Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Snowy Day

The first time Ben really experienced a book he was nine weeks old. Until this point, my attempts to capture his interest with a cloth baby book were rejected in favor of objects that jingled or clanked.

But at nine weeks, my mom visited us and she held him in her lap, he leaned against her chest and sat still for a long time, seeming to focus intently on a book as she read it.

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After that, he started interacting more with books; books as artifacts. He was fascinated for a long time with board books and how they felt and worked and tasted. He seemed especially interested in the bindings. He was an expert page-turner by six months. At this stage, books were purely a sensory experience.

At some point during his first year, he started to become aware of the connection between a book and the sound of someone talking – especially anything rhythmic and predictable. He began to understand that when we picked up a book he was going to hear something he liked – a poem, a rhyme, some familiar words. He never pointed to pictures on the page like most kids at this age nor did he show any awareness of a story. The experience of books now seemed to be about sound, and he clearly loved it.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was the first book where he seemed to make a connection to a story – or at least a sequence. It was also the first book that gave us a glimpse into what we know now is an incredible need to master and memorize.

We’d read a few pages and he’d shout “eh!” and pound on the page. His way of asking us to read it again. We’d read a few pages and he’d shout again, sometimes turning back the pages himself, and we’d return, as requested to the beginning and start again. Read, shout, read, shout, read shout.

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He was not doing this with a mischievous grin on his face, like a child enjoying the fun of repetition during a peek-a-boo game. He was insistent, dead serious, like a Russian piano teacher drilling a student on a few measures of an etude.

Soon we realized that he was having us read only as much as he could keep in his head at one time. Although he couldn’t talk, he was memorizing the experience and allowing us to move on only when he had learned the sequence and committed it to memory.

(Chris wrote in vivid detail about the phenomenon at the time.)

Scholastic publishes DVDs of film and video adaptations of children’s literature. One set includes several books by Ezra Jack Keats including The Snowy Day. It’s a sixteen millimeter film made in 1963, the kind that your school librarian would show you on a rainy day with an old projector that takes a few seconds to hit the correct speed. It’s not really animated per se – it uses a Ken Burns effect an pans the pages of the actual book. The soundtrack is gentle classical-style guitar. Stylistically it’s about as far from Dora and Diego as you can imagine. It’s exquisite.

Ben thought so too. The video didn’t replace the book, far from it. It seemed to make the book even more compelling to him and the book and the video became an inseparable experience. He’d watch the video and hold the book, turning pages at the appropriate time, following along.

Still, he never pointed to the pictures in the book and asked, “What’s that?” nor did he make observations - “Snow!” - like most other kids his age.

After awhile, he could tell the entire story from memory – and did, over and over, at home, in the car, at family gatherings, in shopping malls. I don’t think he grasped much of the meaning of the story, given that he had only phonetic approximations of some words. He’d learned the sounds of the words like musical notes. He was singing the sounds: “One winter morning Peter looked out the window…”

After he turned two, he learned his letters and learned that letters make sounds, and everything started to change.

Now he started to study each word as he said it, comparing the look of the letters to those sounds he had committed to memory so long ago. And this created some interesting conceptual roadblocks. For instance, in one book, he reached the word “know” in a sentence he had memorized.

He stopped, looked up at me, pointed to the word and said, “Read, read.”

“Know,” I said.

After a brief look of incredulity, he continued reciting.

“That’s funny,” he may have been thinking. “The letter K doesn’t make that sound.”

This happened more and more until I could tell very distinctly around age three that he was choosing to use phonics as his primary cue rather than use his memory. His reciting sounded much more like early reading. Like when he confidently said “pone" while reading “phone.”

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He was like a singer who had learned a pop song off the radio and then sings it from sheet music. He was learning there are abstract, symbolic representations for concrete expression and sound. And I could see his brain working in this wonderful, odd way.

The other night, he read The Snowy Day to me, like any beginning reader does, sounding sound out each word, following the lines with his finger. But he hasn’t forgotten the inflections he learned through memorizing the sounds, so his reading has a little more lilt and dramatic flair than your average kid.

It was a STICK! A STICK that was JUST right for SMACKING a snow-covered tree.

Dooooooown fell the snow – PLOP – on top of Peter’s head!

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