Friday, July 27, 2012

Dog Days of Summer

I have a clear memory of my grandmother at a Fourth of July picnic commenting to the family that summer was half over when we celebrated that holiday. My young heart rejected this idea. Summer was just getting rolling. Hadn't I just gotten used to school being out and weren't there many, many weeks till Labor Day turned us back to the classroom again?

As we may be preparing for the next school season's studies and activities we may likely forget our child's perspective. Two weeks are a lifetime when you are young. I've written before about the hustle-bustle kind of summers many families spend today, comparing them to my reminiscence of long, lazy, slow, hot, endless summer days. If you read my posts even infrequently, you will recognize my soapbox of encouraging participation in reading and giving your children the time and space for that essential practice. Summer is perfect for this.

For after all, reading is a learned habit. It is an art that requires time to cultivate. Like playing the piano, reading doesn't just happen. For most children, it takes daily effort, work, and, well, repetition, to form that habit, increase ease, perfect the skill. Without being encouraged to acquire habit, most children will not acheive competence. Some children are seemingly "born" readers, but most of them need conscious cultivation, often for several years, before the desire to read becomes their own personal pursuit. Unlike the skill of riding a bike, which once learned is never forgotten, the art of reading, if gained at all, can be lost.

What's a parent to do? The book must have enough interest to motivate an unenthusiastic reader, and this requires a rich supply of absorbing literature to not only kindle interest, but continue to fuel that small flame  and keep it alive. If reading is ever to be not merely functional, actually pleasurable, nutritious and absorbing stories have to be on hand to offer. There's a long, long road between picture books and Jane Austen or Tolstoy.

Michelle Miller of Children's Preservation Library sympathizes that if you are dependent on the public library, it is no surprise that no one wants to read. The selection there is measly if you're looking for the book that will hook and keep a reader coming back for more. It is no wonder children, and their parents for that matter, are bored with the idea of reading a book. The overall public library mentality is to be relevant, provide material that matches the picture of how today's children are perceived. It is the attitude that Charlotte Mason lamented in society not viewing children as capable or worthy of anything great. Truly it could be compared to having children who don't like to eat so continuing to keep them alive with candy, then wondering why they are neither satisfied by candy or interested in food.

This website is dedicated to providing tasty morsels to keep children coming back for more. If your child can read, but you are always at a loss for worthy books, may I suggest you find some books by Jim Kjelgaard. Emily is always remarking, "you can't have enough dog stories in the library." Kjelgaard has provided more than his share of them for your children's reading pleasure. Most familiar of course is Big Red.

The tale of a boy and his dog is common enough, which may give us an important clue to what actually interests most children. For even children who have no instinctive liking for dogs can enjoy them in the pages of a good story. Big Red is the account of a boy who has lived in the wild, alone with his father whose self-sufficient lifestyle hasn't afforded Danny much need for the outside world. At his young age, however, Danny is a wealth of wisdom when it comes to survival, the every day battle for food, respecting nature, and accepting its harsh realities. This is a foreign world to most children of the twenty-first century, but that is part of the intrigue of the story. Contrary to popular opinion, children are captivated to discover experience different from their own. Danny's world is widened in this way as well when an exquisitely beautiful Irish setter befriends him. Later, the reader discovers this is a potentially priceless show dog whose owners don't appreciate the dog's infatuation with this backwoods boy. The plot thickens as Danny is drawn into the world of dog shows, but is still very much a part of the world where an infamous bear is terrorizing the county. Full of vivid descriptions of nature and human relationships, the story builds to high tension. Kjelgaard spins the tale to a breathtaking climax of danger, as Danny and this intelligent animal work together to use their combined wits in a life and death struggle. No boy or girl can resist being drawn in and will then want to read the further adventures of Danny and Big Red's offspring in Irish Red and Outlaw Red.

Jim Kjelgaard was one of five sons born in New York City to a physician and his wife, but moved to remote regions of Pennsylvania while still in diapers. There, he and his brothers lived "within a half-mile of all the fishing, hunting, and trapping a boy could wish for." He confessed that this early exposure to outdoor life and adventure continued to be his life-long passion. There's no doubt that it provided the experiences that were then so masterfully brought to life in his animal stories for children. The language is simple, but powerfully captivating. Among his dozens of dog stories, are more than forty books revolving around children and animals. He grew up learning more than wilderness survival because his insights into the human heart are acute and poignant.

Besides this wealth of accessible fiction, Kjelgaard also wrote non-fiction, historical fiction, and biographies. I can't resist remarking on his Story of Geronimo (one of the Signature series), which is our example of choice when presenting a talk on living books. It is a hands-down contest between a typical modern biography with its dry introduction to the tribes and geography of Geronimo's tribe, and Kjelgaard's description of a young Indian boy stealthily sneaking through the grass above the home of a powerful Indian chief whose horse he was preparing to steal. That's just the first page and no adult or child does not want to turn the page to find out if and how he accomplishes this feat. Just because these non-fiction offerings are available and valuable to supplement your child's history lessons, however, don't neglect the values your child needs to learn from Desert Dog, Snow Dog, Wolf Brother, Rebel Siege, Nose for Trouble, Stormy,  Forest Patrol...and on and on.

His life was short, not living to fifty. He never felt he had any particular calling or profession. Wandering from work as a laborer, teamster, factory worker, plumber's assistant, surveyor's assistant, he then pursued writing for children during the 1940's. He enjoyed bringing nature and adventure alive for young people. I'm so glad he did and can say that, from my perspective, his use of the pen was a most worthy and well executed skill. His books need to stock your fund of reading material to feed the habit of reading for months and years to come so your children can be readers for a lifetime.

For the joy of reading,

Liz

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