Monday, 23 October 2017

Half-n-half: Bringing up a bookworm

By Emily Prucha |
Prague Daily Monitor |
7 November 2008

"Ballet keeps me on my toes, that's what my tee-shirt says, right, Mommy?" Even though my nearly 4-year-old daughter is a long way from reading, I have to give her credit for her reading enthusiasm. Anna traces the letters on her new tee-shirt and enunciates each word extra slowly.

It's not the first time I've noticed Anna's interest in reading. She often escapes to her room and thumbs through the pages of her favorite books. I can gauge how long she's been playing in her bookshelves by the ratio of shelved books to books strewn across the floor. Given her druthers, Anna will sit on the couch with me and a pile of books, listening and turning the pages, until I beg for a break.

Sometimes I can convince her to "read" to her 18-month-old brother, and she spins elaborate tales about crazily-named characters (i.e. Marshmallow and Squiggy) using the pictures in Oliver's cardboard First Words flip book and her own active imagination for inspiration. Unfortunately, Oliver's attention span is too limited to appreciate Anna's preschool creative genius, and their sessions usually result in Oliver running off to find a book of his own to hold.

As the weather in Prague grows colder and daylight hours get shorter, the kids and I often spend the afternoon curled up on the couch with a stack of books. Oliver exclaims over his cardboard animal pop-ups, while Anna and I work our way through childhood favorites such as Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings along with dancing tales like the Angelina Ballerina series, the practical know-how of Richard Scary's How Things Work In Busytown or the moral-rich Berenstain Bear series.

When Anna was younger, I often used to flip-flop between English and Czech stories. Since we attended Czech swimming and singing classes, Anna and I learned many of the Czech říkanky (nursery rhymes), and I couldn't resist practicing my Czech verses when we tired of the English ones.

These days I try to stick to English stories since my Czech isn't advanced enough to wade through age-appropriate renditions of Anna's favorite fairytales. Although we have a decent collection of traditional Czech stories, Anna rarely asks me to read anything in Czech. Occasionally, she requests that I "read" a Czech book or magazine to her in English, but I try to send her to her father with these requests.

When it's my husband Radek's turn to read the children bedtime stories though, more often than not, Anna selects an English story. Radek is a good-sport about reading stories in English, especially since he's often subject to Anna's pronunciation correction. Personally, I wish they'd read Czech stories together, but what they read is of lesser importance than the fact that they're reading together.

Finding English children's books in Prague isn't difficult, although we tend to buy most of our books in the US rather than pay the higher prices that the English language book stores here (Big Ben's, Anagram or Shakespeare & Sons) typically charge. When we lived within walking distance of the Prague Christian Library in P3, we regularly checked out books from their children's library.

I love the routine of borrowing and returning books, and for the past few years, I've been meaning to join the Municipal Library of Prague (mainly to use their children's book section), but I haven't yet. There's no good excuse other than the fact that, up to now, we've been satisfied reading and rereading the favorites in our home "library." I guess the reality of taking two toddlers (and their books) downtown by public transportation for a weekly library visit isn't as much fun as just selecting a book from Anna's bookshelf. Hopefully, I'll find a branch library closer to our new home, so we can at least experience the Czech library culture.

As a child, going to the library was a favorite weekly activity. I attended a library story hour with my mother, and afterward I typically checked out the maximum number of books allowed. I remember getting in trouble for reading late at night when I should have been sleeping and for reading when I was supposed to be doing my homework as an adolescent.

On our recent trips to my hometown, we've made an effort to visit the local library. The children's area has been re-done to include comfortable couches, an activity center with games and puzzles and a puppet theater. Anna is amazed by the size and scope of the children's section, particularly its giant-size stuffed Clifford dog. We usually check out a tall stack of books, which Anna and my mother read through over the course of our stay.

The story hour doesn't run during the summers, which is usually when we are there visiting, but we did attend our first English story hour in Prague last weekend. Sponsored by the organization Class Acts which aims to "bring kids and culture together", the Halloween-themed story hour was held last Saturday morning at Cirkus Café in Smichov. The event combined elements of storytelling, dramatization and craft-making for children from Oliver's age up to 5 or 6.

I was curious to see how the 15 or so children and their parents would react to hearing stories in English since many of them come from half-n-half families like our own. Although the kids Oliver's age wandered in and out of the storytelling room, Anna and her peers sat with rapt attention. The children were active listeners, but they were even more active participants, helping chant refrains, making animal noises, and even performing a re-telling of one story. Afterward, when I asked Anna if she'd enjoyed herself, she nodded emphatically, "yes." Of course, going to the event dressed as Angelina the Ballerina, probably added to the magic, but I hope when next month's story hour comes around, Anna will relish the chance to hear a few new stories read aloud.

I know that growing up bilingual may present some reading challenges along the way, but I hope that my children's early enthusiasm for reading (and being read to) will help them appreciate the benefits, rather than the challenges, of the unique opportunity they've been given.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to emily@praguemonitor.com.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.