Mother Goose leads to the classics

Some suggestions for parents from Lee Bennett Hopkins, noted author of some 50 books of fiction and poetry for children. Better see that your child has a library card. Hear Hopkins on the subject: "If you don't have a library card, you don't have entrance into the world of books. It leads to a very unsavory childhood in my opinion."

Mr. Hopkins, who grew up poor and fatherless in Newark, N.J., is startled and saddened by any statistic that shows how children and books have ceased to be good friends. Books, "the beauty of language that abounds in them," he said, must not be lost on a generation which probably won't remember a time before video home television recorders and electronic computer games.

Although he says he isn't interested in fixing blame for the disappearance of library cards from the coat jackets, back pockets, and wallets of young people, Mr. Hopkins, in promoting the printed word, insists many parents and teachers don't know the difference between reading and loving to read.

"In our schools, and even at home, we spend too much time teaching kids how to read and not enough on how to love reading. There's quite a difference.

"They're learning technical things and not the beauty of the language. It's a lousy experience. Crushing." And, "Yes," he adds, "I'm opinionated about these things."

But if some teachers wring the music out of sentences, the lyricism of another form of literature is lost through a "squeezing" process that rivals handmade orange juice. Way ahead of fiction on kids' "yuck list," says Hopkins, is poetry.

"Children are turned off from poetry because many teachers and parents were turned off. We've all suffered through the three sins of dissection, analysis, and memorization."

And then he poses some painful reminders: A teacher might say, 'Now what did the author have in mind with this word?' Or one of the most painful dissections occurs over Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." Teachers will spend hours making kids analyze whether or not the ending was a death wish, you know, the part about "miles to go before I sleep."

With a broad smile he says, "English teachers should be slashed with wet noodles for doing this. And don't make your kids memorize a poem, because that's the surest way to make them hate it. They'll memorize what they like."

Mr. Hopkins advises reading poetry aloud to and with children, and to take the strains out of understanding verse by simply enjoying the lyrical quality of a unique arrangement of words.

"It's in the homes where this must start. A lot of teachers are so horrified of poetry that they won't go through it. So kids should come to school already knowing Mother Goose. Mother Goose leads to the classics."

Parents will find it helpful to look up past winners of the National Council of English Poetry Award if they aren't familiar with writers of children's verse , says Mr. Hopkins, and he adds that some publishers of children's books send free poetry bibliographies upon request plus postage and handling. But the first stop is the public library, he reminds parents.

Despite some of the negative reinforcement that children seem to get in school, Mr. Hopkins suggests several home remedies to combat the "books are boring" complaint. When your children do finish a book or poem that delights them, suggests that they write a letter to the author expressing their feelings. "If a book gets them excited, it's an incentive for them to begin wildly writing , and for heaven's sake, take advantage of that. Believe it or not, authors love to hear from readers, even if we can't respond to everyone personally," says Mr. Hopkins.

You should enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope to spare the publisher from having to decipher your child's handwriting when the reply is sent. Even if it's a form letter from the author, children love it, and they can start a scrapbook with all of the replies, pictures, and promotion literature which most publishers send.

Encourage your child to keep a journal of special events -- the day he or she hit a home run and won the game for the team. Or the day spent in the country with grandpa. Recording thoughts and feelings builds an intimacy between children and written words.

Mr. Hopkins cautions that it shouldn't be a "Dear Diary, Tonight we had liver and onions, yuk," but a place where they write down their thoughts and feelings. "Life goes by fast," he asserts, "and we forgot so many wonderful moments."

If you are a working parent, mother or father, single or married, you have extra problems and pressures heaped upon you, and Mr. Hopkins sympathizes to a degree. "Still," he >Continued on next page> >Continued from preceding page> says, "you must read to your child every night for at least 15 minutes. If you don't, shame on thee."

Children pick up new vocabulary words more readily when they are spoken to, and the simple physical closeness of reading together creates an emotional closeness which makes reading a warm, fun activity instead of an exercise in drudgery.

Finally, he suggests writing for a free copy of "Books I Read When I Was Young," which he calls "dynamo high interest" reading for kids who don't know what to read.

Published by the National Council of Teachers of English, the book can be obtained by enclosing $1 for postage in an envelope addressed to Sue Coil, Avon Books, 959 8th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.

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