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January 29, 2016

Picture Books We’ve Loved to Pieces


Wednesday was Family Literacy Day, and on 49thShelf, I wrote about the picture books our family has read to pieces. Reading with my children was been one of the most incredible parts of my life since they were born, and we’ve all come a long way since the first time I observed Family Literacy Day (which was six years ago, and I turned it into a week-long blogging extravaganza. Scroll down a bit here to se what we got up to). These days Harriet reads by herself more often than we read together, but we still read picture books every night, plus some of a chapter book—at the moment we’re doing The Borrowers Afield and it’s so perfect. Hanging out with books is my favourite way to be a family—or to be anything, for that matter…

January 27, 2015

Serendipity, Family Literacy and Animal Masquerade

animal-masqueradesI don’t know that a family can enforce literacy as much as create the space to let a love of reading just happen. Serendipity plays such a role in it all, as it does whenever anybody discovers a great book. I was thinking about this tonight as I was reading to Harriet from the big pile of books we signed out of the library this afternoon. I was reading Animal Masquerade by Marianne Dubuc, which has been lauded by the likes of Leonard Marcus AND Julie Booker. I’d never read it before, and was enjoying it, and so was Harriet, the animals in disguise quite funny and a twist every now and again but never quite where you’d expect it. And then Iris wandered in, and climbed up beside us, and Stuart followed soon after, intrigued by the sound of this strange book in which a starfish dresses up as a panther. And two thirds of the way in, we were all in love with the story, finding it wonderful and hilarious, all of us perhaps for very different reasons, but regardless, it worked. It’s hard to find a book that hooks 4 people whose ages range from 1 to 35, but this one did, and it was a wonderful moment. The perfect way to mark Family Literacy Day, and I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

January 27, 2014

Two Posts for Family Literacy Day

January 27 is Family Literacy Day, an excellent initiative by ABC Life Literacy Canada to promote the importance of families taking part in reading activities together. And because this is pretty much my favourite time of year, I’ve been busy writing Family Literacy Day-related things.



For Today’s Parent, I wrote “The Secret to Raising Readers.” Here’s a hint: it involves Trollope castles, letting your children eat their books and then throw them on the floor.


And at 49thShelf, I wrote about why I censor our family’s bedtime reading. (Why? Because family literacy is not just about the kids.)

May all your story-times be fun, and your picture books be brilliant.

January 27, 2013

We visit the Intergalactic Travel Authority to meet Gabby

IMG_0244We ventured westward today for our first visit to the Intergalactic Travel Authority, an out-of-this-world cafe at Bloor and Dufferin. The cafe was inspired by the 826 storefronts in America , which run literacy programs for young people. Apart from the usual coffee and baked goods, customers at the Intergalactic Travel Authority can also purchase black holes in cans, robots and monsters, plus BOOKS, the proceeds from which fund the cafe’s literacy programs.

IMG_0243Which take place through the cafe’s magical spaceship doors…

And we got to walk through those amazing sliding doors today because we were there for the launch of Joyce Grant‘s picture book Gabby, illustrated by Jan Dolby. (Joyce, a longtime literacy advocate, contributed a wonderful post to 49th Shelf this week for Family Literacy Day with tips for raising a reader.)

IMG_0242Gabby is a fabulous book about a funny little girl who must deal with the consequences when she drops her book on the floor and all its letters fall out upon impact. When she starts picking up the letters now scattered all around her room, she is amazed to discover that the letters, when assembled in a precise manner, start taking on a life of their own. With the C, A and a T, Gabby makes a cat, but then it needs feeding, and trouble starts brewing when the next letters she picks up happen to spell “bird”.

IMG_0245It’s a perfect book for Harriet, who is just beginning to understand how letters get together to make words. (Her partiality to the letter H, however, means that she’s not really bothered by the other 25 in the alphabet. Perhaps this book will help her get over that?) How letters with their individual sounds each have their own particular powers. Older readers will delight in guessing which words Gabby’s errant letters spell, as attested to by these kids’ reaction when Joyce was reading to us. The illustrations by Dolby are bright and fun, and subsequent readings reveal all kinds of hidden surprises.

IMG_0239Though we in our family have a tendency to like any place where the cake is particularly abundant, we had an especially wonderful time today at the Gabby book launch. We were happy to pick up a copy of the book and have it signed by author and illustrator (who kindly noted with her autograph that H is indeed for Harriet!). And a book launch at such an extraordinary venue? It isn’t every day when you get the privilege of walking through a pair of sliding spaceship doors.

Isn’t reading wonderful?

Gabby page 8

January 26, 2012

But every day is Family Literacy Day!

Harriet and I reading, back in the day

As part of Family Literacy Day, my article “How to read so your kids will listen” is online at Today’s Parent, which I’m quite excited about (though I know I’m not telling any of you people anything that you didn’t know already).

