are so amazing.
How Rocket Learned to Read
I’m teaching Jackie to read now, and sometimes she’s really averse to instruction. This book reminds me that nothing worth doing is easy, and that anything worth learning requires practice.
This one tops the list of all-time McLain favorites. In fact, it was the first book that McLain requested on a regular basis. It’s a stretch to include it in a list of books about dogs, but one of the main characters is a Saint Bernard named Brody (my first family dog when I was a kid).
The Diggingest Dog
We all like this classic, but I put this on the list for Katie’s benefit — it’s one of her favorites, and Nana tells us that she memorized it when she was 5 or 6. If you want to overanalyze it, I think there’s a theme in the book about how dynamic (and even fickle) childhood friendships can be in group settings. No? I’m reaching? Well, we’ll just have to ask Al Perkins about that.
The plot in this one is too complex for McLain, but I read it to them every couple of months for two good reasons:
1) It teaches how important the olfactory system is to a dog, to the point that the lives of roof-confined dogs are changed when they are given uprooted plants to smell. Awesome.
2) Jackie always has lots of questions about other cultures, and this book provides talking points for the role of animals in other places, in other times.
Another McLain favorite. This one is a fun tongue-twister to read, and the idea of an imagination-crazed cat pretending to be a dog is plain funny. Add Skippyjon to the list of McLain monikers (along with LOB, John C. McGinley, and Budbud).
This one is a nostalgic pick for me. The edition we have was a gift from my Grandmother Jones, with an inscription from her, dated 1982. It’s really just a picture book of puppies, and it almost seems that it was created with the sole purpose of making people see pictures of cute puppies so they will want a puppy of their own. Another interesting fact about this and other animal books from this publisher — there are at least 4 different covers.
Note: Baby-related posts will resume in a few days. Here are some words about a whale of a book I read.
Last night I finally turned the last page of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I firmly believe that I was not ready to read this novel until now (at the age of 33), and when I read it again two or five or twenty years from now, I will probably believe that I was not ready to read this novel when I read it first in 2010.
It’s a novel about pain, mostly, and how we Americans and some Canadians experience it and deal with it. The pain that characters’ deal with in Infinite Jest is the pain that accompanies life – from the most superficial physical pain (and band-aids) to the most abysmal emotional pain (and suicide) and everything in between.
Parts of the nonlinear story are so ugly they are literally nauseating. It’s also a brilliant work of comedy. I might recommend it to three people I know, but no one else.
What qualifies the title as truth in advertising is that the novel could have been 3,000 pages, or ∞ pages, instead of a mere 1,079 pages. If anyone could have pulled it off, Wallace could have (he hanged himself in 2008). He had literary super powers.
This is what I took away from Infinite Jest:
- A need to read this novel again, if only for the unanswered philosophical questions and the sheer fun of reading Wallace’s prose.
- 112 vocabulary words, not including medical terms, pharmaceutical terms, mathematical terms, and words I thought I knew but looked up there on the spot and realized I didn’t know exactly. The list also excludes some optics jargon and maybe a couple of Boston-area slang terms that I didn’t take the time to comprehend.
- A spectator’s understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- A heightened awareness of solecisms, whether others’ or my own.
- An enhanced appreciation for linguistics, and a broadened view of how the English language can be peppered, scattered, browned, chopped, diced, chunked, smothered, capped, and covered.
- A diminished appreciation for film and movies.
- A greater love for dogs.
- A feeling that I am a good father, at least compared to the derelict dads in the novel.
- A reminder that even a satirical prediction of technology one decade into the future can be utterly ridiculous. Maybe actual futurists deserve a little more credit for choosing such a dangerous career path.
- A reminder of the plot of Hamlet.
- A desire to play tennis again.
- A discovery that an online book club is a great idea for the right novel, even if I only used it as a reference because I was a year late to the party. Thanks to Infinite Summer for providing a supplement to the text.
- A new favorite fictional game: Eschaton.
- A disdain for endnotes.
- A reinforced belief that almost everyone deserves second, third, fourth, and fifth chances in life.
- We have a way of making life complicated, don’t we?