Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Our children are a parent's return ticket to a fresh world in which much is experienced and little is understood. It is one of nature's most intriguing feats, that a human child should be able to absorb such a torrent of information and begin to make some sort of sense of it in what is really just a brief few months.

Recognizing faces, shapes, sounds, voices, words and then beginning to parrot those things back to the outside world - beginning to find their own voice and eventually their own selves. There are miracles in legions if we simply consider them.

Helping your children learn to read, usually principally by spending much time reading to and then with them, brings back to mind that first time when your own eye stopped spending all its time decoding the squiggles on the page and you suddenly found yourself having been swept along a stream of consciousness powered by your imagination and steered by an author's words. That first magical journey of reading when you are encompassed by an incorporeal world of the mind.

What is this ethereal thing, imagination and how does it relate to reading? Imagination, n. - 1: the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality. It is a mysterious beast and not completely understood yet by our scientists and psychologists.

There is a relatively common phenomenon that illustrates the issue of imagination. Many people, at some point in their lives, dream of flying. I can vividly recall a handful of such dreams to this day, all the sensations of lifting off and flying, even though these dreams were years ago. The mystery is, how can you experience the sensation of flying, when you cannot actually fly and have not experienced the sensation of flying. I have read a number of articles over the years trying to unlock this conundrum with more or less plausible theories advanced but no received answer having been arrived at.

This ability to project one's mind into other experiences and circumstances is a powerful tool and is part of the magic of reading. I have never climbed the Matterhorn or Mount Everest but I have done so vicariously through the writings of others. Reading is no substitute for reality and for living in the real world itself but it certainly is a life multiplier. Just as a soldier with a revolver has a force multiplier when faced with adversaries armed with knives, the child with a book has a life force multiplier at hand. They have experienced, not completely and fully, but to a greater extent than might otherwise be possible, a world beyond that constrained by their family and income and educational circumstances. This is why reading is truly a magic door through which children can enter into a better world, and having entered, begin to change the circumstances in which they live.

Every act of reading is in itself and act of imagination, a shifting from a world of paper and scratchings on the paper to a fully formed mental world conjured by the imagination. This, regardless of the nature of the reading - it matters not whether it is fantasy, adventure, history, biography, instructions for assembly, etc. All depend on the child's ability to conjure.

So just the act of reading and being read to is a first step towards exercising the imagination. At its core, the exercise of imagination is not just the ability to conjure something from nothing. As often as not, it is the effort of viewing something familiar from an entirely new perspective. In this regard, there are some books that take a kind of mechanistic approach towards imagination; picture books where you have to find images hidden within pictures, books of acrostics, cross-word puzzles, etc. These appeal to some children and not others.

A much larger category of books that build the imagination by forcing the child to understand things from two (or more) different perspectives are all those involving word play of some sort; joke books, books of riddles, nonsense verse, and poetry.

Books of riddles are very much an exercise in imagination and have been around for centuries. The Exeter Book, a very early collection of riddles, is from the tenth century.

Per Wikipedia:

The riddles in this book vary in significance from childish rhymes and ribald innuendo, to some particularly interesting insights into the preChristian thought world of our archaic linguistic ancestors, such as the following (Riddle 47 from the Exeter Book):

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

A moth ate words. I thought that was a marvelous fate, that the worm, a thief in the dark, should eat a man's words, his brilliant language and its sturdy foundation. Not a whit the wiser was he for having fattened himself on those words.

The answer called for by the poem is 'bookworm'. The meaning is metaphoric - the riddle expressing the skepticism of an oral culture in the face of a literacy revolution. The general technique of the riddle form is to refer obliquely to the subject by kenning and other sorts of figurative language; since kennings formed such an important element of alliterative verse forms in the Germanic languages, the riddles served the dual empirical purpose of puzzling the poet's audience and teaching the lore needed to successfully use or understand the poetic language. But riddles also served a more abstract role in Anglo-Saxon education, for they taught their listeners how to track two (or more) meanings at once in a single semantic situation, and a fortiori their very existence demonstrates that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons were not inhabiting a thought-world lacking in subtlety and complexity. There are at least eighteen distinct Anglo-Saxon words describing aspects of cognitive skill [frod, ferð, onhæle, degol, cunnan, dyrne, hyge, hygecraft, hylest, heort, þencan, gleaw, sceolon, giedd, mod, sawol, heofodgimme, wis, snot(t)or, wat, swican - the list could be extended], a fact which attests to a culture valuing cognitive skills, albeit in an oral and not literate context. The god Odin was a master of riddle lore, and sparred with several of his foes using contests of riddles.

Of course the telling of riddles goes back even further, the most famous example being perhaps Oedipus's slaying of the Sphinx by answering the classic riddle of what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening.

Poetry is in a class of its own for its ability to help children with word play, pattern recognition, imagination and storytelling. See Thing Finder on this site for many narrative poems that grab the attention of children and are great for reading to your child. There is nothing quite as rewarding as reading poems to young children for, with their native skill of mimicry, it is often not long before they are in turn reciting it back to you verbatim.

Beyond these classes of books that help foster imagination are those books which are in themselves either innovative and/or by their nature foster an active imagination. One of the founding fathers of this category would be Lewis Carroll's Alices Adventures in Wonderland in which all the ordinary day-to-day things in a child's life are turned topsy-tury; still recognizable but seen in a way never before considered.

We have left out poetry, riddles, etc. for separate lists but have included not only classics that were innovative in their time and spawned many derivative books but also contemporary books that cause you to look at things differently than you have before, while at the same time telling a gripping tale.

Picture Books

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger Highly Recommended

Bently & Egg by William Joyce Recommended

So Much Nonsense by Edward Lear Recommended

I Spy by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick Recommended

Look-Alikes by Joan Steiner and illustrated by Thomas Lindley Recommended

Bad Day at Riverbend by Chris Van Allsburg Recommended

Walter Wick's Optical Tricks by Walter Wick Recommended

Hey, Al! by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski Recommended

Independent Reader

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt Recommendation

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow and William Stout Highly Recommended

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs Recommended

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs and illustrated by J. Allen St. John Recommended

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by John Tenniel Highly Recommended

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Highly Recommended

Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and illustrated by Robert R. Ingpen Highly Recommended

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle Highly Recommended

The Borrowers by Mary Norton and illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush Recommended

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift Highly Recommended

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and illustrated by Tom Kidd Highly Recommended

Young Adult

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach Recommended

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan Recommendation

Escher on Escher by M. C. Escher and illustrated by J. W. Vermeulen Suggested

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Recommended

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain Recommended

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells Recommended

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