Saturday 6 October 2012

DaddyBlog - The Magic of The Written Word

~by Steve

(AKA. "You want to read that book AGAIN?!"

I've learnt something about myself recently. I can apparently write, creatively, but I need inspiration! That little spark to prompt me, to set the creative juices flowing... It just so happens that my muse is also my wife.

Sat thinking about topics for this month's Daddyblog, she makes me aware that it is National Children's Book Week. That little board meeting of tiny Stephens that I imagine are in my head every time I'm trying to think of something, suddenly start brainstorming. They fire up an interactive whiteboard covered with a spider diagram with "kids books" at the very centre in bold. Ideas are fired back and forth between the suited individuals, each one shot down in a chorus of "Nay!"
Suddenly, the hands of the anthropomorphically named Ikea clock start spinning faster and settle at 3am. Everyone is tired, the coffee pot is dry, the idea pot is even drier when a tiny, sore throated voice pipes up "Can't we just review a book?". Everybody cheers and they fill in the necessary paperwork required to make my mouth work...
"I'll review a book" I say...
"Nope" says my wife "I'm doing that... Why don't you talk about how hard you initially found it to read to Ru?"
There it was, the spark she always gives me.
I believe I mentioned in my very first post back in August that I'm not a big reader. I can read (at the age of 8, I had the reading age of a 15 year old) but I don't particularly find enjoyment in it. When I think about it, most, if not all, of the books I have really enjoyed reading in recent years have been film based - Jurassic Park, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Harry Potter - but I can't seem to pick something up if I have to create the character images myself. This particular feeling of ambivalence towards the written word caused a small issue for me when faced with a certain life changing event and I was suddenly presented with a Son who loves books and loved having Mama and Daddy read them to him.
At only mere moments old he would sit, mesmerised, as my wife regaled him with the suspense filled thriller 'That's Not My Monkey!'. It had everything - mystery and heartache at the loss of a beloved primate, the feelings of disappointment that no other simian could live up to the fluffy-tummied wonder that once filled the life of the main protagonist, and the eventual elation and happiness at the discovery of the missing orang-utan. I'll admit, I was looking forward to having him look at me in the same way as I read to him, so I gave it a go....
"He's only a week old, Steve! Slow down!"
I suddenly became very aware that, yes, I was indeed rushing to reach the end of the book. There was no logical reason for it, I just wanted to finish it as quickly as possible. Then it hit me; for no discernible reason, I was embarrassed to be reading out loud. I'd always been an introverted reader, at book time when I was 6, the other kids would tell the teacher I wasn't reading because I wasn't joining in with the deafening din that was 20 or so fledgling Yorkshire accents spouting verses from Ladybird books as my classmates read aloud to themselves. I didn't need to, I could hear the words in my head. All of a sudden, 20 years has passed and I'm reading these words out loud...


I'm uncomfortable with it. To make matters worse, I was reading him my favourite childhood book - 'The Magic Faraway Tree' by Enid Blyton. This is a book that I have fond memories of my Dad reading every night as I fell asleep, and I longed for the same to happen in my relationship with my son. He clearly has no concept of what I'm saying nor any concept whatsoever of the cringeworthy position I feel I am in and he actually seems to enjoy me reading to him. As he gets older, his interest in books only increases, as does our parental feelings that we should encourage this as a healthy habit. Unfortunately, although I have put my initial feelings behind me for his sake, my enthusiasm for reading has nowhere near grown as much as his.
I'll be honest with you, I genuinely felt guilty for this. He would come up to me, book in hand, the look of adoration in his eyes that only a Son can have for his Daddy. And there I would be, knowing deep down that I was not enjoying it as much as I should...
Then one day it happened; my spark, my muse, my wife.
I'm not sure why, but I was slowly beginning to enjoy our reading sessions more and more... And I thought to myself, I'll put a bit of effort into this new one. It just so happened that Ru had brought me 'A Squash and A Squeeze' by Julia Donaldson. It was written with a comfortable rhythm for me, I particularly loved the rhyming couplets used.

