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We read books to my daughter from birth, which enriched all our lives

by Donna Ferguson, The Guardian
March 6, 2021


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‘She is nine years old now and an avid book reader’: Donna Ferguson with her daughter Flora. Photograph: David Yeo/The Observer

A difficult pregnancy meant the only item I dared buy for my unborn child was a book. When she arrived we read it to her every day.

Nine years ago, I gave birth to a little girl. And now that little girl has grown into a bookworm. It began, as all stories about books should really begin, in a bookshop. I was several months pregnant and I picked up an American picture book I had never come across before: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. It featured a poem that my husband and I would end up reading, oh, I don’t know, at least 900 times. The book became such a pillar of my daughter’s nightly routine that by the time she could talk, I realised she knew it by heart.

It also marked a turning point for me. I had been finding the pregnancy hard. Various complications meant it was high risk, and there was a good chance I would not manage to carry my baby to term. This knowledge weighed heavily in my heart while, in my womb, Flora was literally doing somersaults for the sonographers, happily oblivious to my concerns.

With every kick, I could feel her growing stronger and stronger, but I was still avoiding buying anything for her. It was so painful, my constant fear that I would lose her. I couldn’t face it each day, so I tried not to think about it. That meant I could not allow myself to imagine being a mum. Buying something for her felt too bold – as though I was assuming the pregnancy would be all right, that the birth would be fine, that she would be OK. And back then, that felt too scary. Like I was tempting fate.

But that book, Goodnight Moon, it got me. It is a poem, published in 1947, which stars a bunny who says goodnight to everything in the room. And I mean, literally everything that can be seen or heard: the stars, the air, a comb, a brush, a quiet old lady whispering, “Hush.” When I read it, it took me back to a long-forgotten sense of myself, as a child – that is how strongly the narrator’s voice seemed to me to come from the child’s perspective.

The page that I fell in love with – the page that made me buy that book, despite all my fears about my pregnancy – is the blank, empty page towards the end. That is when, unexpectedly, the poet turns to the emptiness and cheerfully says: “Goodnight nobody.” Like it’s perfectly normal to wish an empty page goodnight. On the opposite page, there is a bowl of porridge and the words: “Goodnight mush.”

The silliness and playfulness of that made me laugh out loud. This was a book I wanted to have in my possession; a book I knew I would love sharing with a child of my own. And suddenly I could imagine myself reading it to her, the child I was carrying, the little baby who, one day, I would get to meet. So I carried the little book gingerly to the till. It was the first real purchase I made for Flora and the first time I allowed myself to believe she would be born.

A few months later, she came hurtling into the world: small but healthy, and miraculously only a couple of weeks before her due date. And Goodnight Moon was waiting for her. I had become convinced after reading, in some self-help pregnancy book or other, that following a night-time routine was essential if you wanted the baby to go to sleep “easily”, and of course, as a first-time mum, I believed this without question.

Goodnight Moon, I decided, would be part of that nightly routine. It would be the final book my husband and I would read to her each night, the book that signalled we were about to say goodnight to her and turn off the light. With a book so powerful to help us put a baby to sleep, how could we possibly fail?

And so I began my relationship with my daughter with that book glued to my side like it was some kind of a talisman. As a result, my (poor, long-suffering) husband and I ended up reading Goodnight Moon to her so many times we could still recite it by heart for years afterwards. As well as at bedtime, we even started reading it to her before we put her down for a nap. It was as if I thought that book could cast some kind of magic spell on babies and on Flora in particular; that it would miraculously bring her closer to sleep with every “goodnight” uttered by that funny little bunny.

Of course, it did nothing of the sort. She rarely went to sleep “easily” and it was well over a year before she slept through the night.

But in unintended ways, my weird obsession with Goodnight Moon really paid off. It meant, almost without fail, we read to her each evening, and before nap time during the day, whenever we (desperately!) wanted her to go to sleep. That imposed a reading routine on the structure of her day very early on and, as her attention span increased, so did our library of little board books.

Soon we were reading three, four, five or six books to her, two or three times a day. It wasn’t always easy and I won’t deny that it felt odd at first, reading so often to such a young baby. But there is strong evidence that reading to children when they are infants can have a positive impact on their language, literacy and early reading skills years later on, when they’re about to begin primary school.

According to BookTrust, it’s never too early to start sharing books with a baby: “They might not understand the words, but they will love cuddling up, hearing your voice and looking at the pictures.”

This is a very important point, because for me, reading to Flora was never just about the literacy benefits. It was also about the bonding.

Reading books to my baby made me feel much closer to her. In among all the frantic activity of those first six to 12 months – the rushing around to baby classes, the interminable walks around the park while she slept in the pram, the whirlwind of visits from friends and family – the time we spent reading together became a quiet time I could look forward to each day. A time when I could sit down, relax and share my love of books with my child. A special time when it was just the two of us, and I didn’t have to be in “mum” mode, feeding her or dressing her or changing her nappy.

I could just be me: a book lover. And we could just enjoy being there, together, in the moment.

I began to take huge amounts of pleasure in reading aloud to her – something you rarely get to do in other circumstances as an adult. At last, I realised, I had a captive audience, who did not have the physical capacity to run away when I used my Silliest and Most Dramatic Reading Voices.

To this end, I sought out board books that would really allow me to go to town and express myself. My favourite, by far, was The Noisy Book by the French author and illustrator Soledad Bravi.

This book, recommended by the BookTrust for reading to ages zero and up, has a simple structure: each page shows a cartoon of a creature or object, and the writing opposite tells you what sound to make. “The cracker goes boom! The blocks go clackety clack! The cold goes achoo!” In total, there are 54 different examples of funny sounds to make and it’s up to you, the narrator, to choose the volume and convey the passion and sound of each noise.

There are funny little surprises in the middle (“the snail does nothing but move its elegant feelers”) and it ends delightfully, with a kiss that goes “mwah”.

I loved that book so much, instead of grabbing a moment to myself, I would often sit and listen to my husband read it to her, giggling at his version of a donkey’s hee-haw or a frog’s ribbet. I admired the way that the book changed with every narrator who read it, that you could really inject your personality in the words and have fun with the sounds. It brought out my own inner child.

Reading this book made me realise that my top priority when reading to Flora should be to choose books that would be fun to read – and I do mean: fun for me to read. I believed that if I enjoyed reading to her, Flora would inevitably start to enjoy it too.

She is nine years old now and an avid book reader. And every day I thank my lucky stars that she is in my life – and that we both love books.
 

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