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Reading is a family affair

Next week is Family Literacy Day – a time to celebrate the fact that parents are a child’s first teachers.

Next week is Family Literacy Day – a time to celebrate the fact that parents are a child’s first teachers.

According to Family Literary B.C. the day is designed “to enhance the ability of parents to support their children’s literacy development, from birth throughout the school years.”

Yikes! That’s a fair bit of pressure. Just before Christmas, I received a request from a parent looking for first chapter books to read to her preschooler. She wanted something longer and more complex than a picture book, but that would sustain the young child’s interest.

She hoped to make the right choice, especially knowing that this pre-reading stage is just the time to hook her child on books. She found that many chapter books have subject matter that is too complex or difficult to understand. Others are simply too long.

But lots of shorter chapter books aren’t enjoyable to read aloud. That’s because many of these slim paperbacks, like the popular Magic Treehouse series, are written specifically for first readers — that is, first books for a child to enjoy by him or herself. Books of this sort have shorter sentences and a more limited vocabulary.

Alice in Wonderland, Stuart Little, Peter Pan and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls were big hits in our house, but all are on the long side. One reader wrote in to suggest longer versions of classic fairytales, which depending on the child, can be highly entertaining. Another suggested nonfiction: “My child couldn’t get enough about volcanoes, so we’ve read longer books on the subject together.”

For the names of tried-and-true short chapter books that have appropriate storylines, rich vocabulary and are meant to be read aloud, I contacted Penticton’s best resource: Julia Cox, children’s librarian.

“Being able to read more complex stories means sharing a larger world,” says Cox. “Hearing the rich language in these stories can be a great reminder for beginners about why they are learning to read. Some readers get tired of cat on the mat stories, but don’t have the skills to read more complex stories.”

I took home two of Cox’s top suggestions, and both were hits with my five-year-old. The first is the Catwings series by Ursula Le Guin. These are the simple sweet tales of four young tabbies who are, as you may have guessed, cats with wings. Only about 40 pages, the stories by this much-lauded author can be read aloud in about an hour.

A second suggestion is the newer Maybelle series by Katie Speck. These are the delightful adventures of a lovely, plump cockroach that lives in a cozy home under Mr. And Mrs. Peabody’s refrigerator. Maybelle books are only about 60 pages, and can be read in one sitting.

In addition to looking for something new, don’t forget to introduce some of your childhood favourites. Just try not to be hurt if they aren’t a success. “It’s hard when something you may have loved is just not to their taste,” says Cox. “You have to be directed by the child’s interests, and be willing to try something new.”

Cox has compiled lists for different levels of readers, which she is more than happy to share.

Happy Literacy Day to all!

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.