Storybook connections

Growing through reading

I had been bracing myself for the first day of school’s drive into town since last week, when I’d noticed workers blocking off a lane of traffic on our commute route to paint “BUS TAXI BIKE” indications. Getting to school on time had not been an easy feat in the past – and this was bound to make it even more of a challenge. Last year the traffic would start to back up by 7:50 a.m. Although taking the public bus into town is a possible solution, it would make the rest of my day more complicated. Much to my children’s dismay, instead of riding a bright yellow school bus like they’d seen back in Virginia, they were stuck with me, their white-knuckled chauffeur, who despite years of practice still dreads the stress of the school-morning commute on a daily basis.

On the first day of school I went to wake the children a few minutes early. I found Oliver unexpectedly standing in his room putting his clothes on in the dark. “Surprise,” he declared, “I’m going to be the first one ready today!” Although none of my three children had expressed excitement about going back to school, I was pleased that Oliver’s mood seemed cheerful. Anna Lee was also pleasant, if a little sleepy. She dressed in her new “American Girl” outfit, a pair of purplish below-the-knee leggings, a white tank top and a purple ballet-style sweater embroidered with the yellow silhouette of a dancer. She’d picked out the combination from the AG store we’d visited on our D.C. shopping trip; then had accidentally left the outfit in a drawer at my parents’ house. It’d come in the mail on Friday, and Anna was ecstatic she could show it off on the first day of school.

Only Samuel was distressed. On Sunday afternoon, while Anna Lee and Oliver had stocked their new art supply cases, sharpened their pencils and retrieved their lunchroom chips and key chains, Samuel had pouted. He wasn’t planning on going to school this year, he told me emphatically. He’d wait until he was a kindergartener, and then perhaps he’d go again. If he did go, he warned me; he certainly wasn’t going to sleep there after lunch. I assured Samuel that on the first day of school, he’d only have to stay one hour, just like the big kids. I figured we’d take it one day at a time. Since the first day of school for Czech children is officially only one hour long, it is often a celebratory day with parents taking time off work to take their children to an ice cream parlor or sweet shop after they meet their teacher.

Although I had declared the summer holiday a time for reading in English, at the request of their Czech school teachers, all three children had kept a journal in Czech of their favorite trips, activities or discoveries. On their first day of school, Anna Lee and Oliver packed their journals and a few pictures. Putting regular entries into the journals had required my repeated prompting, and in the end Oliver ended up with just five entries. Still, writing and illustrating the journals in the US had brought a bit of cross-over culture to the holiday.

This summer my children had also participated in the inaugural “Books on the Go” reading competition sponsored through the Class Acts multicultural organization in Prague. One of the Class Acts founders had devised the challenge in order to inspire children to read more in English over their summer holidays. Since many bilingual and multicultural kids attend Czech schools, there often isn’t enough time in the school year to do reading in both English and Czech. Not to mention reading in another language these children may have as a “home” language (German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian or Russian). The summer reading challenge encouraged each child to read at least 10 books in English. Emphasis was placed on participation, rather than competition, although a prize was to be awarded to both the Czech school and the international school with the most books read. There was no minimum length for the books, but a parent was required to sign the reading list.

Unlike with their Czech journals, I didn’t have to nag the kids much, if at all, to read in English. The contest itself was plenty of motivation for Anna Lee who began reading in June when the competition was announced. She soon had her ten books read and spent a good part of her vacation in America reading aloud one of my mother’s all-time favorites, “No Children, No Pets,” a story about three children and their mother who inherit an apartment building complete with sign – No Children, No Pets. Oliver was motivated to read in English because it meant he got an adult’s attention all to himself for the length of time he read. Still, he was curious if there would be a prize for finishing his ten books.

When we got to the awards ceremony which was held on the afternoon of the first day of school, my children and I were running low on energy. From the morning, we’d been moving in high speed. First, we’d rushed to school, though the traffic hadn’t been as bad as I’d feared, so we’d ended up arriving so early that we had to wait twenty minutes on the street until the school doors opened. Then, we’d hurried to the stationery shop to buy all the supplies their teachers had requested. Afterward, we’d stopped at an art school to register Anna Lee for a new art class. Finally, we’d driven across town in the rain to the Prague 2 park where the award ceremony was held.

Hungry, tired and a little bit cranky, the children hung on me and whined. Luckily, after I’d bought peanuts, pretzels and a drink to tide them over until we could find real food; they called all the children to the front of the pavilion to take a seat for story time. Story time was led by Jeff from Brown Box Books, one of the event’s sponsors. As Jeff read “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” and “The Lost Tooth Club,” I watched with other parents from a corner near the front. From my vantage point, I recognized the faces of children I hadn’t seen in a few years. Most were taller with longer hair and more mature faces. Many looked strikingly like their parents, whom I’d also not seen in years. Since Anna Lee had started the first grade, we hadn’t made as much time to go regularly to Class Acts events like the weekend puppet shows and storytelling that my children had loved as toddlers. It made me sad to realize how much time had passed since my kids had been with a group of other bilingual kids like themselves.

Story time was interactive, with children raising their hands to point out which tooth they’d lost or to respond to the question of whether they thought Miss Malarkey should go to school with a fever of 103.2. When Jeff asked the children if anyone knew what the word “DISCIPLINE” meant I could tell that some of the older children knew, but they weren’t quite confident enough to say it. At one point, Samuel was so interested in the story that he left his seat and went to sit on the floor directly in front of Jeff. From the smallest children like Samuel to middle-school pre-teens, they were all collectively absorbed in listening to the English stories. Watching them together, I was glad we’d made the effort to come.

By the time we left, both children had gotten their certificates for reading 10 books. Anna had also been awarded a new “Books on the Go” t-shirt and Oliver had earned a free zoo ticket. Yet, once in the car, when I asked them what their favorite part of the awards ceremony was, they all three answered: STORYTIME!

The trip back across town home didn’t seem to take as long as the trip there. Although at 6:30 p.m. the traffic was even worse than it had been at 3:30 p.m., at Oliver’s insistence we’d purchased the copy of “Miss Malarkey Won’t Be in Today,” from the storyteller. On the way home, Anna and Oliver took turns reading the book to Samuel and poring over the illustrations. When we got home, they each picked a bedtime story for me to read aloud.

I was grateful that the first day of school had gone smoothly. Since I know that school life and Czech culture will soon takeover our daily lives as well as most of our weekend free time, I was glad to set aside a couple of hours to recognize my children’s summertime English reading achievements. As my desktop calendar reminded me: “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are” — Mason Cooley.

For parents looking for English language books for their children in the Czech Republic, Class Acts has complied an extensive list of 13 Places to Find Children’s Books in English.

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