phd mama

from diapers to deconstruction


Reading Empathy

There are many reasons to read; typically, literacy education emphasizes young children learning to read so that later in their scholastic careers they can read to learn. Information retrieval is a significant feat, and one, it turns out, that most students aren’t that good at. I think reading for pleasure—or, more to the point—joy, is at least as important as reading for fact-finding.

It turns out that reading fiction in particular can also develop audiences’ empathy. Dr. Keith Oatley finds that the more readers are moved by fictional characters, the more those same readers are likely to help others in the real world. I’m not surprised by his results, since fiction helps transport us to other cultures and often, through narrative choices, gives us the perspective of characters we’d otherwise never encounter.

In response to Oatley’s study, I’ve devised some interesting reading experiments for my preschooler. We start with a fairytale or folktale in an “authoritative” edition (though by no means does that mean that the story is without history or history of revisions) and then read multiple revisions of the same story. So, one trajectory looks something like this:

  1. Read Paul Galdone’s The Three Little Pigs, in which a mother pig sends her offspring out into the world and only the clever piglet survives the wily wolf.
  2. Read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith. Here, a genteel wolf explains that the classic folktale is really a colossal misunderstanding. In his defense, it all started with granny’s birthday cake.
  3. Read The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury. The title makes the role reversal clear here, but the ending provides less trickery, less conspiracy theorizing, and more compassion. These wolves are serious about security, and they’re imaginative builders too.
  4. Read Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Walls for a loosely-inspired (if that) but excellent story about a girl and a pig puppet who outsmart a houseful of wolves.
  5. Watch Silly Symphony’s “The Three Little Pigs” for a distinctly historicized glimpse of Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930’s. Using music to propel the narrative and provide characterization, this story provides a less fatal but perhaps more cruel rendition of the classic tale.
  6. Listen to Lucienne Vernay’s song “Le Grand Méchant Loup,” which provides a French version of the little pigs’ story. Her music is charming, vibrant, and memorable—and it illustrates how this story, like so many, changes in each retelling.

These stories can inspire empathy, evoke joy, and change us in each retelling, too. By highlighting narrative shifts in perspective, this experiment allows readers to see each character in multiple ways. It reminds us that there’s more than one side to every story, that stories and their characters are complex, and that sometimes, perspective is everything.

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Alternative ABC’s

I love alphabet books, the traditional sort as well as those listed below, each of which provides a twist on the standard format for the genre.  I like to think of these as making the familiar strange, taking something as easy as ABC and looking at it in a new way; that process reminds me that the alphabet is an invention, with a history of its own, and that at one point it was considered a technology. At the very least, this list makes me appreciate how much easier it is to learn the Roman alphabet than it would have been to learn hieroglyphics.

  1. Alphabet City, by Stephen Johnson; using urban photographs, Johnson finds unexpected letters in the cityscape. It reminds me of the way children see shapes and letters in unpredictable ways before grownups train the creativity out of them.
  2. The Dangerous Alphabet, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Gris Grimly; set in rhyming couplets, Gaiman’s wonderfully creepy alphabet world follows two children on a treasure hunt.
  3. Eating the Alphabet, Lois Ehlert; I love Ehlert’s bold, colorful collage style. Here she covers the pages from A-Z with delicious fruits and vegetables that look good enough to eat.
  4. A Fabulous Fair Alphabet, by Debra Frasier; this text recreates the stimulation of attending the fair with simple shapes and bright colors exploding on each page; find the letters in fair-friendly terms splayed across each spread in images as delightful as a trip to the fair itself.
  5. The Graphic Alphabet, by David Pelletier; each letter in Pelletier’s text visually represents a corresponding concept; some are strange, some abstract, but all of them display a starkly modern look at the alphabet. Letter “I” is my favorite.
  6. The Handmade Alphabet, by Laura Rankin; Rankin’s book shows the letters of American Sign Language. Each page shows a hand forming the letter and an image that illustrates something hands can do. Sometimes strange and weirdly disembodied, this book draws new attention to body language.
  7. I Spy: An Alphabet in Art, by Lucy Micklethwait; densely packed with images, this book lets the readers invent the alphabet. I love the way that each reader can create and invent from the same picture—“j for jewelry” or “n for necklace” to show language’s possibilities.
  8. LMNO Peas, by Keith Baker; playing on that tongue twister from the traditional alphabet song, Baker’s whimsical book looks at a crowd of peas with all kinds of interesting hobbies and professions.
  9. Museum ABC, by The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; following the standard “A is for Apple” format, this book quickly departs from the norm by showing 4 pictures for each letter. Close-ups of famous artworks illustrate that even “A is for apple” is open to interpretation.
  10. Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet, written by Don Robb and illustrated by Anne Smith; as the title indicates, this book tells the history of the alphabet. I like the attention to the story behind each letter, and it reminds me that even the deceptively-simple letters come from somewhere.
  11. Superhero ABC, by Bob McLeod; casting each letter as a superhero, McLeod using a comic-style of illustration to turn the alphabet into a silly, sweeping adventure.
  12. The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg; in “26 acts,” Van Allsburg raises the curtain on each letter and its terrible fate. Each page depicts a letter, and readers must turn the page to discover the corresponding text, making this a page-turning mystery from cover to cover.

