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Children's picture books: An exercise in meditative reading

If you are a mother with a fretful child starting a picture book is one of the easiest ways to calm him and lower your blood pressure. It's cheap and easy on the environment.
Are children's picture books an exercise in meditative reading? (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The wonderful thing about reading aloud is that it doesn't require any electricity or batteries or plug in devices. If it's winter, all you need is a comfy chair.  A floor will do. In summer a sunny patch in the garden works well. 

If you are a mother with a fretful child, starting a picture book is one of the easiest ways to calm him and lower your blood pressure. It's cheap and easy on the environment. The only fumes, the soft exhalations or occasional farts, hopefully buried deep under the bedclothes.

So some bleak winter morning when you don't want to get out of bed — stay there. Invite your child to join you. Plump up as many pillows as you have behind your heads. Touch your child in several places at once — head to head, leg to leg, foot to foot. Hold hands. And together jump, plunge, dive, into the world of the picture book.

If you are a mother with a fretful child, starting a picture book is one of the easiest ways to calm him and lower your blood pressure. It's cheap and easy on the environment. 

Your child will bring his favourites. Clifford The Big Red Dog. The Richard Scarry animals busy in their primary coloured clothes and tractors and fire trucks.

You will groan silently and read them. More like wriggling inside the pages than diving in. And then, you will produce with the flourish of a conjurer your own favourites. Shirley Hughes and her messy, urban mums in their seventies jeans, outside the school with pushchairs in the rain and home again to brown teapots and blue and white mugs of steaming toffee coloured tea. "I wanted to show a young family without much money and their ordinary, everyday life," Shirley Hughes once told me.  And you will delight in the tiny mundane details – the Tinkertoys scattered on the ragged rugs; the sodden socks hung to dry on a wire rack in front of the coal fire.

And look, once in a while they make a day trip escape from the cramped Victorian London terrace house; a picnic by a stream, under a tree with swollen apples or to the seaside to pick rocks and  pink shells.

You will taste her words, let them loll on your tongue: yellow sun and yellow honey; marmalade cat and marmalade toast; light green shoots and peas in pods.

You will rejoice in the celebration of cheeks and soft mouths and button noses – and perhaps you will put out a finger to trace these features in your own living boy or girl.

And your child will be quiet and still for a few moments. And then a question: What happens next? Or where did he lose the stone? And will he find it again?

And time for one more – A favourite for you both. You ask, "Can you see where his mom put the keys?"  "There – look, in the basket, stuck in the loaf of bread," he will answer.  "Bread which looks crusty and good," you might say, thinking of supper. And exactly where I myself in a sleep deprived rush might have put my front door keys, setting down the basket where my boy rushes in, and the door closes and he is shut inside and I am on the outside. Alfie locked in, small Alfie, too short to reach the door handle.

An illustration from Shirley Hughes',"Alfie Gets In First." (Red Fox; Reprint edition (June 16, 2009))

Your child looks worried. But he has seen the key. He knows it will be alright. How can it be otherwise, his being close to you and you reading, holding the story between the two of you? And the mother in the story, shut outside on the doorstep, she can't know yet how it will end. But that key is the sign it will be well. The key, poked in the crusty bread. "It's there, see?"

And the wonder of the split page. The first time in the history of children's books that a picture book had been used in this way; the physical crease in the spine dividing tearful Alfie inside, from his wide eyed mom and hip-held toddler sister with the runny nose on the doorstep on the other page. Poised they are, on door step and hallway, each to anguish with his or her own terror. The moment laid bare. The fears painted and sketched into each face. No screen can quite reproduce this simple hand held joy:  the book with its spine shared between the two of you, the leaves of the pages unfurled, two at a time – only two.

This unhurried poring over the painted pages. Pages which took long hours to draw and colour. A book a year you've been told. And now your own slow meditative reading of the words which mirror the domestic rhythm of the day.  Worried Mum on the door step, crying toddlers on either side of the door soon joined by helpful neighbours.

"Can you reach the handle and open the door Alfie?" He is too short.

"Don't worry Alfie – we'll get to you," says his mom. Say you.

The milkman – that long ago morning visitor from your childhood – with his rattling cart crammed with blue and red crates. The bottles with their silver foil tops. Here he comes, that forgotten morning visitor up the London street of the story. At the end of the story he will be invited inside for a mug of tea. But the problem isn't solved yet. And you and your child lying safe on your pillows together marvel at the predicament.

From the book, Alfie Gets In First, by Shirley Hughes (Red Fox; Reprint edition (June 16, 2009))

A neighbour girl comes up the street on her bicycle in her teenage jeans and joins the group on the stoop. "Maureen wants to be a plumber," you read – "She's good at solving problems." And you observe, quietly how ahead of her time was Shirley Hughes and recall with a flush the jeering and cat calling of the construction workers you passed on your first job – "Cor! Cop a load of that!" And how it was assumed that girls liked those compliments.

But you are still reading, your lips have mouthed the words – the pared down poetry of good children's prose. Gently, as in meditation, you bring your attention back to the story. You slow down, alongside your child. Without noticing you have turned the page closer to the solution. Maureen is off down the street to borrow a ladder from the cleaning windows man. "Was he on the street earlier?" you ask aloud.

Your child is already turning back the pages – "Look there he is!" he says.

Shirley Hughes does not cheat. She plants the clues softly like the paper whites with their heads already poking through the soil, a head start, barrier free, ready to erupt their green shoots within days. You are not ready for murder mysteries, your child and you. He is there the man with the ladder two pages back, cleaning windows high up on the far side of the Victorian terraced street. And there he is on the next page, a little further along. And on the opposite page Alfie is walking away from the door into the house. You turn the leaf and there is the crowded front stoop with the milkman up the borrowed ladder and there is Alfie walking back towards the door with a chair. You turn the page quickly, both eager to see the grinning child open the door on the astonished adults. How grandly Alfie steps aside to welcome them all in for tea and the crusty bread and jam.

All will be well. Bread and jam and teapots and neighbours will keep us safe. All you need to do is open a book in your own messy house and the story will show you.

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