October 2003

Katie Pannarale Fries

bookslut with baby

Will, Phil & Grover

During our first weeks at home with Matthew, reading to the baby didn’t happen on a very frequent basis. Although we attempted to read him simple books like Baby Einstein: Cats and The Monster at the End of this Book, he wasn’t alert or patient enough to sit through them. His vision wasn’t developed enough to look at the pictures anyway. All of this is to be expected with a newborn baby. So we bought him a simple, visually stimulating picture book called White on Black. As Matthew gazed intently at the pictures, we made up our own words: “Bird! Birdies say ‘tweet!’” we would say, as if the vocal patterns of birds were the most exciting things on the planet. “Apple! Banana! Buttons! One, two, three, four. There are four buttons in that picture.” He seemed to particularly like the picture of the sailboat.

Although we remained persistent in our efforts to read Matthew stories with actual text, it wasn’t until he hit the two-month mark that we noticed he seemed to be more attentive when we read to him. Instead of falling asleep or wailing when we broke out the books, he began to smile in response to our words. Eric (Daddy) read The Monster at the End of this Book with great gusto, although his Grover imitation sounded more like Apu from The Simpsons than Grover from Sesame Street. We read Goodnight Moon and The Poky Little Puppy and The Shy Little Kitten. At this point Matthew does not show a preference for any particular book, but he does show us through his body language that he enjoys being read to.

Recently, I’ve begun to branch out in selecting the literature I share with the baby. Although I joked about it during my pregnancy, I really have begun to read Shakespeare to the baby. Noticing that Matthew was content (the best time to read to him, I’ve found) but that all of our picture books were upstairs, I scanned my bookshelves for a suitable alternative. My eyes lit upon a copy of Hamlet. It’s a safe bet that Matthew has no freakin’ clue as to what was going on, or why I was staging a stuffed animal rendition of Hamlet starring Rhino as the King and Puppy Dog as Laertes, but he was attentive and happy as I read.

My success with Shakespeare inspired me to try poetry. First I read from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. When I was rewarded with Matthew’s smiles and gleeful coos, I located my favorite book of poetry, Phil Levine’s The Simple Truth, and chose a few poems from there as well. Here’s a secret: I hate to read aloud, especially poetry. But I love reading to Matthew. Whether it is the simple prose of Cats (sample sentence: “Cats can jump high.”) or the more elegant poetry of Phil Levine (“Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker, the glass of water, the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames, they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.”).

I know that reading to Matthew is important for both our bonding and his development not only as a reader, but a listener, a talker, and a thinker. I also know that right now it’s not what we read to him, but how we read it. It doesn’t matter if we are reading The Monster at the End of this Book or Shakespearean tragedy or Phil Levine poetry. Right now he’s just interested in hearing our voices and seeing our faces as we read. By choosing a variety of reading material, I am trying to make reading fun for both of us. And if that involves talking in silly voices or bringing in the stuffed animal repertory theatre, then that’s what I plan to do.