Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beyond Happily Ever After: Discussing Books

It can be a bit of an art form, learning how to talk about books with children. Ask the wrong kind of questions, and you'll get eyes like glazed doughnuts, and answers like "yeah," "no," and the ever-charming-but-deadly "good."

I hate the word "good" when used as an answer in conversation. It's just ... not good. Not good at all.

So if book talk is an art form, I'm really no Vincent Van Gogh (his birthday is today!). Maybe not even a Mark Rothko. But by gum, I take up my brush with alacrity, day after day, and I splash some color onto that canvas. And I get my kids to do it too. One of these years, we'll have Sunflowers.

Here's what we're reading together these days, currently and recently:

The Moffats (Read to the girls; good fun!)
Premlata and the Festival of Lights (Reading aloud to the girls as part of our India study. Reminds me of my tender adoration for Rumer Godden; we came away with four of her books from yesterday's library trip)
Hatchet (Reading to Ian; the girls often listen in. Perfect for a Bear Grylls wannabe.)
The World of Columbus and Sons (Reading to Ian for history. Ms. Foster always makes history comes alive by painting it as a montage of people's stories. I don't read every chapter aloud, but I read them all to myself!)
Ink on His Fingers (Reading aloud -- historical fiction, based on the story of Gutenberg and the printing press)
The Biggest Bear (Read to Caroline, who wanted a repeat and a repeat ... a twist of an ending saved the day just as I feared we were headed for tragedy. The author, Lynd Ward, did the pictures for the old favorite The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which of course we had to dig out and reread.)

Here's a list of questions I like to ask the kids at the close of a chapter or a whole book. Not all at once, mind you. We'd call that a firing squad. No, just a mix designed to hopefully draw some insights out of their little brains.

- Who would you say is the main character of this story?
- Where and when does the story take place? (If it's not explicit, we look for clues in the text or illustrations)
- What does the main character want most of all?
- What is the main character's biggest problem? How did that problem come about?
- Does the main character get what he or she wants?
- What does [a different character] want most? (Especially if that character is in conflict with our hero)
- Which character do you like the most? Why?
- Is this story fiction or fantasy?
- Do you feel like the story has a satisfying ending? Why/why not?
- Can you imagine the story ending a different way?
- What does the main character learn that he didn't now when the story began?

These questions could be asked and answered of nearly any worthy book with tearable pages, from The Tale of Peter Rabbit to The Hobbit to Jane Eyre and beyond.

Eliza commented today that in "all little kids' books," the problem always gets solved. I asked her about that, and we ended up coming to the realization that without some sort of resolution, we don't really have a story. Of course, as the reading level becomes more sophisticated, so does the resolution.

Kids learn without being told that "happily ever after" is sometimes something that happens to you, and sometimes something you make happen, day after day, with no promises of tomorrow. Just another reason why great books make great mentors.

For more nitty-gritty on sharing books with kiddos, check out Bookie Woogie's blog. Written by a dad!


Raji P. said...

Sniff sniff, so beautiful!!

But seriously - do you think if you were not a homeschooling family you would ever be able to read so much per day??

NeedANap2 said...

We loved The Moffats! Our library has it on CD so we listened to it on a long car trip. :)

Amelia said...

really liked these questions. and i think the questions are good for any parent/kid reading discussion, home-schooling or no. thanks so much for sharing!

Bethy Lynne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bethy Lynne said...

I remember reading The Moffats when I was a child, and Hatchet is one of our class books for 6th grade during our survival fiction unit. Is Ian 5th or 6th grade this year? I love your questions list...good details to make the children think beyond the plot and into the deeper character development. We usually do a number of different types of book reports that portray those questions and exhibit the answers. I'm sure you have scads of resources on this too. Funny thing is I find myself asking questions to my 3 year old after we read a book...of course very basic ones like "Why did the doggy, Harry hide his brush? What did the family think when they saw the dog in their yard? How did Harry change? What did he learn?...(Name that children's book!) haha, and so it begins! ;)

Jenny said...

Great list of questions!

I must humble myself by asking the difference between fiction and fantasy. I always assumed that fantasy was a sub-category of fiction, but I realize now that I may not fully understand the difference.

Hannah said...

Jenny, someone may correct me, but my operating definition is that fantasy cannot actually take place in our [present] world. Imaginary worlds, time travel, Greek gods inhabiting Earth ... hey, even by that definition, It's a Wonderful Life (and in that same category, The Fledgling) .... would qualify as fantasy. I agree with you that it is a subcategory of fiction. The simple question the kids use to determine fiction vs. fantasy is, Could it actually happen? (As opposed to nonfiction vs. fiction: DID it actually happen?)

Jenny said...

Makes sense. Thanks for the clarification. :)