Monday, September 24, 2007

Thank you very hairy scary much

Big Man is learning to read.

This is phenomenal, this moment: this makes my heart stop. He is teetering at the door to an immense world. Hey and don't you make fun of me, this is my world he's about to enter - reading makes your whole life different.

However: learning to read? Oh my god. I have not gone through anything so frustrating in my whole entire life.

= eh; = heh
First of all, what is with English?! Take the letter "H". Its name is pronounced "aitch," but in practice, I mean, how do you explain the use of "h"? I'd like to tell him that it shouldn't really be a letter, it is in fact equivalent to the Greek "rough breathing," which is just a diacritical mark over a vowel that indicates how much force you put on that vowel. But yeah, I know - no.

And then of course, there are English vowels.
"Well honey, in 'water', 'a' is pronounced 'ah,' and in 'patter' it's 'aaa'."
"Um well most of the time you can tell by looking at the consonant it's in front of - in 'water' it's just one 't' and in 'patter' it's two."
"Yeah no sorry I know that doesn't help much"
And 'gh'? Sorry, I give up.

Lucky for me, the excellent first grade teacher is doing the real heavy lifting here - they're learning about silent 'e' (that devil) and also silent 'k,' which, hell, I'd've skipped entirely. If he spent the next few years pronouncing it 'ka-nee' and 'ka-night' I would still count it a victory.

We are meant to spend 15 minutes a night reading with him. This is supposed to be fun time, kind of a bonus: "Look, now that you're learning to read, you get extra one-on-one time with mom/dad!" and I respect that strategy. I don't want it to be a painful, laborious, frustrating 15 minutes of sounding out each word.

That being said, well, let's face it, the boy has to sound out each word. Sometimes the same word twice on one page. Sometimes words like "or". Sigh. He's six, and he's just learning to read: that's the haps, Jack. This article demystified this process for me quite a bit.

A major obstacle is material. Finding books at his level that we can enjoy together is NOT EASY. In the first place, it's obviously damn difficult to construct an interesting book using only 100 distinct words, max seven words per line, etc. Dr. Seuss did it, and so did P.D. Eastman, but it's a demanding oeuvre. And Beginning Reader, with its inherently vertical market, tends to be regarded as a great place to milk a little extra cash from whatever movie/TV show/fiction series/toy you've got going. (I don't mean to bust on Random House - their Step into Reading books are ok. I just don't like the emphasis on characters: you get kids who are beyond I Can Read who only want to read SpongeBob or Barbie books, and resist good juvenile fiction that doesn't involve familiar pop-culture characters.)

And on top of all that, many Beginning Reader books are just not that helpful: you cannot intuit the text by looking at the picture, or the text is too abstract or poorly worded in the first place.

One of my favorite examples, in a book about the rodeo entitled Cowboy Up! (the title itself unclear, ungrammatical, and vaguely porny), is a page on which the text is "Tie a goat." When Big Man struggled with the words, and I asked him to tell me what was going on in the picture, he said, "The cowboy is sticking a goat in the foot with a pin." I don't blame the illustrator: I mean, "Tie a goat"? WTF? Do people even do that at rodeos?

Your Daily Bob

I come not to bury Beginning Readers, however, but to praise them. Ok one. Well two.

It is well known that Mo Willems knows his funny: the Piggie & Elephant books I have praised many times before, and now that we are deep in the I Can Very Nearly Read trenches, I remain impressed.

New to me, however, is a Beginning Reader series illustrated in part by oh my god BOB STAAKE. I have seen Bob Staake's work all over the place and I always love it. He does editorial, product design, animation... I've been trying to get my hands on a copy of his Struwwelpeter since it came out. I was immensely gratified when my children liked Hello Robots as much as I did.

Mr. Bob Staake has illustrated two books for the marginally-better-than-most Beginning Reader series We Both Read, a series that breaks through the tedium of the 100-word list by injecting blocks of text that the adult reads. You read a few paragraphs on one page, and then the child has a page with only a few easy words. They can jam a lot more story into 32 pages that way. You'd think somebody would have come up with this one already, but apparently it's a new concept - the publisher even patented it.

Go find June's Tune and The Mighty Little Lion Hunter and roll around in Bob Staake's colors. I will be sitting on the couch with my hard-working boy, sounding out "lion".
"ell... eye... ohh..."
"In this word, 'o' is pronounced 'ahh'"
"lll... eye... ohh, uh, ahh... nnn"
"ll.. eye.. ah.. nn"
"try it faster"
"lleye... ah.. nn. leye-ahn. LION!! it's LION!!"
..and I'm so proud of him I can barely speak, but at the same time, I'm nearly deaf, because he yells out each word just like that, and his head is 4 inches from mine.