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Books

What makes a good story? It may not be what you think

Girl lying on meadow reading a book
Many elements go into choosing a good book for a child.
(Westend61 / Getty Images)

There are many elements that go into choosing a good book for a child: fun, repetitive rhymes that tangle up the tongue, flaps for curious fingers, and images that reflect the child. But maybe choosing the right book is not what’s most important.

My mother, whose own mother died when she was 4, was raised by her stepmother. The wicked kind. The kind about which fairy tales are written. Now passed, my mother knew nothing beyond the extreme abuse and poverty she experienced. Her home didn’t have electricity, let alone books.

However, a neighbor, whom my mother referred to only as Mrs. Barbour, would give her cookies in exchange for reading to her whatever the woman could produce with words on it: a scrap of paper, a catalog, the odd book. My mother often spoke of how reading and books — which she referred to as her friends — revealed a world that existed beyond what she saw around her.

My mother did escape the brutality of her early years, and she never gave up on books, not even when she was forced to leave school in grade nine because she was pregnant. And tucked among my most treasured memories are not so much specific books, something our home never lacked, but the feelings I felt curled up on her lap while she read to me, and later, me to her.

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As she turned the well-worn pages of books I begged to hear over and over, did she ever think about the gift Mrs. Barbour so lovingly gave her? My mother went on to not only write and illustrate her own children’s book, but also raise a houseful of readers, including three writers.

So maybe in the end it doesn’t matter so much what you read, only that you do. Something Mrs. Barbour obviously knew.


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