x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Reading aloud becomes a battle for a child's attention

Reading a book to a child is meant to be one of those sanctified times that stands out for parents. That's if you can get the child to sit still long enough.

Books stimulate a child's imagination, but there's a risk that at bedtime they may be more exciting than a parent would wish.
Books stimulate a child's imagination, but there's a risk that at bedtime they may be more exciting than a parent would wish.

Astrid and I spend at least five minutes every day in the deep, dark wood. It is an odd realm, inhabited by a mouse, a snake, a fox, an owl, a smattering of tenuous rhymes and a Gruffalo. The Gruffalo is a creature with "terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws", whose terror the mouse cunningly adopts and uses at various points in the story to evade all the bigger creatures which are trying to eat it. He was invented, it seems, with a rhyme scheme in mind.

Written in 1999 by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler, The Gruffalo has become very successful. It has sold more than 10 million copies, has been adapted as a play as well as an animated film produced by the BBC and voiced by a gaggle of famous actors. Despite being in its infancy as the fictional terrains of childhood go, the status of this particular deep, dark wood is slowing creeping up alongside more established regions such as Sodor (Thomas the Tank Engine), Middle Earth (The Lord of the Rings) and Narnia (The Chronicles of Narnia).

As bedtime reading, I am starting to find it a bit thin. Reading a book to a child before he or she goes to sleep is meant to be one of those sanctified times that stands out for parents from the hectic blur of a working day. It is a quiet few minutes for communion between parent and child. "Quality time" as the phrase goes. That's if you can get the child to sit still long enough to develop even a momentary rapport.

Reading a story to Astrid is a battle for her attention. She runs off, jumps up and down on the bed, tries to tear the pages of the book or chew its spine. She will do anything - including backflips and other acrobatics - not to sit still. While The Gruffalo's rollicking sentences and mellifluous rhymes might once have been sufficient to hold her attention, now they are starting to fail miserably.

I have started making up stories instead. Most of the time they involve parts of her body and also include Abu Dhabi. The former, such as telling a story about a herd of damp hair follicles in search of a way to get dry, I use to pin her to the spot and keep her attention. The latter is to maintain mine: incorporating Abu Dhabi makes the stories more interesting for me. However flippant and inane they may become, they are like oral histories of a particular time and place. They map territory that is unique and interesting to us.

That's one option. The other is to revert to older and more established children's classics, in particular ones that were read to me as a child. By roaming the same terrain that we roamed in childhood, we can share something familiar with our children. It does not matter how much time has passed nor how the world has changed: we can share a timeless and unchanged event. Children's classics are neutral zones. They are sanctuaries from shifting roles and responsibilities.

Astrid stands stock-still, mouth gaping wide, but apparently as soundless as an Edvard Munch painting. Then the volume swells. Perhaps it was always loud, but the pitch started at a frequency audible only to hypersensitive creatures such as dogs and bats. The sound is shrill, part primal scream, part sonic experiment. It lasts for a few seconds, ebbs away and then starts again. I've heard that these bouts of screaming are normal. Astrid is trying out her vocal cords like a prize fighter trying with different punches. She is taking them for a test drive. She is seeing what they can do.

Unfortunately, she has also noticed that we tend to pay more attention to her when she is screaming. I know you're not supposed to, but it is difficult not to when it is so loud and annoying. So the scream has become a form of communication. For about a week she has used it to signal that she wants something. Fortunately it has only lasted a week. Banging has taken over. Instead of screaming, she bangs her hands on the table or bashes her spoon on her bowl. It is much less vexing. Nevertheless I am looking forward to her learning to talk.