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The Good Ones Last
On Reading Aloud and Creativity
The magic of books has come alive in a deeper way in our family. We’re losing sleep with inspiration and ideas. Tonight it is almost 10pm and as I walk by my daughter’s room, she whispers out to me just one more thought that isn’t quite coherent, but I answer “yes” just so she’ll go to sleep. We have decided that our Halloween costumes will be from our new favourite book that has wrapped us all up into it. My son asks me during the day if we can make all our reading times for the day of “Hugo Cabret” (we have a few read aloud times throughout the day) as he is entranced by the clockworks and the intricate workings of the automaton that the young boy is stealing parts for from the train station toy store.
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We go to our public library often. The kids head straight to the picture books, graphic novels, and non-fiction. As they mingle I scan the novels. There are always some featured books on display, and one in particular catches my attention. It is huge: it’s over 500 pages. I wonder how this can be a children’s novel? Then, as I open it, I realize that this book is unique. The hand-drawn black and white images tell the story as much as the words do. As I open it, the pages lay flat in my hand. I see the stitches between the signatures and know that the publisher took care and attention in the design and feel of the book. I look to the front pages and see that this library book is a first edition. It has held up to 15 years of library use if they’ve had it since publication. As I look through I begin to remember the story. I’d seen the movie before. Scanning through the initial images, the author/illustrator draws me in through vignettes of the scene and through the eyes. I call out across the bookshelves as I stand with the book open in my hands “Hey kids, I know you’re going to love this one…” They don’t quite understand yet, but they will. The book is “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick.
The book sits on our window ledge behind the breakfast nook for a few weeks, the eyes on the spine staring at me each morning while we drink our tea and eat our oatmeal, waiting for the right day. The night we finally remove it from the shelf and begin, we have to huddle close to study and follow the images and the opening of the story. Often they are doing flips on the couch or drinking tea, or working on a marble set as I read. But each night as we read this book we are close, hanging on to each word and image together as we discover the world of young Hugo Cabret, who lives alone in the train station winding the clocks, and stealing parts from the toy seller, George Méliès.
Selznick’s book is beautiful to hold. It’s extra thick with over 200 illustrations and is over 500 pages long. The illustrations are used somewhere between a graphic novel and a picture book, with full page black and white images. It is refreshing to read and rare to enjoy such a beautifully crafted story by someone who writes as well as illustrates.
You can probably tell that this story has not just drawn the kids in, it has drawn me in as well. I’ve been reading aloud to the kids for their whole lives, but my passion for it took a deeper dive in the last 6 months as I’ve realized reading aloud as a foundational part of our homeschooling day. I am embodying the story, expressing the characters’ emotions with my voice as I’d never thought I’d be doing.
Over the course of the summer, after much reading aloud time I’ve seen a gradual change in my kids. I’ve been intentional about what books I choose to read to my children, pushing their attention spans just a little bit more with each new book, but also choosing books that interest me as well. C.S. Lewis aptly notes about stories that “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.” Now I’m enjoying so many great children’s books that I never got to as a child.
When we started “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” we did not know that it was historical fiction. Along the way, among the illustrated images by the author there was an actual photograph. It was an image from (p 174) an old movie of a man hanging from the arm of a clock. And then, in the centre of the book, there is another photograph that is vaguely familiar — the image of the face of a man in the moon with a rocket in his eye. In part 2 of the book there are more images of a totally different style than the author’s. The the main character, Hugo, heads to the Académie du Cinéma Français and more historical movie titles come up and we find out that the man that Hugo knows is actually George Méliès, an early prolific filmmaker. The hand-drawn image at the centrefold then turns up as the picture of the moon from the movie “A Trip to the Moon,” and the other images are his sketches from scenes from many of his movies. That night I stayed up late researching George Méliès, and watched his film “A Trip to the Moon.” Many of his movies were destroyed but it is his earliest surviving one.
The next day as we kept reading, the kids got so excited to find out that it was based on an actual movie that they could watch. I sat them down at my laptop to watch the 15 minute film made in 1902. I was surprised that they watched it. I was wondering if they would think it was boring, since the pace and style is so different from movies today. They commented afterwards that it was boring, but they watched the whole movie. It was hard to see detail as there were so many characters in the first scene, there was no dialogue, and the only audio was a score played along with the movie.
We were all the more engrossed in the book the next time we sat down together, excited to see what would happen next. I have always loved historical fiction, but reading it with my children brought a whole new appreciation for it as I explained to them what it meant, and what characters are real and which ones are not.
There are so many questions raised throughout the story: Why is Hugo all alone in a train station? Why is he winding the clocks? Why is there a mechanical man in his room? Why is George Méliès so interested in Hugo’s notebook and threatening to burn it? The effect of using images and text is strong in the story, sparking the imagination to ask even more questions. Why did Hugo’s dad die? How does Hugo know how to put together mechanical parts?
A book that has influenced me in my approach to learning with my children is “The Read Aloud Revival” by Sarah Mackenzie.” She goes in depth about the benefits of reading aloud to children. Part of my early strategy in homeschooling has been to create as much pleasure and joy in learning and spending time together to set the tone as we grow our routine. I was reassured when she said that it isn’t always best to talk about every book so as not to lose “that all important pleasure connection,” to “trust that the book can speak directly to your child, even if you never intervene with a conversation of discussion” (p. 160), and to focus most of all on “plant[ing] seeds and step[ping] aside” (p. 162).
I like to choose stories with images for the evening. Looking back, I see that it did have the opposite effect that I was looking for. Each night after reading, the kids, especially my daughter, could not wind their brains down. My daughter was flooded with creativity. I would tell her to write down or draw her ideas so that she could work on her projects the next day, but sometimes she could not stop and would be up late. The character Hugo Cabret’s desire is to finish putting together an automaton to reveal a message he hopes is from his father. He faces many obstacles along the way. I now see how this story planted a seed in my daughter’s mind. It began to grow right away. In addition, my son became even more fascinated by his marble set. Every single morning for a few weeks he would wake up and first thing begin building and creating new routes for his marbles. He was embodying the story in his own way. It was a turning point in our early days of homeschooling for them to delve more deeply into their interests and to have the freedom to do it. I mentioned to a neighbour recently that their creativity has skyrocketed in the last month, not yet making the connection of the seed that was planted through the story. While we were reading, I could feel the energy and I knew we all loved it, that is where we began and continue to grow. Every room in our house has become a project zone, and while part (ok, most) of me wants everything to be tidy, I can’t help but feel the joy that this is the atmosphere I was hoping to create for them, and at the same time it has freed me up to release my own creativity as well.
A recipe to go with the book
Most evenings we take the time to read together on the couch before bed. Since we started reading more chapter books we’ve started to drink herbal teas together as well. The kids see me drink a lot of tea throughout the day. They see me dry my own herbs and collect them out in the field or on the trail. And now they’ve started to do it all as well. I love to blend my own teas. I have a pantry full of individual herbs and each season I blend up a jar of what I find my body craves as a new season begins. We read “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” in the late summer/early fall. My son loves liquorice root (he’ll sneak it from the pantry like candy), so that was his specific request and I love to add chamomile to help wind the kids down in the evening. For the main flavours we also used lemongrass and hibiscus. If you are inspired and you’d like to blend up your own batch, here is my rough recipe.
Late Summer Tisane
3 parts lemongrass
3 parts chamomile
1 part hibiscus
1/2 part liquorice root
Over the last year, I wrote a column for my local paper on non-alcoholic drinks. If you’d like to read some more about tea blending and a bit of the art behind it you can find another article here.
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