Becoming an Independent Reader with a Pod of Dolphins

My ancestors, down one side, came to Beaverwyck (now Albany, NY) as fur traders from Holland — which was all the excuse my husband and I needed to troll through a list of Dutch names before the birth of our second child. We chose the name “Adrie” for our daughter, because we liked the way the name rolled around in our mouths. In Dutch “Adrie” means “of the Adriatic” or, by extension, “of the sea.”

Adrie (now 8) is a child who has always known her mind: her likes, her dislikes, her desires. As if by prophecy, at 5 she discovered the sea. She had experienced it before in all its pounding, salty, rollicking power, but when her kindergarten class began studying the ocean she came home chattering non-stop about the daylight zone, the twilight zone and the midnight zone, and the denizens of each. She recounted the habits of fish we had never heard of, and she bandied about terms like “symbiotic relationship”, “bioluminescence” and “echolocation”. She was fascinated, too, with whales and the words that describe their surfacing beahviors: breaching, spyhopping, logging, lobtailing. The mystery and wonder of the sea — and its language — took an immediate and firm grip on her imagination.

Adrie has zero interest in mermaids and she won’t eat fish. A twiggy kid with no body fat, she is always cold in the water, and the only way I’ve gotten her to learn to swim is by buying her neoprene and dangling before her the lure of one day snorkeling and scuba diving. In first grade she led a cadre of her buddies in a collaborative writing and illustrating endeavor to create a 42-page book called “The umazing crechrs of the Sea”. The book is loaded with drawings of invented sea animals, witty speech-bubble dialogue, and wonderful, first-graderly, invented spelling.

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Her growth as an independent reader has tracked right along with her interest in the sea and, especially, dolphins and whales. As she was just beginning to regularly read aloud on my lap, I stumbled upon a book from Harper & Row’s fantastic old “Science I CAN READ Book” series: Red Tag Comes Back (by Fred Phleger, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1961). The book beautifully follows the lifecycle of a single salmon.

We ended up reading every book from the series that we could find — mostly published in the 1960s and 1970’s. The series’ books are  in a genre that I would call “illustrated narrative non-fiction”, and they were a boon to a child so entranced with science and the natural world. The stories, language and illustrations are straightforward and direct, very much a product of the era when they were written and completely on-target for an emergent reader. Other of the titles that fed her sea-love were:  Fish Out of School (by Evelyn Shaw, ill. Ralph Carpenter, 1970), Seahorse (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1972), Dolphin (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Memoru Funai, 1975) and Catch a Whale by the Tail (by Edward Ricciuti, ill. Geoffrey Moss, 1969).

Together, we also worked our way through the non-fiction section of our Free Library branch devoted to the ocean, coral reefs, dolphins and whales. We checked out biographies of Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson. She especially enjoyed two new-ish narrative non-fiction picture books: Winter’s Tail (Craig, Juliana & Isabella Hatkoff, Scholastic, 2009) and The Eye of the Whale (Jennifer O’Connell, Tilbury House Publishers, 2013). At some point we also read aloud George Selden’s much-loved and tragically out-of-print Oscar Lobster’s Fair Exchange.

As she began to brave chapter books at school, her fantastic teachers — who have been with her for both first and second grades and know her well — gave her A Dolphin Named Bob, by Twig C. George (ill. Christine Herman Merrill). Adrie thoroughly enjoyed this fictional account of a mischevious aquarium-dwelling dolphin. Then a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a few titles from the library that seem to be in the same adventure-dolphin-story vein (Wayne Grover’s books Dolphin Adventure,  Dolphin Treasure and Dolphin Freedom, and Ann McGovern’s Little Whale and Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark) we began taking turns reading Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins aloud to one another.

Hesse’s narrator, Mila, was raised by dolphins from the time she was 4 years old. Captured, she becomes the subject of scientific study. Mila’s narration varies in complexity as she acclimates to and struggles with the human world: early chapters are printed in large, bold, choppy text with simple vocabulary. As Mila’s mastery in her new world grows, the font size shrinks, her vocabulary expands, and her language grows increasingly complex.

Hesse’s technique is effective in conveying Mila’s transformation and challenges — and it had the side-benefit of cultivating confidence as Adrie increasingly worked through this longer chapter book. I read the introductory sections to her, then she began reading the large-print sections to me. When the text shrank, she adjusted without being bothered. And by the end of the book she only let me read the small-print italicized format that Hesse used when Mila was back with her dolphin family. The Music of Dolphins proved to be a perfect transition piece for a child ready to move into reading more complex chapter books independently.

Then last week at bedtime Adrie and I began reading an even longer chapter book together — Gill Lewis’s One White Dolphin. After two nights, though, Adrie cut me loose: I was holding her back and she couldn’t wait. Between the bus ride to school, classroom reading time, and down time at home, she finished the book in a matter of days. And over the course of those days she repeatedly called out, annoyed, to the rest  of our family “can you please stop talking? I’m reading!”

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Last weekend, as a belated 8th birthday present, we drove from Philadelphia down to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium. The timing of the trip somehow felt, accidentally, like a sort of culminating celebration. We spent our first two hours there in the Dolphin Discovery exhibit, where Adrie and her 10 year old sister, Mira, watched the animals circle and studied each dolphin’s markings and distinct fin and fluke shape — the better to know who was who. They chatted with trainers April and Ashley like old pros, full of thoughtful questions and observations.

At one point Adrie got sad about how boring the tanks must be for the dolphins. I pointed out the irony of it being because of those boring, sad tanks that we were able to watch the dolphins at all and she returned, “Mom, its sort of sweet and sour, being here.” She meant “bittersweet” — which is a concept that entered her lexicon years ago through one of our family’s favorite ever picture books, The Sea Serpent and Me (by Dashka Slater, ill. Catia Chien, HMH Books For Young Readers, 2008). It was an apt moment for the reference: Slater’s story about growing up and letting go is one for parents as much as for children. It follows a girl as she cares for and raises a foundling sea serpent, and then reckons with the fact that it is time to set it free in the great, wide sea.

Watching Adrie move through all these ocean and dolphin books and develop a love of reading, I remain in awe of her focus and the depth of her knowledge and interest. And I am so thankful that, as she flies through this period of intense learning and growth, there are good titles at every stage for her to stretch and grow with. (Somewhere down the line I’m guessing  she will have to read Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins which, as I recall, does not have any active dolphin characters — despite its titular marine mammal.). And somewhere down the line her interest in dolphins and their kin will probably wane (or maybe not). In any case, these creatures — and all the great authors who have chosen to write about them — have been fantastic partners as she has grown to be an independent reader and a great lover of books.

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