In my head I suddenly became Jay-Z, spitting rhymes on the mic of steel over a reworked Motown classic, anticipating the responses that Kanye West would provide me and preparing to, essentially, read the shit out of that book! I reach the final sentence with the suspense filled staccato of a William Shatner monologue and I feel a hand on my shoulder....
"That is the best I have ever heard you read to him."
The spark alights a pile of discarded newspapers in the deep recesses of the basement of my mind, and I notice the long forgotten headlines. I remember things from my childhood, actually I remember *a* thing from my childhood; my love of The Magic Faraway Tree and a particular incident when out for a walk in Dalby Forest. I can remember it now as vividly as it happened... There was an old, rotten tree with a hole right through the trunk, it was just me and my dad, I can't have been much older than 3 or 4, my imagination kicked in with the fine prowess that only a toddler has...
"Daddy! It's the Faraway Tree!"
Without a moments hesitation, he positively affirms my suspicions, hushes me to silence and, urging me to watch carefully, he creeps behind the tree in search of the inhabitants. A small face made using the fingers of the right hand of a fully grown man appears at the hole in the tree, (this mattered not to me as I was in imagination mode), and then a familiar voice rings out...
"What are you doing looking in my window?!!"
It wasn't my dad's voice, it was the voice of the angry pixie from the book!
The spark had now become a roaring house fire! I remembered that story time was a Milligan-esque cavalcade of characterisation and enthusiasm. This was why I loved having *my* dad read to me...
And so it began, I became a method actor of Kirk Lazarus proportions (infinite respect to anyone that gets that reference...) and I decided to give my voice box a workout. All of a sudden the Wise Old Man in 'A Squash and A Squeeze' had the voice of Bane from Dark Knight Rises, whose voice is based on a bare-knuckle boxing champion. It amuses me to picture the bearded, long-coated purveyor of living-quarter space-based knowledge from the book dipping his hands into glue and broken glass like a scene from Rambo 3 (or Hot Shots Part Deux).
I followed in the footsteps of a good friend of ours and turned the mouse from The Gruffalo into an overly confident rodent, hailing from somewhere just outside of Solihull.
I've also adopted my wife's version of Marjorie the Cow in 'The Cow That Laid An Egg'. Let me illustrate why:
"I've laid an egg!"
Read that out loud in your own voice... Go on, trust me - this is going somewhere.
Read it aloud again, except this time, with the Lancastrian twinge of a surprised Jane Horrocks (a-la 'Chicken Run').

Suddenly more interesting isn't it?

That feeling you have now... that sudden realisation that words are more than just a collection of letters scrawled upon a page, that they are a gateway to a theatrical and comedic event - that's how I feel when I get the chance to crack out my very best (albeit west country) pirate voice.

"But Steve...." I hear you cry, "do you have any tips/handy hints if I'm facing the same situation?"

Well yes, as I appear to like ending my posts with lists, here you go:

1. Youtube. 
Absolute minefield of inspiration. Whether it be watching 'Jackanory' to remind yourself how the professionals do it or (my personal favourite) watching an old cartoon to try and emulate the voices... I do a mean 'Fat Controller' even if I say so myself.

2. Practice Makes Perfect.
Genuinely, I find myself reading Ru's books without him just to see what characters there are and to decide what regional accent they need. My default is Geordie!

3. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition!

The worst bit about reading to your kids? When they ask you to read them the same book for the third time... and the sixth... and the ninth... over and over until you want to poke pins in your eyes till they bleed. This is a good sign. (The repetition, not the pins-in-eyes bit). Repetition of stories cements the ideas and memories in their heads. Much loved books can then be 'read' back to you, just from memory alone (and we all know that a good memory is something many of us lack!).
And, to be honest, the only tip you need,
4. No-one's Judging You.
Whether it's theatrical re-enactment on a Royal Shakespeare Company scale, or impression skills to rival Jon Culshaw, your effort makes it something special. Your child is not judging your terrible 'pirate' or 'troll' voice, all they see is a beloved parent, who cares enough to share the magic of literature with them.

Reading time is important bonding time - don't miss out on it like I nearly did.

Love of the written word is the best gift I can give my children. And one of the best ones they have given me.

"I surrendered to a world of my imagination,
re-enacting all those wonderful tales my father would read aloud to me."

Andrew Wyeth


  1. My daughter adores books and I love sharing the ones that were my favourite as a kid. We've also done the Faraway Tree books and found our own faraway tree at a local national trust property. Your post really made me smile and has given me a bit of a kick to try a few more voices. She didn't run screaming when I attempted Scottish when reading Brave so lets see what the next book brings.

  2. Which Daddy was that? It would be really helpful if posts had a by-line with author's name. Not just for the daddy ones, for all. I know you do with some but it's confusing otherwise since you have different styles and voices.

    1. This one was Stephen, Emi's husband!

      At the end of all posts, there are 'tags' detailing who the post was written by, as well as what type of post it is.

      However, we've taken your comment into consideration and will be putting names in the blog posts themselves at the start, so you'll immediately know who wrote each one!

      E, x

  3. So glad to hear my black country mouse has inspired! My old woman in Squash and a Squeeze is cockney. It's great to hear how you've found your groove for reading to him and I hope this post others do the same, but just want to add that even if you can't manage to read like a professional actor it does great things for small folk including teaching them how their parents deal with tricky words and frustration!

  4. Great post Stephen! :) Really enjoyed it & forwarded to hubby to read!
    Laura (from GP camp - with husband Russ & children Phoebe & Ezra) :)