Book Reviews

Words, they are how the world works and we all need to be able to shape them to say what we want to say when we want to say it, otherwise opportunities will, and do pass us by.

Neurologists, psychologists and educators are today all acutely aware of the significant roles of nature and nurture in long term academic achievement.  Whether that is via a book, or via a digital medium is not the issue here, reading aloud is about encouraging a love of learning. That includes holding daily conversations to help children articulate their thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Nationally and internationally education opportunities for all children depend on literacy. It is a proven fact children need to be regularly talked to and sung to, they cannot learn to communicate well unless we do. Reading aloud is a very simple effective means of boosting their literacy, learning and listening skills. It is a first step forward in what should be a joyous experience for parents, families, friends and teachers providing opportunities for communicating in a relaxed and happy environment. The quality, quantity and nature of these interactions contribute greatly to a child’s future learning success. The important role everyone plays in early language development is acknowledged as a major determinant for a child’s learning.

Four fantastic friends enjoying a delightful picnic in the wild wood - from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame- Illustrations by Michael Hague

Reading aloud is all about nurturing and nourishing their minds. This needs to occur prior to school commencement, the most crucial time for learning. Without literacy we cannot develop our knowledge, fulfill our potential or have any hope of participating fully in society.  It is at the heart of every basic education. Listening to stories from the first months of life helps children understand that if their experience is shared, they will be all the happier. It will assist them to improve their levels of literacy, extend their spoken vocabulary, inspire a love of learning and importantly, it will foster a belief in self worth that will help them to gain in self-confidence.

Our world is a complex place today and if they are to forge a place for themselves in society and have a productive professional life they need to be equipped with all sorts of skills, all of which are underpinned by an ability to read well. I well remember the first time I was read aloud to. It was in the fourth grade. The book the teacher read was Wind in the Willows, written by Scottish born author Kenneth Grahame (1859 – 1932).  It took her the school year to finish it, by reading it aloud every Friday afternoon. It was a joyous tale about four fantastic friends.

The capricious Mr Toad of Toad Hall

In 1904, when Kenneth Grahame’s son Alastair was about four years old, his father used to tell him bedtime stories about a Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger in his letters to Alastair. After Kenneth’s retirement from the Bank of England he moved with his wife and son to an old farmhouse in Blewbury near Didcot. Life moved at more relaxed pace for Clarke in the countryside and he had time to complete his marvellous stories that children everywhere responded to.

In the Wind in the Willows dear Mole worked very hard to spring-clean his house, and when he took some time out he met up with the most delightful ‘water’ rat. Well yes, rats can be delightful too.  It was Rat who took Mole on his first picnic and they had a great adventure in the wonderous Wild Wood.  Lost in the snow they found shelter with Badger, who was the epitome of hospitality and wise counsel. The three then contrived to try and teach their irrepressible adventurous madcap friend Toad of Toad Hall to be sensible, with hilarious results.

Surprisingly, the first publishers offered the book to publish it rejected it. It was not until October 1908, after several rejections and some pro-active campaigning by of all people President Roosevelt in the United States, that the book was published by Methuen and Co. The critics all gave it a negative review. The public however loved it, and within a few years it had sold in such enormous numbers many reprints were required.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history and it is a delight to know that when Roosevelt visited Oxford University to give a lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1910, he asked the President of Magdalen College to arrange for him to meet Kenneth Grahame. He traveled down to Oxford to listen to the President’s lecture and to talk with him afterwards.

Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows was all about keeping the spirit of youth alive; of life, sunshine, running water, woodlands, dusty roads and good cheer. If you are looking to have the real experience then I recommend the Wind in the Willows copy with illustrations by Michael Hague. It is a classic as a classic ought to look. The illustrations wonderfully fulfill Grahame’s nostalgic vision of life for his four fantastic friends on the River Bank.

Read Aloud renowned Australian literacy consultant Mem Fox, author of the book for parents ‘Reading Magic’ tells us that children need 1000 stories read aloud to them before they learn to read for themselves.  She says Governments are realizing, at last, that ‘by providing attention, time and funds to promote early literacy, later less of their budgets will need to be spent on illiteracy, crime, depression, unemployment and welfare’.

Safe confidant children and young people, who are valued by our society, is an ambition I am sure we all share.  A book for everyone in the Christmas stocking  is surely the way to go. And, if you read it aloud you can be sure to share the joy around.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle November 2011

P.S. There is a great choice and you can compare the prices for the many different editions of Wind in the Willows available online at www.bookoffers.com.au. There you can also purchase the latest Kindle , especially if you are looking to encourage your child to go digital, which is important to the future of learning.

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