Also check out also a list of expert-curated kids book recommendations up at Canadian Bookshelf.

And even if you caught it first time around, it might be worth revisiting the legendary time I dragged out Family Literacy Day for an entire week back in 2010, because there’s really some excellent stuff up there.

January 27, 2011

Family Literacy Day!

Today is Family Literacy Day, sponsored by ABC Life Literacy Canada. Which, last year, we turned into a week-long celebration with author interviews, book recommendations, reading tips, a field trip and even a party/baby literary salon!! This year, we were a bit less ambitious and celebrated family literacy the way we do every day, by reading eleventeen storybooks over and over again, but this day is definitely worthy of a trip back through last year’s fun. And while we’re on the subject of family literacy, why don’t you check out the new entry up at the Literature for Life blog?

January 29, 2010

Celebrating literacy in general, and those who promote it

For obvious reasons, this is my favourite page in The Baby’s Catalogue. Oh, children’s books. They’re as good as any book, but they’ve got pictures. And it has been a delight to celebrate them this week, to celebrate Family Literacy, and to find out that such a celebration is so contagious. That children’s books are made to be shared.

Of course, we’re preaching to the choir here. Anyone who’d be reading this blog in the first place (except for whatever curious person arrived searching for “sex with pickles”) is probably well aware of the importance of family literacy. I bet we were all read to as children, that we read to any children we have, and that we even read to children we don’t have.

And all of this, of course, is a luxury. Family Literacy Day is sponsored by ABC Canada, which promotes adult literacy through a wide variety of programs. We are fortunate that in Canada, illiteracy is rare, but less rare (and harder to acknowledge) are low literacy skills, which are experienced by 4 out of 10 Canadians. The implications of this are enormous, in particular at the family level, and at the workplace level, and through their programs, ABC Canada aims to provide adults access to the learning skills they require.

Another organization doing wonderful work for literacy is the Children’s Book Bank in Toronto, which provides children in the Regent Park neighbourhood with free books and a terrific atmosphere in which to enjoy them. The space is absolutely beautiful, like the best children’s bookstore you can imagine, and the books (albeit secondhand) are in good shape, excellently organized. It’s a place that respects itself, and the kids sense that, and feel better about themselves for just being there, and their pleasure at choosing books of their own is absolutely palpable. They also often come accompanied by their parents, many of whom end of learning English literacy skills from the books their kids bring home from the Book Bank. The Children’s Book Bank is a fantastic innovation, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is looking to get rid of good quality used children’s books, or as a good recipient for a book drive.

A final organization in Toronto that I’m just starting to learn about is Literature for Life, which promotes reading to groups of pregnant or parenting teenage mothers, and publishes a magazine by these women and for them. It’s an amazing idea, whereby not only do these women learn how reading enriches their lives, but they gain the skills to pass a love of reading on to their children.


Finally, I want to share my favourite Family Literacy Resources. Australian writer Mem Fox has an excellent website, including her instructions for reading aloud and her Ten read-aloud commandments (1. Spend at least ten wildly happy minutes every single day reading aloud.)

And more recently, I’ve fallen in love with Canadian author Sheree Fitch’s website. Sheree Fitch is an inventor of words, and she’s made up one called “thrival”, which is as important as “survival”, and is what literacy is necessary for. Read her excellent essay here. Her own list of literacy resources is here.

January 29, 2010

Family Literacy Recommendations from a Literary Mom: Carrie Snyder

In between mothering her four children, writing fiction, a blog and a parenting column, and all the other things that people do, Carrie Snyder found a few spare moments to write this beautiful piece about reading with her children. Carrie Snyder is the author of Hair Hat (which is currently competing in Canada Reads: Independently). Her most recent publication was three stories in The New Quarterly 112).

My favourite picture book of all time is A Day with Nellie, by Marthe Jocelyn (the original version, not the board book, which cuts some of my favourite sections.) This book has been with our family since my eldest was a toddler. He and I read it so often that we had it memorized. Both of my daughters loved it, too, and my youngest is now 22 months and “Nellie!” is far and away the first book he goes looking for on our shelves.

The charm of this book is in its simplicity. A preschool-aged child goes about her day: from waking to getting dressed, greeting her friends (mostly stuffed animals), eating breakfast, and so on. She plays indoors in daddy’s shoes. She plays teacher in the backyard–her students include the neighbours’ cat. She makes mud, slips and falls, gets dirty, takes a bath. Each page subtly illustrates a new concept: textures on the breakfast page, emotions on the naptime page, numbers on the picnic lunch page, et cetera.

But what elevates this book to greatness is Jocelyn’s original fabric artwork. It looks touchable. Each page is beautiful and colourful, and we could look at it for hours (and we have, and we do!). The pictures are full of narrative all on their own, which makes them perfect for the pre-reader. There is so much to point to and talk about in each picture. Nellie pouring water on her head. Nellie watching the big kids come home from school. (Particularly poignant for me, now, as I remember reading it with my eldest and watching out the window as the big kids walked home from school–and now he is one of those big kids walking home from school). I’ve never yet gotten bored of the book. And that’s high praise indeed.

