Meet the Author Mem Fox was born in Australia, grew up in Africa, studied drama in England, and returned to Adelaide, Australia, in 1970. She was an associate professor of education at Flinders University in Adelaide, where she taught teachers for 24 years. She has written more than 40 books for children, including Possum Magic, Time for Bed, Whoever You Are, The Magic Hat, and, most recently, Two Little Monkeys and Tell Me About Your Day Today. She has also written several books for adults, including her best-selling book for parents, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever. Her picture book Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was on the New York Times best-seller list for 18 weeks in 2008–2009, and its Italian-language edition won best book for young children at the 2010 Turin International Book Festival. Her books have been translated into 19 languages. Meghan Dombrink-Green: Have you found that adults—parents and teachers—respond differently to your books than children do? Mem Fox: Yes, they do. Adults may love the book for totally different reasons from the reasons that the child loves it. For example, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge makes adults sob, but children love it for completely different reasons. It’s about a clever little boy who does great things in the neighborhood, and he’s very pleased with himself, and he finds an old lady’s memory. The adult audience is thinking about it as when parents lose their memories. They just go to pieces with that book. The book appeals to readers on two different levels.
Meghan Dombrink-Green is an associate editor at NAEYC.
Mem Fox will be giving the opening keynote address at NAEYC’s Annual Conference & Expo in Atlanta on Wednesday, November 7. She will also be presenting a session on Thursday, November 8. Meghan: I heard Isabel Baker of The Book Vine for Children read aloud Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes at an NAEYC conference session a few years ago. Lots of people in the audience were familiar with the book, and they wanted to join in with her as she read aloud. There was repetition and familiar words. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how repetition works in read-alouds and how it helps children learn to read.
Mem: I think that rhyme, rhythm, and repetition are incredibly important in books for small children. Repetition and rhythm probably even more than rhyme. All of those three elements are mesmerizing for a start. When children are born, they’ve been used to the mother’s heartbeat in the womb. When they’re born, they’re rocked and cradled. There is the rhythm of life itself. There’s rhythm in the nursery rhymes and songs that are sung to children very early on. And those
rhythms and rhymes and repetitions morph into children’s books, which are like a bridge from spoken language to the written language. The repetition, rhyme, and rhythm in written language then morphs into more normal language. It’s like a stage of learning. I’ve said all of that as a writer, but I’m a teacher as well. As an educator, I know that if children cannot learn the skill of predicting what’s going to come next in language, they can’t learn to read. They have to know what’s coming next in a sentence. They have to expect what’s going to be the next word or the next phrase. Otherwise they might read a sentence as, “He galloped away on his house.” He or she might not know that doesn’t make sense. But a child who can read “galloped” will know that it’s going to be horse next and not house. The child can predict what it’s going to be. So a child can predict the next word and then check it with the print.
Meghan: Do you have any specific ideas or suggestions about how teachers can help parents with reading aloud?
Mem: Read aloud to parents. It’s the only way. Read aloud for the absolute hysterical delight of it, to have a lot of joy, a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, a lot of noise, a lot of joining in, a lot of craziness, a lot of oh-my-gosh-you’rejust-going-to-love-this-book, listen to this, it’s hilarious, read this book. Young Children • September 2012
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Don’t do any direct teaching at all. Just demonstrate brilliant reading aloud. When you have heard a book read aloud—the way Isabel read Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes—you know how to read it. You’ve been made familiar with it. You hear it. You think, Oh my gosh I love that book, and I love the way that woman read it. Then you read it like that forever after. You always read a book in the way that you first heard it read. I think we need to look at parents as good friends and equals. If we did that, we could have a ball reading ten picture books in one sitting and showing how reading aloud is one of the best things parents can do for their children. It’s the best thing parents can do if they want their children to learn to read and write easily, happily, and quickly. It is the greatest gift you can give them. And people should not try to teach their children to read. They can play with words, but they should never make the read-aloud into a teaching session. That’s not its purpose. That’s
what will happen. It will teach, but that’s not the purpose of it. The purpose is to love your children and love being with them. It spoils something about literature when parents use it to teach. Teachers teach. Parents love. And out of love comes better teaching than the teachers can provide between you and me.
Meghan: Can you talk about why it’s so important that children see troubled realities with fairy tales and complex characters?
Mem: If they don’t read about those things, the real world is going to be a shock to them. It is going to throw them. They will be left wondering, what’s resilience? What’s courage? What’s cruelty? What’s kindness? They won’t understand the psychological world if they haven’t met troubled realities in literature. My grandson is two-and-a-half, and one of his favorite books once belonged to his mother, our daughter. It’s a nonfiction book about elephants, and it’s very, very simple. On one
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page it says the leader of the herd is very old. A young elephant fights him. The young elephant wins. The young elephant is now the leader of the herd. The old elephant goes away. My grandson is absolutely heartbroken by that even though it’s nonfiction. He puts his hands over his face. He sighs, “Oh.” I say, “We don’t have to stay on the same page. If you’re upset, you can always turn the page.” So we turn the page and read a few pages. Then he says, “The leader of the herd again.” Every time we read that book, we read those three pages about five times. We read the rest of the book once, but those three pages get read five times because he’s learning about life.
