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Reading with Tennessee: what novelists can learn from picture books
Having a small child has reshaped my reading landscape. In the weeks following Tennessee’s birth, the fog of tiredness and the unrelenting physical and emotional demands of looking after a small child, made it hard to even pick up a novel. At first, I experienced the absence of my literary companions like an ache, a hunger that I knew I wouldn’t be able to satisfy for a long time.
However, I soon realised that I was still reading. Aloud, rather than in my head. And picture books rather than novels. But I was reading all the same. Sometimes for hours at a time. And that these stories were far from being pale shadows of the tomes which lay stacked on my bedside table.
Long before Tennessee could even recognise shadows flitting across her nursery wall, Hugh and I read to her. We read to her when she was still in the womb. We read to her when she was a few days old, her eyes barely open. And we read to her as she began to wake up to the world.
And as I read to her, I came to understand that although I wasn’t reading Anne Tyler or Toni Morrison or Jonathan Franzen, I was still being nourished by the power of fiction. Perhaps more so than ever before.
In fact, when I began to pay attention, I realised that I was learning some remarkable lessons about character and story, lessons which would go on to inform my own writing life.
Over the last two years of my daughter’s life, I’ve developed a huge respect and love for children’s stories, in particular the concision, simplicity and power of picture books. Now that Tennessee is a little older we share stories in a much more communicative way: she points at pictures, she repeats words – can recite whole refrains. There’s a dialogue when we read – and isn’t that, in itself, a pretty magical experience?
When, as adults, we read novels, we do so on our own, locked in our heads. When we read a picture book with a child, we share the story.
And there’s something else very special about reading picture books – as opposed to novels: their brevity (and the nature and predilections of small children), mean that we re-read them – over and over and over again. My husband, Hugh, a classically trained actor, has more or less memorised the entire Julia Donaldson canon. This comes in handy for soothing middle of the night recitations when we don’t want to turn the light on.
Tennessee coming face to face with The Gruffalo at Alice Holt Forest.
The power of re-reading stories is that we learn and take something new from them each time we read. Many factors mould how the story is received. When it is read: first thing in the morning, late at night, in a car, inside, outside. The mood we’re in when we read it. The book that came before and the one which will follow: another joy of picture books is that, much like modern-day box-sets, we can glut on them!
The story also changes according to who reads it. Hugh likes to show off his ability to put on different voices and do accents. I like to spend time helping Tennessee notice tiny details in the pictures which connect to the words – or sometimes conflict with the words. She is beginning to look at pictures and make her own stories now, which is just magical.
And on the subject of images – I’ve begun to wonder why it is that we ever outgrow having pictures in our books. Many will argue that they don’t want images influencing their imaginative recreation of the characters. I suppose they have a point, but I do think we lose a dimension when we only have text.
Pictures deepen story, enrich it, provide a commentary, an aside, show different possibilities of interpretation and are just aesthetically so satisfying.
I’ve come to understand that the literacy involved in understanding the composition of an image is as sophisticated as following a sentence.
Tennessee reading with Vi, one of our two white cats. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s a cookery book – Ben and Jerries no less. We believe in helping her develop a varied reading palate.
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