‘Few things bring a parent and child closer than sharing a great story’
PJ Lynch, Siobhán Parkinson, Niamh Sharkey and Ciara Doherty talk about the value of reading to children as part of an Arts Council Christmas campaign
Tanya Fay, left, from Clonmellon, Co Westmeath and her beby Rihanna and Nadejda Onofrej with her baby Julia take part in a reading initiative in 2008. Photograph: Frank Miller
The Arts Council has launched a Christmas campaign aimed at encouraging parents to read more to their children. A series of 30-second videos will be released, each featuring a well-known author, broadcaster or public figure talking about the books they loved as a child and why.
Research the Arts Council commissioned found that while Irish parents who read to their children spend on average 14 minutes a day doing so, 41 per cent of of Irish parents surveyed do not spend any time reading to their children. Irish parents have on average two hours a day of uninterrupted time with their children.
The ESRI and the Arts Council published research earlier this year (http://www.artscouncil.ie/uploadedFiles/Arts-and-cultural-particiption-GUI.pdf) that pointed to the huge benefits to children when they are encouraged to read by their parents or when their parents read to them. Young children who read or are read to by their parents do better in school, have higher levels of achievement in reading and maths, are happier, more self-confident as learners and have fewer socio-emotional difficulties.
Here, a selection of the figures taking part share their own reading experiences.
Ciara Doherty, TV presenter
I have one nephew, Rhys, a gorgeous, fun, inquisitive three-year-old. He wants to play football for hours, make tents with bedsheets and crack eggs on the worktop, baking pancakes. Like any little boy he is busy, busy, busy. After one particularly action-packed kickabout recently I needed a breather and wondered how I could possibly distract this little boy. The answer came in an egg splattered copy of the book Granny Makes A Mess. Rhys quietly sat on my lap for 30 minutes as I read (and re-read) his new favourite story. I was amazed. He was captivated. It was a very special moment.
As a child I was never ever without a book in hand. I remember being so engrossed in a particular novel that I had to peg it to the line so I could continue reading as I hung out wet clothes. Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Marita Conlon McKenna – I devoured them all. You are never bored and never alone when you have a book. As a child your imagination is fired, you experience worlds and characters that you’ve never met, may never meet. It doesn’t matter. With that in mind I’m buying Rhys The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield. It’s a beautifully illustrated book about a boy named Chris and his dreams and aspirations.
PJ Lynch, writer, illustrator and Laureate na nÓg
When I mentioned to my children that I was writing something about bedtime stories they humphed as usual and went on with what they were doing.
“Do you remember us reading to you?” I asked.
But, when I mentioned Goodnight Moon, each of them smiled at the fond memory of the great green room with the mittens and the kittens, the clocks and the socks, the comb and the brush, and the bowl full of mush and the quiet old lady who was whispering hush.
As an adult with no children but a keen interest in picture books, I had never seen the charm of Margaret Wise Brown’s text, and Clement Hurd’s brightly coloured and naively drawn illustrations left me cold.
I couldn’t understand why it was considered a classic. When our kids came along, well-meaning friends had given us not one but two copies of the darned book so we were determined to to try it on our little ones, who rarely seemed to want to say goodnight to anything.
Our children loved Goodnight Moon straightaway and, in spite of my earlier reservations, it wasn’t long before I loved it too.
The very elements of the text that had irritated me before, I could now see were its greatest strengths. Children loved the unusual structure, the unbalanced rhyme scheme and the unpredictable patterns in the text.
How could a book be unpredictable after a hundred reads?
As my sleepy kids would say goodnight to the little house, the mouse and all the things in the room, I was admiring the sophistication of the perspective that Clement Hurd had used in his pictures, along with the clarity and sureness of his line and the daring of his colour scheme.
In this book the words and pictures combine to make a rare kind of magic…. a rare kind of art.
There are very few things that can bring a parent and child closer together than sharing a great story. Over the years my wife and I shared many wonderful books with our children. The greatest of them we shared repeatedly, and we never got tired of them. We learned from them and we all grew with them.
However, reading Goodnight Moon was special for us.
Whilst the children loved it in a simple and powerful and enduring way, this small book opened my eyes to types of poetry and art that I had been blind to before. By sharing it with my children I was able to shed a few decades, forget my art college experiences and my own prejudices, and to see and appreciate a miniature work of genius through a child’s wide-open eyes.
Siobhán Parkinson, writer
A great read-aloud favourite in this house was Each, Peach, Pear, Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This classic picturebook makes a super read-aloud, with great drama at each page turn, very memorable text and really lovely, detailed illustrations. The strong, rhythmic text bears multiple re-readings, which is important for the adult reader, as the child will certainly demand repeated readings. This is true also of Dr Seuss, and One Fish Two to Fish Red Fish Blue Fish was another big favourite here.
Reading aloud to small children is intensely enjoyable for both parents and children, and in a way the choice of book is almost secondary, since it is the shared experience of cuddling up together and engaging in a joint imaginative, child-centred adventure in a charmed world that creates the special joy of reading aloud to a child.
Wordless picturebooks, such as Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick’s recent Owl Bat Bat Owl, are especially good for “reading” aloud with your child, giving the child the opportunity to lead for a change in the telling of the story. Other recent picturebooks from Irish authors that children will love are Goodnight Everyone by Chris Haughton and Nothing! by Yasmeen Ishmael.
It is still a good idea to read with older children. It gives a child a great sense of achievement to be able to take their turn in reading a page to the parent, while still enjoying being read to by an adult – but beware of turning it into a reading lesson: keep it fun!
In fact, you are never too old to enjoy being read to, and long beyond the snuggling-up stage, everyone can enjoy reading a poem together, for example, with family members. And a sick child, teenager or even adult who is too weary to read for themselves will very often enjoy having a story read to them. Dickens is particularly good for this.
Siobhán Parkinson’s most recent book is Miraculous Miranda, for age 9-12
Niamh Sharkey, author and illustrator
I believe that it’s never too early to start reading to a child. It’s a magic time where you turn everything off and connect with your little ones. It’s time for a snuggle, a story and lots of laughter. Favourite books that I read to my own children when they were toddlers were Bark George Bark by George Pfieeer, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell and all the Mary Murphy picture books. Of course they would always ask for “just one more story!”
Both my parents gave me an intense love of reading that unlocked my imagination and a life where imagination and creativity are valued. My Dad said that I loved The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. All my bedtime stories were given the Don Sharkey treatment; my Dad added funny voices to each of the bears, high-pitched voices for some of the more excitable characters and peppered in his own hilarious details from our family life. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild things Are sparked my lifelong love of picture books and monsters.
Books are the best companions; in our family we never go anywhere without a book. I believe that reading is a right and a need. Books are as essential as food, warmth and shelter. They feed the creative, emotional and imaginative life of a child. Stephen King says that “Books are a uniquely portable magic”. In reading to my own children I hope I have helped them unlock this magic, and sparked their own imaginative and creative journey.