Ruby, who just turned three, sat at the genkan putting on the pair of black and pink sneakers that our neighbor passed on to her.
“Mommy, these shoes pinch my toes.”
“What did you say, Honey?” I wasn’t sure I heard her right.
“These shoes pinch my toes.”
I was surprised. The phrase “pinch my toes” is not part of my day-to-day vocabulary (nor my husband’s) and I don’t recall ever using it, especially since all the pairs of shoes I own fit me comfortably. Where could Ruby have heard it? And then I remembered. It was from the story D.W. The Picky Eater written and illustrated by Marc Brown. The sentence goes: “D.W. wore her black shoes with the bows, even though they pinched her toes.”
I was astounded that Ruby actually remembered such an inconsequential phrase (it was just a tiny detail, not crucial at all to the story), understood what it meant, and used it correctly.
I read to Ruby several times a day. We have a wake-up story, an after breakfast story, a story before taking a nap, a story in the lull before dinner while we wait for my husband to come home, and a bedtime story. More often than not, we read several stories in one sitting. Ruby looks forward to story time she dances her happy dance (“Yey! Yey! Yey!”) when I tell her to pick a book and she makes her selection carefully. We often read old favorites but every now and then, she asks me to pick a new story. Her favorite go-to book these days is the one I gave her for her third birthday The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury selected by Janet Schulman which contains 44 well-loved children’s classics. We take it with us when we travel.
Ruby’s love affair with books began (as far as I can remember) as early as eight months. I packed some Dr. Seuss books in the bag I took to the hospital after her open-heart surgery. She was captivated by the pictures. Very early on, Ruby knew that there’s joy to be derived from reading. One of her first books was a word book and she would squeal with delight when we get to the page with the picture of a dog in it. One morning when she was about one year old, I was crying after a fight with my husband. She came up to me with her word book opened to the page of the dog, as if to say, “Look at this Mommy, this dog makes me happy. Maybe it will make you happy too.”
Ruby’s language skills skyrocketed, thanks to children’s books and the countless times we re-read them. The simple language and the repetition helped build her vocabulary and understanding of language patterns. The pictures clarify the meaning of the words and spark wonder, creativity and imagination — all without direct teaching. She went through a phase when all she wanted to read before bedtime was this really short book called Wonderful You. We read it for so many nights I could recite the lines from memory until today. When I paused, she would fill in the words.
One day (Ruby repeats excitedly: One day!)
Big Bear said to Small Bear, there’s something you should… (Ruby: know!)
I made a wish and you came true and now I love you… (Ruby: so!)
You’re the colors of my rainbow, the honey in my… (Ruby: tea!)
You’re butterflies and lullabies, you’re everything to… (Ruby: me!)
Now we have made it into a duo rap routine.
In an article for the Journal of Direct Instruction entitled What reading does for the mind, Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich wrote:
What is immediately apparent is how lexically impoverished is most speech, as compared to written language. … The relative rarity of the words in children’s books is, in fact, greater than that in all of the adult conversation… Indeed, the words used in children’s books are considerably rarer than those in the speech on prime-time adult television.
Exposure to rare words have a direct implication on vocabulary development. As Cunningham and Stanovich confirm, most vocabulary is acquired outside of formal teaching, and more likely to happen through reading. So important is reading in the development of children and in giving them a head start in life that a few years ago, a group of Boston pediatricians began distributing free books at their clinic.
As Ruby grew older, she wanted to read longer stories and I’m still amazed by how she could sit still, listening to me, completely absorbed by a story for pages on end. I credit the reading habit for her fairly long attention span.
Stories help Ruby understand herself, her emotions, and the world around, and equip her with the words to explain and express. One of her favorite books is The Berenstein Bears’ The Gimmies, which tells the story of how Mama and Papa bear dealt with the tantrums that the cubs threw when they didn’t get what they wanted. One day, while at the supermarket, Ruby had a fit over some juice boxes that I didn’t want to buy. She screamed and cried and flew into a rage. I dragged her back to our bicycle and was so upset I didn’t say a word. When we got home, I still didn’t speak to her. She quietly came up to me and said, “Mommy mad. Ruby had the gimmies.”
Reading to our kids is probably one of the best ways we can spend time with them. I am still struck by the mom who managed to read all 1,200 pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to her three young sons. They loved it so much she read it to them again. I want to be that mom. When I gave Ruby the treasury of children’s books for her third birthday, it also represented the gift of my time, the hours and hours we will spend reading and enjoying the book together. I especially appreciate how reading together is a time for us to repair and reconnect. We may have had a rough day dotted with meltdowns and timeouts, but when we cuddle up for a story, all is forgotten. Sometimes I happen to start reading a book before she settles into her favorite position. She would say, “Wait Mommy” and sit right in the crook of my knees and lean back against my chest. Then she would say “Okay, Mommy, read please.”