Are You Done With Reading To Children?
I thought the days of reading books to my children were over. I do not know how many parents still read books to their adolescent children. Like many parents, I read books to them when they were young. Now that they have grown up, the idea of reading books to them seems obsolete.
But that idea resurfaced recently when I lamented to a friend HJ that my younger son, Conan, only enjoys reading English books and displays scant interest in reading Chinese ones. Conan, who has just entered secondary school this year, dismissed Chinese books as “lame and boring” at my recent suggestion that he should read more.
HJ and I share a common concern over the low rate of reading Chinese books among children in Singapore. While I did nothing about the situation, HJ writes book reviews regularly to encourage her friends to read books to their children. She gave me a sound piece of advice,
“Reading books to children is highly important. Do not frighten them off with wordy books. Start with books that are filled with more illustrations and less words. Engage children with story-telling before passing them the book.”
The truth is I had done all that. Perhaps, a tad too much on English books and too little on Chinese books.
Conan could read books meant for pre-school children when he was barely three years old. By the time he entered primary school, Conan was making heads turn in school with the books he read. Today, Conan remained a voracious reader of English books, but the last time he read Chinese books was like in the yesteryears. That was when he was drawn to reading “The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” 《酷虫学校》that I recommended him at Primary Three, more than three years ago.
“The School Adventures of Cool Crawlies” was a series of Chinese fiction that piqued his interest at that time. It was a delightful read written in simple Chinese prose that mixed science fiction, comedy and adventure all rolled into one for young readers. And every crawling creature was comically illustrated in the books.
But Conan’s appetite for Chinese books ended the moment he finished the twelfth and the last book available in the library. Thereafter, the boy had had a 3-year-drought of Chinese books. From time to time, I borrowed other Chinese books for him to read, but only to see these books returned untouched.
I thought that the problem lies in the dearth of interesting Chinese books for children in Singapore. But HJ’s advice of “reading to children is highly important” kept ringing in my ears. Above all, her efforts to encourage book reading moved me. It takes time, money and efforts to find, buy and read books first in order to write those excellent book reviews.
Instantly, I saw the problem differently,
“If my friend can do so much for others, surely I can do no less for my children.”
It’s Not Easy to Find The Right Book
At the Central Library’s Chinese books section, surrounded by thousands of books, I was clueless over what to choose. Apart from reading books about the healing methods of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I hardly read any other Chinese books nowadays. I had no idea what to recommend Conan. I thought hard to myself, “What will interest Conan to pick up reading Chinese books again?”
It has to be something uniquely Chinese that is not found in the English genres that he reads. And it must be interesting enough to keep him wanting to read more. The idea of recommending him to read wuxia novels (武侠小说) emerged.
Wuxia, which literally means “martial art heroes”, is a genre of Chinese fiction that tells the adventures of martial art pugilists in ancient China. This genre of Chinese novels has become so popular that its presence has spread to television series, movies, comics and video games in the Chinese-speaking world. This genre would be a safe bet to choose for young people!
Randomly, I picked up a book authored by Louis Cha Jing-yong, better known by his pen name Jin Yong (Chinese: 金庸), who was arguably the most reputed and favourite wuxia writer of all times. But I frowned at the first page I set my eyes upon.
The text was printed in Chinese characters of the traditional form (繁體字), which is more popularly used by people in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Singapore, we are more attuned to mainland China’s simplified form of Chinese characters (简体字). To make matters worse, the characters had to be read from top to bottom along vertical lines, and from right to left for each line of words. That made the text look too formidable for a beginner reader of a new genre.
Find Something Interesting and Readable to the Child
I cast my own preference of authors and stories aside. There is only one consideration that matters: the book must be interesting and readable from the child’s perspective.
In a stroke of luck, I found a wuxia novel that is printed for mainland Chinese readers. The Chinese characters were in simplified form, the words ran horizontally from left to right, and the lines went from the top to the bottom of the page. This looked much easier to read! The novel was titled “A Step into the Past”, xunqinji《寻秦记》 written by Wong Yik (黄易). I had neither heard of this author nor read this novel before.
But I remembered vividly a 2001 Hong Kong television series of the same Chinese title. That TV drama told an intriguing story of a protagonist, Xiang Shao Long (项少龙), a top-notched special agent who was teleported into the Warring States period of ancient China some 2000 years ago. Armed with the knowledge of ancient historical facts and the modern world, combined with his intelligence in military strategy and prowess in martial arts, Xiang quickly became an invaluable player in a warring game to unite China under a single kingdom.
I borrowed the entire collection of six books under the same title without hesitation. Conan shrugged his shoulders when I told him these Chinese books were meant for him. He beckoned me to look at the thick English books he had borrowed, “Look, I already have four books to read. They have to come first.”
Turn It Into A Memorable Reading Experience
I expected it to be an uphill task, but I came prepared. I said to Conan,
“No worries, I am the one reading. All you need to do is to sit back and listen. Then tell me if the book is good read.”
To capture his interest, I had to tell the story well with plenty of expression and emphasis. I had read through chapter one beforehand and deliberated on how and where to modulate my voice like an experienced audio-book narrator. And I considered carefully where to place pauses and how to engage him.
Conan was at first sitting across me. But as the plot thickened, he quickly jumped to my side, leaning close enough to read the book along with me. Encouraged, I continued reading and chuckled along with him at the parts when Xiang walloped up the bad guys in a brawl. Then I hesitated whether to continue reading aloud. Conan gazed at me, puzzled.
“Are you sure you really want me to continue reading this?” I asked him intently.
Conan sensed something amiss and quickly searched down the lines below. Before he could reply me, I deliberately raise my voice loud enough for everyone to hear me,
“Xiang pulled the nightclub beauty queen Zhou out of the pub. Zhou asked him flirtatiously, ‘Where are you taking me to?”
Xiang lifted her into the seat next to the driver seat of his Jeep, and laughed, “Where else? Home, of course! I can’t afford to pay for expensive hotel room.”
Conan blushed and stopped me before I could read the next line. “Dad, I think it’s better that I read the rest in silence myself!”
I laughed heartily. Next, I found my son continuing to read the story on his own.
And he continued to read the book over the next few days, taking it with him to school. A week later, we had a conversation about the book. I asked Conan,
“Don’t you find the storyline of this novel strikingly similar to the Games of Thrones? The plot surrounds powerful men and pretty women– playing a deadly game of life and death to seize control of an unified kingdom.”
Conan beamed in smiles, ” Absolutely so!”
Reading to children is an unfinished business. If anyone thinks that you have done enough, perhaps you might want to rethink.
William W K Tan
3 May 2019