My young daughter sits on my lap as we flip through her Precious Moments storybook about the birth of Jesus. The room is quiet. She watches wide-eyed as I flip through the cardboard pages. Although it is a picture book, there are so many words that I have to paraphrase to stay within a young girl’s understanding.
I translate the elaborate sentences. The birth of Jesus in a stable—because there was no room in the inn—becomes, “The hotel was full, so baby Jesus was born in a barn with lots of animals.” The shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem is translated as, “There were grown-ups taking care of little lambs.” An angel appearing to shepherds and telling them of Jesus’ arrival becomes, “An angel told people about a baby named Jesus.” The wise men bringing Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is explained as, “People gave Jesus presents because they were very happy.” Biblical figures Mary and Joseph become “Jesus’ Mommy and Daddy.” The celebration of Jesus’ birth is “a big party for a tiny little boy.”
When I read through this simplified version of the Christmas story, I realize how uncomplicated the message is:
A young woman was chosen to have a special baby.
The baby was born to bless the entire world.
An angel appeared and encouraged people to welcome the baby.
People traveled for miles to bring gifts for the child.
The baby’s mother witnessed the wonderful celebration taking place for her young son.
People continue to celebrate this special baby today.
As my daughter and I snuggle in a rocking chair, I read the storybook to her for the seventeenth time. Even though I’ve been sharing it with her since before she could even hold a book, I am still amazed that this tale of a baby, angel, shepherds, wise men and young mom is a true story.
“Today you will know that the living God is among you. – Joshua 3:10
I understand your paraphrasing so your daughter will understand the message. This is especially important when the content is so important that you want to be sure the child understands.
I also believe that it is important to read complex “college-level” or “adult-level” (*not* X-rated “adult”) literature to young children in the mix of all you read to them. Even though the young child will not understand all of the higher level reading, they will become used to the structures and forms of formal English. This will prepare them for more formal language when they come across it and when they start reading for themselves.
I did this with my own children, mixing in “Lord of the Rings”, Shakespeare, and even “Moby Dick” when my children were very young. I did not expect them to understand all, but they loved the time together and the attention. Reading time continued into middle school. Once they started to read in K or 1st grade, I sometimes had to tell them that they were doing a good job, but they had to read the words that were actually written on the page. They had a good feel for how stories are structured and, rather than take the time to decode all the written words, they skipped words and filled in their own.
All our children read very well. When they got to Shakespeare in high school, they only needed to check in with us to confirm that they were understanding what they were reading. Their choices of recreational reading spanned a very wide range, including Dante (the Ciardi translation – very good). Even as young adults, their reading covers a wide range of literature.
In summary, I strongly encourage reading to children, both “children’s books” and more complex, formal English literature as a foundation for full literacy. (BTW, this is important for deaf children, too. The strategies are a bit different.)
David – Thank you for telling me about your experiences. Good for you in promoting literacy and a love for reading. Who knows? Maybe some of our kids that we’re reading to will go on to explore careers in writing, journalism, or one of the professions profiled in the books you read to them. Storytelling involves imagination that can’t be matched by watching TV shows, playing video games, and shopping at the mall.
Keep spreading the word!