Meghan: You’ve written about reading to young children, especially boys, in Reading Magic and how it can sometimes be hard when they’re between the ages of 12 and 18 months.
Mem: Yes, because they’re exploring the world, and they don’t want to sit still. But that’s only the children who have never been introduced to books.
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Meghan: Can you talk about the bonds between parents and children that come from reading aloud?
Mem: Parents get to know their children through the way they read to their children and what they’re reading. Parents get to know their children’s character, and children get to know their parents. There’s a fondness that develops that’s just gorgeous. Meghan: When reading to their children, how can parents expand on the book or text or the words in a book?
We mustn’t expect that children who’ve never heard a book will love a book straightaway. It’s an acquired thing—but easily acquired. The younger we start, the more easily acquired the love of books is. If we’re introducing books to older children who aren’t used to readalouds, it really has to be done when they’re ready to pass out, when they’re so tired they don’t know what they’re doing and they have no energy for anything else. Either when they’re asleep in the back seat of the car or when they’re just about to drop off at naptime or bedtime. When I go into a classroom to read to the children, I know within an instant whether they’ve been read to regularly by the teacher. I notice their lack of attention or the time that it takes me to get them together. But by the end of a read-aloud session, they’re absolutely hanging on every word. By then, I’ve read six or seven books, and they understand that being read to is divine. Also, the size of a book, its shape and texture, matter a lot. It also means that e-books, no matter how brilliant they are, will never replace the picture book. I love e-books, and I’m crazy about technology. I’m not anti e-book at all. I’m just saying it will never ever replace the real picture book. I’m antitechnology when children play alone with it, when there’s no interaction and no love.
Mem: The book will initiate conversations that go for miles, that go on this detour and that. They talk about the world and the way it works, relatives who live close by or don’t, things that happen during the day. The book is a pathway to the rest of the world, to a huge conversation about what’s going on in the child’s life. Meghan: How can parents of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers encourage a love of reading in a developmentally appropriate way?
Mem: What is developmentally appropriate is to read from birth and keep doing it. Start from birth with the right book and know your child. Know what they can stand, know whether they need a very short book or not. You have to know your child, and you have to know your books.
Finding the right book is about asking friends, asking librarians, and asking teachers. It’s about looking online at blogs by people who love children’s books, read them to their children, and blog about it. I think people will be surprised by what their children like and don’t like. Our grandson loves this book about a witch and a cat, but neither my husband nor I can bear reading it to him. You can never account for what they want, but you have to go with their taste. I’m also very, very surprised at what my grandson can stand in terms of length. The Goblin and the Empty Chair is not appropriate for his age group. He doesn’t understand what it means. He can’t possibly know what a goblin is, a farmer, or farmer’s wife. He can’t know what a reflection is. He can’t know what a “still pond” is, and yet he is absolutely mesmerized by that book. He will not move a muscle when I read that book. It may just be the rhythm of the language. I don’t know what it is, but he loves it. I would’ve said that that was a book for 5- to 7-year-olds. So just because a book is long doesn’t mean to say that the child won’t like it. Conversely, just because a book is short doesn’t mean a child will like it.
Meghan: Can you tell us about your two new books, Two Little Monkeys, which came out in May, and Tell Me About Your Day Today, published in September, about a boy who talks to his stuffed animals about his day?
Mem: I’m thrilled about Two Little Monkeys for two reasons: number one, I grew up in Africa and it’s a very African book; and number two, it’s the kind of book that I know children will learn to read by because of its repetition and rhythm. They’ll absolutely learn to read by it. It’s impossible not to chant along with that book. Also, it’s got a very scary page in it, which I think is once again the troubled reality that children need to face.
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I know that lots of children have a special toy, and I love the idea of a child telling the toys and the toys telling the child about their days.
without teaching. Just read. I don’t write the books to teach reading. I write the books to inform, to comfort, to delight, and to challenge.
Meghan: You taught at university for 24 years. What is something that you always made sure to do in your classes?
You know when you ask children “What happened today?” they often say nothing happened. In Tell Me About Your Day Today, I wanted to nudge children into remembering that when they are dropping off to sleep they can look back on the day and think about all the things that happened.
Mem: You know, when I was teaching university students, I used to teach three-hour sessions, and people used to think, Oh my, three hours. How can we last three hours? But always within those three hours I made sure that I had read to the class at least three times—a poem, an excerpt, a children’s story, a short chapter of a book, something. I wanted the students to love being read to so that they would read to their students. I read aloud to students even though they were aged between 19 and 45. So, never stop reading aloud, no matter what the age group is, and read
Copyright © 2012 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at www.naeyc.org/yc/permissions.
Young Children • September 2012
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