Storyteller weaves magic for the next generation
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, and illustrated by the equally talented Helen Oxenbury, was my introduction to the author, who succinctly and expertly spread the 'read-aloud' gospel in Reading Magic, the reference book that propelled her to become a foremost authority on early childhood literacy.
A favourite of many toddlers, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was, I thought, one of those old classics from way back when, with its watercolour illustrations and simple, repetitive text. I first came upon this storybook when my elder daughter was in baby school in 2009. The story reminded me of those timeless tales Good Night Moon and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, so I was surprised to learn that Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was written in 2008. This meant that the dog-eared copy with binding coming undone from my daughter's classroom was less than a year old. No doubt the book had been read and reread by many children.
Fox is arguably Australia's best-known children's author and literacy expert. I chatted with her recently and asked if much had changed between the time she wrote Possum Magic in 1983 and her latest book, The Little Dragon, published last year. Aside from the fact that she is now a grandmother, Fox says nothing has changed. While authors of adult fiction may develop into other genres or experiment with different writing styles, Fox continues to focus on writing books for children from birth to three years, and she has written about three dozen of them. She believes that reading aloud to children is the best way to teach them to read on their own. As a result, she aims to write storybooks that children want to read over and over again. If her sales are any indication, she has succeeded.
During our conversation, I gained an insight into the reading journey of Fox's family. Not surprisingly, she grew up surrounded by books. She was born in Australia but spent her childhood in Africa. Her parents were readers, and their shelves were lined with volumes of poetry and all the works of Charles Dickens. They often read aloud to her, and she claims to have been 'drowned in Australian books' because her parents wanted her to be familiar with her heritage.
Anyone who has read Reading Magic knows the first-hand accounts of Fox reading to her own daughter and the resulting 'magic'. And now her young grandson gets to hear this gifted storyteller read her own stories. He repeatedly requests to be read The Goblin and the Empty Chair, one of her rare works written for the five- to eight-year-old age group. She is amazed her grandson is only 22 months, yet loves to hear this story, which contains themes he is too young to comprehend. She is equally amazed he can fluently recite the opening lines: 'In a time long past, in a land far away, there lived a goblin who had once seen himself reflected in a still pond.'
Although Fox is pleased there are so many more books written specifically for the three-and-under age group in the past three decades, she still delights in reading stories such as Dr. Seuss' Mr Brown Can Moo! Can You? to her grandson.
What does Fox look for in a picture book? The same things she targets in her own: books that 'enchant, inform, comfort and entertain'.
Bring Me A Book Hong Kong has invited Fox to 'A Family Reading Affair', a weekend of activities for both parents and children, to be held on Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, at Youth Square in Chai Wan. Fox will be hosting workshops for parents, as well as giving master storytelling sessions for children. Go to www.youngreadersfestival.org.hk and click 'Weekend Family Programme' for more information.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing access to the best children's books for underserved communities.