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Family reading aloud has obvious and widely touted benefits. There’s also a lesser known side effect of sharing books together. I’ll call it ‘word weaving’, because it is more than ‘vocabulary building’, and ‘linguistic and conceptual enrichment’ sounds like no fun at all. Word weaving is, first of all, fun. It happens naturally and can’t be forced, like most fun things.
We discover a phrase or idea from our reading has woven itself right into the fabric of our life. We now have a more apt, more dramatic, or less stinging way of saying something. When we use it, another tiny tile is laid in the mosaic of our family culture.
Thanks to Cheaper by the Dozen, our latest baby is always referred to as “the new model”. Instead of pointing out each others’ moments of brain fog critically, we can note that “his mind is not skipping like roasted chestnuts”, or that an “idea is rolling around in his head like a pea in an empty barrel” (a la Robin Hood). As a compliment, what little boy wouldn’t rather hear Long John Silver say, “Har, ye be smart as paint”?
Instead of demanding, “change your attitude”, we can say, “Nay, nay,nay, nothing can be done, nothing shall be done” in the morose tone of the naysayers in Tales of the Kingdom to remind someone to brighten up. When oppressed by little brothers, big brother can dismiss them with, “Away, slight man” to convey Julius Caesar’s great disdain for small people.
No one puts up a fuss as fun as Captain Haddock’s in the Tintin series. Hollering “Billions of billious blue blistering barnacles!”, or “Thundering typhoons!” when your sister snatches the comics first helps you get through it in style.
Other shared images and experiences from reading can help take the edge off a tense situation. Somehow, it’s easier not to throttle the three year old who just dumped an entire can of fish food into the tank if you think of him as a curious little monkey whose misadventures always come out all right in the end, like Curious George. I double the effect of a quiet “sorry” to my husband by quoting Kate’s magnificent speech in The Taming of the Shrew (“What is she, but a foul contending rebel, and graceless traitor to her loving lord?”) as I offer my hand to be place under his foot!
Some things are just plain fun to say. A stern, “More gruel?” (from Oliver) when kids ask for second helpings always gets a laugh. One doesn’t need a particular moment for “The vorpal blade went snicker-snack”, but “Come to my arms, my beamish boy” and “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” from Jabberwocky are situation-based word weavings.
My personal favorite is reserved for ‘special’ occasions (when the third child of the day has just shattered glass and spattered milk all over the floor, for instance) when the chaos of family life threatens to overwhelm me. “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”, screeched loudly and repeated until I can laugh at myself again is an invaluable restorative. There’s something familiar and funny about the queen of Wonderland who impulsively demands the ultimate penalty for the slightest offense and promptly forgets all about it. No one takes her seriously, and if she’s wise, she won’t take herself too seriously either! I recommend this one to all mothers, but the rest of your word weavings will come from your family’s read-alouds over the years. I imagine we could get along without them, but who would want to?
This article first appeared in Canticle magazine.