‘Shared reading’ a golden time with sons

THIS will surprise you – I grew up in a house where books were of no importance. Really! I cannot recall seeing my parents with a book.

We had some books, but they sat, unread, in a dusty cupboard: When the Rains Came, How Babies are Born and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde with monochrome illustrations come to mind. When my parents went out, my brother, sister and I would pore over How Babies are Born, but the single illustration was very disappointing – a teensy white dot on a black page that represented a human ovum.

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde was quite a different matter, with an illustration of Dr Jekyll transforming into Mr Hyde that made my hair stand on end.

I remember finding a calendar in a dustbin that featured a William Holman Hunt painting, The Light of the World: Christ knocking at the door of the soul. These seductive connections with images at an early age tuned me for what I was to do with my life: make pictures.

So, from early on I started drawing in the white margins of newspapers, copying cartoon characters, such as Lil’ Henry and the Katzenjammer Kids.

Another “wow” moment was seeing John Tenniel’s line illustrations for Alice in Wonderland which made me decidedly uncomfortable, but in a way that keeps you going back for more. I reckon it was around this time that my love for picture books began, a love that was not supported by my parents who could not afford to buy books or, maybe, were simply not part of a “book culture”.

Luckily, around this time I wandered into the Observatory Library and discovered a room filled with books, the very same room I returned to, many years later, to read to children.

Here’s another surprise: I’m not really a writer. Yes, I’ve received awards for my writing, but to be quite honest, I write to have something to illustrate.

Still, if one is to write, then one must learn how to do it well. And the best way of learning to write is to read.

Editors look for the writer’s “voice” in a piece of writing, that is, the voice of the storyteller, that spellbinding quality that holds our attention from page one. It took time to find my “voice” as a writer and it’s not surprising that it has a musical quality.

After all, it was through singing and writing song lyrics that I came to writing for children.

It’s marvellous when your words have an impact on others. Indeed, some writing can be life-changing.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between the writer and his reader that goes far beyond books as tools for literacy and all the benefits associated with a literate nation. The value I place on books and reading is based on my experiences as a parent who read to his children.

Children love stories, especially if they are read well and include illustrations that provide portholes to imaginary worlds.

So, I recommend “shared reading” – a child, adult and book in between. There’s nothing more revitalising after a day’s work than for a tired mum or dad to cuddle up with their child or children and share a book.

In a chaotic world we need stories that help build imaginatively rich inner lives into which we can go and return with more hope and understanding of what it means to be human.

Know what? The time I spent reading to my sons…that was a golden time. Send your comments to letters@nalibali.org or www.facebook.com/nalibaliSA.

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