Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Of Four-Year-Olds and Chapter Books

So my wife and I have decided to go with a Classical Education approach to our homeschooling, following the philosophy laid out by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer in The Well Trained Mind. Part of this philosophy relies upon the use of great books. The idea here is that one should never give a child any book that is not well-written. The books should be of a difficulty level that stretches the child's abilities, but with a story that's engaging enough that it captures the child's attention.

There is a fine balancing act here. There are plenty of picture-books out there that are perhaps fun to read, but don't contain any great ideas or great stories, which can be considered the literary equivalent of whipped cream; kids will read these things all day, but will not necessarily benefit from them. Charlotte Mason famously referred to these books as twaddle. On the other end of the spectrum are books filled with great ideas, but which are too advanced for the little ones to get. Pride and Prejudice may be a great novel, but the Pillowfight Fairy would be bored out of her mind if we tried to read it to her. (She has been subjected to the video--specifically the great BBC version with Colin Firth--but very much against her will.)

So when we go to the library, we let her pick out some books that look interesting to her, but Mommy and Daddy pick out some books too, with the hope that we'll grab one or two that hits the zone: that make her interested in the story, even though they have big words and few pictures.

So we've been thinking a lot about Vikings lately in our family. It started when I put that silly helmet on the Pillowfight Fairy and got thinking about Valkyries. But eventually I started telling the Fairy about Thor, and how his name is cognate to our word thunder, and how he carried a big hammer around, and how Thursday is named after him... and she showed some interest in finding out more. So on this last library trip I picked up a book entitled Norse Stories, by Robert Hull. Note that Amazon lists this book as being at a 9- to 12-year reading level. This is a book that I've been reading to the Fairy; not one that I've been expecting her to read herself.

The first few chapters were a bit of a bust, it would appear. They involved Odin trying to get wisdom. How thrilling.

But tonight we got to the part of the story that she liked. You see, Odin is rather grim and serious. But Thor and Loki are fun.

The story we read tonight was the one where Thor and Loki went to the giants' stronghold and challenged them to various contests. The giants cheated at all these contests, and used magic to cover up their perfidy. So in the drinking game, Thor's drinking horn was magically connected to the ocean, so it kept getting filled up from the back end and Thor couldn't empty it. And in Loki's competitive eating match, he was pitted against a fire that had been enchanted into giant-form. And then Thor was pitted in a wrestling match against an old woman who was actually old age in disguise. This story is one of the more famous ones in Norse Mythology, and one of the few truly humorous ones.

And the Fairy was pretty well sucked in right at the beginning. The chapter begins with the following lines:

Thor and Loki were sitting under Yggdrasil. Thor was finishing his breakfast of oats and herring.

Thor wiped his hand across his mouth. "I'm going," he said to Loki.

"Where to?"

"Jotunheim. Giant-splintering."

"To Jotunheim? Now?"

"My hammer Mjollnir is restless. Idleness irritates him. He wants to be wielded. He hungers to harm giants, to be hurled at some furlong-length frost-face. He longs to crack some cliff-heads."

Loki was curious. It would be entertaining to visit giant-land in the company of large-hearted, not-so-large-brained Thor.

Now, as I was reading this, the tongue-in-cheek nature of this passage struck me. The sense of humor underlying the story feels familiar. Where have I heard this tone before? Let me see now...

"Good-morning, Christopher Robin," he called out.

"Hallo, Pooh Bear. I can't get this boot on."

"That's bad," said Pooh.

"Do you think you could very kindly lean against me, 'cos I keep pulling so hard that I fall over backwards."

Pooh sat down, dug his feet into the ground, and pushed hard against Christopher Robin's back, and Christopher Robin pushed hard against his, and pulled and pulled at his boot until he had got it on.

"And that's that," said Pooh. "What do we do next?"

"Giant-splintering," said Christopher Robin.

"We are all going on an Expedition," said Christopher Robin, as he got up and brushed himself. "Thank you, Pooh."

Hmmmm... now I know this isn't the first time somebody has discovered a link between Norse Mythology and Winnie the Pooh. And I'm quite proud of my daughter; the Fairy discovered this link, quite fairly, well before I did. ;-)

So we actually found a chapter book, with few pictures (but reasonably-well drawn ones, I hasten to add), that the Fairy could sit through. Of course, we also used a little trick: we had her working on a craft project while I read to her. She was trying to do some needlework at the time. This worked pretty well, but she kept making mistakes because she was drawn in to the story.

Rather odd to say it, but this means her mistakes were a good sign. It means that she was actually enjoying the story. We actually managed to get a good book that hit the right balance between meaty and tasty. Now the challenge is to keep doing this every time we go to the library.


christinemm said...

Thank you for submitting your post to the Carnival of Homeschooling.

Great books for children is a favorite subject of mine. We also homeschool with the influence of Charlotte Mason method and are classically homeschooling.

I would recommend the titles as in the Five in a Row program and also using the FIAR program if you desire. If you are not interested in FIAR you can read the book list on the FIAR official website.

I also HIGHLY recommend the book "Honey for a Child's Heart" by Gladys Hunt which will help point you to great children's books. She is Christian, too and won't point you toward anything un-Christian.

Folk tales, American tall tales, and fairy tales (age appropriate) are also great. If your daughter will sit for them, libraries often have pretty long-text folk tales with pictures on each page.

Another fun thing to do, maybe not at four, but five you could do it, is read folk tales with similar themes and compare them in a 'light' way. There are Cinderella tales from around the world, for example. See how they are the same or different.

Please don't rush to read chapter books aloud. Many for younger kids are intended only for independent reading practice and are not 'great' for read-aloud's.

I did try to read 'higher level' read aloud's as recommended by some Charlotte Mason advocates but found that the language was just too much (i.e. Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson). Now we do have some fantastic picture books, so just find those and read them, don't rush out of picture books, please!! Just avoid the pure twaddle and dumbed down ones!!

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

We also follow TWTM and as suggested in the intro...I think...we bought audio books for our DS. he was mesmeraized by the Jungle book (unabridged) and Narnia. we then bought booth books and read them aloud.

I pick up a "Illustrated Classics" for my DS and he loves them. they require a bit of editing but introduce him to the story..as Jesse Wise says...introduce them to the sory early then when they read the original, they know the story and need only work through the words.

Anonymous said...

My parents read the Little House on the Prairie series to my sister and me when we were quite young. We got one chapter a week after we finished our baths and while our hair was being combed out and put in curlers for Sunday. If I remember correctly the narrative flowed well when heard. The first story starts when Laura was quite young, 5 or 6 and her baby sister was 1 or 2 so your daughter might relate well to the characters. They also talk about all sorts of fun pioneer stuff that can be tied into fun activities such as butter making.