Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reading Notes - Introduction

One of the things I'd like to write about regularly, because it forms such a critical part of our family life and of my life overall, is our life in books - the way we experience the written word, the way the children go about developing their own relationship with books and reading, the way particular texts or groups of texts influence us and the childrens' creative worlds.

I thought, to that end, that I would designate Thursdays as Reading Notes post days. These posts are likely to be quite eclectic in nature and range from book reviews (of childrens' books, parenting books and other books), reflections on reading acquisition and research into that area, snapshots of my family as readers and pre-readers, and so forth. I am thinking possibly I might make it a meme if anyone is interested in playing along - I'll get Mr Linky set up for next week if I have any expressions of interest.

To start the ball rolling this week, I thought I would repost an old post from my other blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. This post originally appeared in September 2007, when my eldest two daughters were 4 and 2 (and my baby not even a twinkle in her father's eye ;-) Almost three years on, I can report with confidence that while many other literary loves have come to us, the special place occupied by that tattered rabbit has remained. (And we now own a copy of it!)

In Praise of the Rabbit

"Real isn't how you are made, said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

There are many, many books that my children have loved, and imagined futures for, and played games about, and wanted read over and over and over again. They've enjoyed classics and new tales, nonsense stories and funny stories, sad and serious stories and stories that are meant to be far too old for them, far over their heads. Like me, they are bibliophiles and both possess the quality of submergence, the ability to lose themselves in the story and then extrapolate an imaginary world from the pages of the book.

But among all the Wind in The Willows and Peter Rabbit and Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton and Winnie the Pooh and fairy stories and nursery rhymes and picture books about every conceivable situation known to man or beast, one stands out as their absolute favourite, their uber-book, their lodestone of stories. It is Margery Williams' 1922 classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real.

We don't (yet) even own a copy of this book, but have borrowed it from the library 4 times this year already, reading it at least once a day for every day of the 3-week loan period, and it is always farewelled with regret when it is time to change books. I intend to get them a copy of their own for Christmas, and I hope they'll continue to get as much delight from this book going forward as we have already had.

The story of the Velveteen Rabbit is simple - Boy acquires toy rabbit; boy loves toy rabbit; the boy's love makes the rabbit "real" to him. Then - the dramatic tension - Boy gets sick with scarlet fever. Boy recovers, but - gasp - all toys he's had near him must be destroyed. Rabbit waits his fate in a canvas bag near the garden rubbish heap, thinking about his life and its meaning. Then the Nursery Magic Fairy arrives and flies the squishy toy away to where some wild rabbits are playing. Her kiss transforms him into a real rabbit. "Wasn't I Real before? asked the little Rabbit."You were Real to the Boy," the Fairy said, "because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one."

What is amazing to me in this story is not the plot (although, like all good plots, its simplicity covers a careful and intentional pacing of the story and its meaning). No, what my children and I responded to here is the beauty and warmth of Williams' language, the heartfelt sincerity of her message, the fine emotional shading of the story, and the sense of eternal value earned through pain that it conveys. Whenever we read it, although they know by now how it ends, they are both transfixed with delight at the rabbit's happy ending, and both worry for the boy with his scarlet fever germs, each and every time. They both seem to understand the underlying theme of the book in their own ways - that the gaze makes real, that emotional involvement is not only necessary but a blessing to living a life, even when it hurts. My elder daughter, now 4, summarised it thus: "When you love something or someone, your love makes them important, doesn't it Mummy? Because love is real."

It is a beautiful, lyrical, lovely book. If you have preschool children, I highly recommend you make the Velveteen Rabbit's acquaintance.

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