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Embodied ABC’s


(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)

Embodied ABC’s

There are some amazing alphabet books out there (more on that here), but small children learning their ABC’s often benefit from more embodied educational approaches. Being able to handle, create, and manipulate letters provides children with ways to connect their incredible physical energy with their busily whirring brains. Uniting body and mind enhances the images children see on the pages of alphabet books, and makes letters come alive—not as static pictures but as living language.

Here are some strategies for working with the alphabet beyond books:

  1. Use pipe cleaners to form the letters.
  2. Twist letters out of Play-dough.
  3. Play with Scrabble or Upwords tiles (with or without the game boards).
  4. Put alphabet magnets on the fridge or in the bathtub.
  5. Write letters on the side of the tub with foam soap.
  6. Draw letters in the sand or in the dirt with a stick.
  7. Try to turn your whole body into each letter.
  8. Trace each letter with your finger on your child’s back.
  9. Make cookies (or Play-dough shapes) with alphabet cookie cutters.
  10. Learn the ASL alphabet.

As you try these, embrace imperfections and incompleteness, and keep in mind that learning to craft letters with a writing implement requires significant patience, practice, and highly-developed motor skills. Experiment with these, but don’t force it. If you draw the entire alphabet in the sand and your kid stomps all over it, be cool. That’s learning too, and most importantly, it’s fun.

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Winter Reads


(This image is actually mine; they’re from Walk with Me Photography unless otherwise noted).

Nothing says joy like children in the snow–tasting fresh flakes, building forts and snowballs and snowmen, flopping to the ground to carve out angels. But when their fingers get too chilly, head inside for a cup of cocoa and some great stories that celebrate the season. Here are 10 (well, technically 11) of my favorites, with each one highlighting the beauty of winter in all that we can do and see; there’s even a little mystery underneath that pristine white blanket.

  1. Bear Snores On, written by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman: a rhyming story about a hibernating bear and the festive friends who awaken him from his seasonal slumber
  2. Down the Hill,” from Frog and Toad All Year, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel; a misadventure for friends Frog and Toad, where Toad learns that bed really is the best
  3. Dream Snow, written and illustrated by Eric Carle; Carle’s signature collage style takes a holiday twist as a farmer gets his white Christmas
  4. The Mitten, written and illustrated by Jan Brett; a Ukranian folktale about love, sharing, and staying warm
  5. No Two Alike, written and illustrated by Keith Baker; as unique as snowflakes, and the other wintery standouts illustrated in Baker’s tale
  6. Over and Under the Snow, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal; shows the two different worlds separated by that fluffy frozen stuff
  7. Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoehnerr; a journey into the night woods and a quiet quest to see an owl
  8. A Perfect Day, written and illustrated by Carin Berger; the snow day of every child’s dreams, packed with playful delights and charming scenes
  9. Red Sled, written and illustrated by Lita Judge; hear the sounds of a red sled come to life as animals and its owner put it through its paces
  10. Winter Days in the Big Woods and Winter on the Farm, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Renee Graef; discover the simple care, love, and joy of two 19th-century American families working their way through winter

Follow Me: @ErinWyble