Books Create a Platform for Conversations

Published on April 19, 2020

by Ellen Galinsky

Forever Memories emerge during unexpected times, times that herald a change—where the “after” is not the same as the “before,” and times that challenge us to adapt.Most of us will have forever memories of COVID 19, similar to the kind of memories we have for events like 9/11 or when President Kennedy was shot. Given the stress everyone is under, it would be easy for us to lose sight of the kind of memories we want to create for our children and ourselves. That’s why I am sharing stories from families who are thinking intentionally about this. These stories can inspire us all.

A grandmother has a regular story time with her 4 ½ year-old granddaughter

Before Covid 19, they had family phone calls on Sundays.

After Covid 19, Colleen (or Lulu as she is called) and her granddaughter Clara have video calls together almost every day.

Holding up her fingers, Clara, four-and-a-half-year-old, counted off the days they have story time:

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but not Sunday.

Lulu adds, “We still usually talk on Sundays but we don’t have story time.”

Having story time was Clara’s mother’s suggestion and Lulu was all in. She went to her own bookshelves for a first book and found Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. It had been Clara’s mother’s book when she was a child and even had her name written in crayons inside the book. What a fitting first book!

Lulu had intended to read stories with pictures but found that Clara really enjoyed chapter books. From Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, they moved onto others, including Roald Dahl and The BFG. Clara’s mom had her doubts, worrying that it would be too frightening, but when I joined Lulu and Clara by video after story time, Clara proudly told me:

It wasn’t scary for me!

Clara then retold the story, including some of scary parts:

One giant snatches a little girl from her bed and brings her to Giant Land. Her parents died when she was a baby. The giants like to eat up human beings. The girl’s name is Sophie. They went to London and had a royal breakfast with the Queen.

Lulu told me:

There was some strong editing that happened with this book but I got the story across.

When I asked Lulu for suggestions she would give to others who want to have video story time, she said it was important to give choices about books so she selects several and Clara decides. Clara agreed, telling me:

I LIKE to decide!

Because there aren’t many pictures in chapter books, Clara draws while she listens to the stories. As she held up her drawings for me to see, she said knowingly:

Lulu likes watching me do art.

Another suggestion from Lulu is to create a predictable routine. Story time begins precisely at 9:30, though Lulu signs on a little early, so she is there when Clara and her father join the call. Lulu said:

Sometimes Clara isn’t ready for the story when I sign on, so I wait.

Her third suggestion is to have lots of conversation. The books are really are opportunity to talk. She said:

The discussions we have are the most important. Let the discussions be free-flowing—ask questions, listen and be open to whatever that day is going to bring.

Ending on time is also a key to their success. Lulu says that a half an hour is the right amount of time for Clara but is too long for another younger grandchild she reads with.

When it is time to end story time, they also have a routine:

We blow kisses, wave, say goodbye and then we hang up.

Clara added:

I know how to hang up!

Lulu reflected:

It’s funny. In the beginning, this was about crafting a routine to replace school but it has turned into so much more.I want to continue even when school starts again. I like knowing what my grandchildren are doing every day, I like being part of their everyday lives.

Study after study finds that reading with children is a powerful force in their lives and a pathway to better communication skills. Catherine Snow of Harvard University explains that young children can play with toys by themselves but not books. While, they can look at books, but they need adults to help them name the pictures, describe the action, and explain what’s going on:

The book is clearly something that adults have to help children appreciate. A book creates a platform on which the conversation takes place. This is one of the reasons why research shows that families in which children are read to regularly are families whose children are more likely to arrive at school ready to learn, with bigger vocabularies and a greater capacity to participate effectively in classrooms. It’s because they’ve had this kind of focused conversation with adults.