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What's Your (Son's) Canadian bookshelf, Margaret Eaton?

My child is growing up in a world where he has far more access to Canadian cultural content than I ever did. So much so that he can actually take it for granted.

This is the second installment of our "What's Your Canadian bookshelf?" feature, in which we ask extraordinary ordinary Canadians to tell us about their reading habits. Here, Margaret Eaton, President of ABC Life Literacy Canada, tells us about her experiences reading with her son. And Eaton's post is an excellent segue, actually, into Canadian Bookshelf Children's Book Week which will kick off here on Monday.

Headshot Margaret Eaton

In my professional life, I’m often asked how to make reading interesting to boys. I speak from the research on this topic, but as the mother of a 12-year old son, I feel I can speak from our experience as well made more interesting, I think, by the fact that my son is dyslexic.

I vividly recall the last day of Thomas’s grade one school year. The teacher told me that Thomas did really well, but he was a year behind in reading. Hmmm….that was news to me. I knew he was struggling, but a year behind? And you’re telling me this now? We spent the summer struggling through “Hooked on Phonics” which usually led to one or the other of us crying under the dining room table.

We finally found an amazing tutoring program that turned his life around. Truly. His whole life. My difficult, unhappy, alienated little boy (at school, anyway) became confident and happy when he finally learned to read; the power of literacy, indeed.

But a secret, and perhaps unarticulated wish to myself was that our boy be a reader. I don’t mean by that “able to read.” I guess I just always assumed that he woul figure that out. I mean I wanted him to know the pleasure of reading as a pastime. My husband and I are avid readers. In fact, my husband read aloud to his older boy until he was 15. It was a part of how they enjoyed and spent time together.

In our research at ABC Life Literacy Canada, we know that most parents stop reading to their kids when the child become able to read to themselves, usually around eight years of age. Because reading was and is so difficult for Thomas, I think a love of reading and of books has come from hearing his parents, especially his dad, read aloud.

A lot of what we read is Canadian and I was truly shocked by the variety and quality of what Thomas’s generation is offered as compared to my own. Lucy Maud Montgomery is the only Canadian children’s author I can even name that I read. Lucky Thomas grew up on Robert Munsch, Melanie Watt, Kenneth Oppel, Arthur Slade and Shane Peacock amongst others, all of which were read aloud to him. Even though Thomas is 12, every night his dad reads to him for about 45 minutes and they have worked their way through many tomes.

Book Cover Hamish X

When I asked Thomas his favourite Canadian author that he has read to himself, however, it was the inimitable Sean Cullen who first came to mind. We like the funny in our house. So I interviewed Thomas about his love for the Hamish X books and The Prince of Neither Here Nor There.

Me: Why do you like Sean Cullen?

Thomas: I didn’t originally pick up Sean Cullen’s work because I like Sean Cullen. My teacher Mr. Robertson recommended it to me. He had a copy of Hamish X in our classroom. I vaguely remember that Sean Cullen was reading his second book at Word on the Street. I asked him a question.

Why do you like Hamish X?

It’s a very interesting book. It has all sorts of little things that are incredibly hilarious, since it was written by a comedian. It’s hard to put the humour in an action adventure so he puts it in these crazy footnotes that I love. It’s very emotional. He has to go against what he’s been made to do. It’s a deep journey to find out about himself and who he is.

What else?

It has very interesting characters and that’s what I look for in a book. Characters and story, that’s what I love. It’s also what I look for when I’m playing a video game. I have to admit it’s very interesting how he creates the character of the narrator, who has his own personality. And then he brings that back in his other series of books, like The Prince of Neither Here Nor There. As well as the footnotes.

What is Canadian about the Hamish X series?

The first Hamish X is set in Canada. The others are set in Switzerland and America.

Does it have a Canadian sensibility?

I’m not old enough to answer that question. What is the Canadian sensibility?

It’s hard to see your own culture when you’re in it. Why do you like reading?

It just seems like a fun thing to do. I just want to enjoy the story.

How is it different from other media?

I don’t play video games just to run around killing things. I love the story, it’s the driving force. I’ve put down games that don’t have enough story because they aren’t driving me to finish them. The book is more about the story because you can’t interact with it. You can have an amazing story and not worry about anything else. You can just pick it up and read your book. It’s a pleasant experience. Sometimes the internet is a wasteland.

Book Cover The Prince of Neither Here Nor There

What do you like about being read to?

Even when I read I find it hard. I have to sometimes read a word twice or read the same thing twice. I have to use my finger, read a bit slowly. The thing I like about being read to is I can enjoy the story and I don’t have to exert myself as much as I do to read a normal book. I’m usually read to so I can go to sleep—I can just drift away to the sound of someone’s voice. It’s very calming.

Is it important that it’s Canadian?

No, it’s about a good story.

My child is growing up in a world where he has far more access to Canadian cultural content than I ever did. So much so that he can actually take it for granted. And perhaps that was an unstated goal of so much Canadian cultural policy and programming—to make our Canadian culture so ubiquitous that it becomes one of many flavours we can choose from but we always know it’s there. Here’s hoping future generations will also continue to appreciate the cultural policies and programmes that keeps it there.

Margaret Eaton is President of ABC Life Literacy Canada, a non-profit organization that inspires Canadians to increase their literacy skills. They mobilize business, government and communities to support lifelong learning and achieve our goals through leadership in programs, communications and partnerships. Previous positions include Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, and General Manager of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, now Magazines Canada. She has also held positions in fundraising and marketing for performing arts organizations including Tafelmusik, the Factory Theatre, the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Stratford Festival. Margaret has an M.B.A. from the Schulich School of Business and an Honours Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Waterloo.

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