Like many parents who really want their children to enjoy the pleasures of the word, I spend a good bit of energy reading to my boys and trying to make it fun and meaningful. Sometimes this just requires not being oblivious to the shoo-in interests like fire engines, but sometimes it means unearthing the kids’ less obvious curiosities while identifying story features that they like or dislike.
So I’ll notice that my kids enjoy stories that present monkeys or opportunities to break into song. And I watch for that slight shift in my older son’s manner, feeling as much as seeing how deeply affected he can be by an angry expression or frightening scene, and modify accordingly my firewall for deferring such material for when he is better able to moderate its effects.
Given the subtleties that can accompany this parental literary exercise, I was rather surprised when I recently asked my older son what he liked about a particular story, and the answer he gave was “Long pages”. Although I routinely read stories to my son that are “recommended” by the publisher for older children, I just hadn’t thought that he might like stories with… lots of words on a page.
“Long pages” thus sent me on a hunt for chapter books earlier than I expected. Although I had been keeping tabs on chapter book suggestions gleaned here and there, the stories I had noted contained content that was overly mature for my just-turned four year old boy.
Instead of turning to the computer to find more possibilities, I looked over our existing stash more carefully and found Down Tumbledown Mountain by Elisabeth Coatsworth, written in 1958. Apparently Coatsworth was a prolific writer and winner of the Newbery Medal, but I didn’t know that when I happened upon the worn hardcover at the fun fair of my son’s future school. Mostly I picked it up because I liked the cover (so green!) and its illustration.
Well, I love this book, and luckily so does my son. There are 13 chapters, and the first time we read it, which took about 40 minutes, it comfortably held his attention throughout. Most of the two-page spreads contain an illustration, and he quickly learned to settle in and wait through the few that had none.
The story recounts the adventures of a boy named Randall as he rides a mule down the mountain where he lives, to reach the miller who will grind the corn his mother needs to make for corn bread for dinner that evening.
What’s special about it? The closeness between the mother and her son, mostly, and how it’s communicated gently and without saccharine mush. Early in the story, while Randall’s mother tells him about all the “pretty things” he’ll see on his trip, Randall realizes that his mother wishes to go down the mountain herself. He suggests that she ride the mule ahead of him down the path. But his mother has many chores; she can’t go. Randall then commits to do for her the most that he can: “I’ll remember every pretty thing I see and tell you about it when I get home, Ma.”
Most of the remaining chapters each outline one of the ten things Randall wants to relay to his mother. Using each of his fingers to help him remember, Randall’s offerings span from some pretty birdsong (Randall can see the bird’s throat shaking), to joining the neighbours who dance to a fiddle to get the stiffness out of their backs from working their fields all day, to news of a road construction that will lessen his family’s isolation on the mountain.
I love the simplicity of the book, and its depiction of a way of life so different and more difficult than our own. I love that Randall finds pleasure and a place for both the small and big pieces of news he will bring back to his mother, and that his ways of seeing are informed by her presence and the slower pace of their lives.
And, of course, I love the book because it’s my first chapter book with my boy. It wasn’t an especially intentional selection, but it has panned out beautifully.
One unexpected windfall is that my son has been learning to count using his fingers along with Randall who uses them to spur his memory. And! We get to break into song throughout the story – verses of “The Swapping Song” are peppered throughout the book, and reproduced with a musical score at the book’s end.
So much of the current literature on parenting revolves around what feels like a false dichotomy between the independence and dependence of children. To me, the real magic rides along with Randall down Tumbledown Mountain, in the easy interdependence of a loving family.
Do you remember the first chapter book you read to your child? What chapter books would you recommend?