I also read chapter books out loud before bedtime. The older ones are able to read to themselves, now, but they still love cuddling in on the couch and being read to. I would recommend heading into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. The first book, with its terrifying panther stories, is not necessarily the best place to begin (Little House in the Big Woods); that book also opens with very detailed descriptions of a pioneer family preparing and storing their food for winter, including how to build a smokehouse. (In fact, there’s a great deal of lost knowledge contained in these books, from how to make a door with no nails, to how to rig up a lamp from a button and some axle grease. I’m keeping them for further reference, because you never know).

The second book in the series is the best known and perhaps also the best place to start: Little House on the Prairie. The television series based on the books bears little relationship to them: there is no superficiality. This is the real thing. The writing is quite astonishing. It is straightforward, classic, and true. It amazes me every time I read it (I was about seven when my mother first read the series to us, and I’ve re-read it many times since). There is little to no analysis in her writing, no self-consciousness, just pure storytelling. That leaves room for questions, for interpretation, and it means that the experience of reading the books as an adult changes them: my perspective as a parent added new flavours and nuances to the story. Best of all, all of my children were drawn into her writing, even my eldest who is a boy. And it lead to many imaginary games of Laura and Mary and baby Carrie.

Reading to my children: I looked forward to it before becoming a parent, and it’s one of my favourite activities as a parent. I rarely get down and play on the floor with the kids, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to get my attention with a book (I’m picky, though, and they know it: Mama doesn’t read Dora … actually, there’s a pretty long list of books Mama won’t read; that’s what Daddy is for; and literacy).
There are so many wonderful books out there, with whole worlds waiting to be discovered. When I read to my children, I get to travel into those imaginary worlds, too. We get to go there together.

January 29, 2010

Family Literacy Field Trip: To Mabel's Fables

So it turns out there is a Mabel, and she is a ginger cat. And the place she lives is pure magic, with a bright pink door, and two floors of BOOKS! Upstairs there is a gigantic teddy bear and a princess chair, and downstairs are the books for little kids and babies, upstairs for the bigger ones, and there are even books for adults on the landing.

But perhaps the very best thing about Mabel’s Fables, the wonderful children’s bookstore in Toronto, is that Rebecca Rosenblum lives around the corner. So that we got to go to her house for lunch first, and she accompanied us on our first Mabel’s Fables visit. (I’ve never been before because the store is not on the subway, and I have this impression that anywhere not on the subway is really far away. Turns out that it isn’t.)

Harriet was pleased to be liberated from the snowsuit and seemed impressed by her surroundings. I was pleased to see so many of our favourite books and others I’d been coveting, and stuff I’d never heard of by the same authors, and a space that was such a celebration of childhood and children’s books. We ended up getting our friend Geneviève Côté’s new book Me and You, which is a gorgeous celebration of friendship, individuality and art. We also got The Baby’s Catalogue board book by the Ahlbergs, because we love Peepo and Each Peach Pear Plum, and even though this isn’t a story book, it’s full of cool stuff for us to look at together and talk about, and there’s a breastfeeding baby inside (and you really can’t go wrong with breastfeeding in picture book art, oh no!).

Our final purchase was Sandra Boynton’s Bath Time!, because Harriet loves bath books and we like Barnyard Bath very much already. All in all, it was a very successful shop, and you can see here that Harriet very much enjoyed herself. These photos were taken during a span of about thirty seconds, as I tried to get her to smile for the camera but she proceeded to just pluck books off the shelf and chew on them. I wrenched them away from her eventually– I’m assuming Mabel’s Fables operates on a “you chew it, you buy it” policy, understandably. “Come on,” I said, pulling her away from the nummy bookish delights. “You’ve got plenty of books to chew on at home. ” But I must admit to admiring her appetite!

January 27, 2010

Family Literacy Recommendations from a Literary Dad: George Murray

George Murray’s new book Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms will be published this fall by ECW Press. His other books of poetry include The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007), and The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland is the editor of

He shared his best bets for books to read together as a family:

My boys are five years apart, so it’s hard to find books they’ll enjoy together. The older one (seven) loves fantasy stories (like those by Kate DiCamillo) and is a precocious reader, while the younger (almost two) loves rhythmic rhyming books and bright pictures of animals (Hands, Hands, Fingers, Thumb, etc). So in between those two, I’d recommend Scaredy Squirrel books by Melanie Watt. The baby likes the pictures and pace and the boy likes the jokes and nuttiness (pun intended). Watt’s a fabulous writer and a delightful illustrator and I often find myself chuckling as well… At least the first 100 times or so…

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