What will I read next?

What will I read next?

Choosing books in your mother tongue when living abroad

The days are getting shorter and shorter, schools are back, and I can hear my children screaming from their bedroom “maaaaammyyyy, can you read us a story?”.

This was a habit we had from the very start. When my first child was a baby I mostly sang songs to get him to sleep, but as soon as he was able to sit up and pay attention to pictures, I shared all sorts of books with him. At the time we lived very close to a library and to a very cheap charity shop, and I was blessed with lots of time to spend with my son. 

Read in your mother tongue

Since we were living in an English speaking country, I decided to read to him in Italian. At the start when he was only 1 or 2, I would pick up any book, look at a couple of pictures and make up a story around them. I found translating very hard and also not very successful, even if the books were quite simple, so I chose to tell my own stories linked to the pictures we were both looking at. As my son became older, I realised I needed books written in Italian especially because I realised that the more time I was spending abroad the more I was becoming a little repetitive, and my stories seemed to have the same kinds of sentences all the time. 
What will I read next
When reading, I noticed that there were so many words in the books that I would never use in my day to day conversations. This is why books are so important. As a parent living abroad away from your mother tongue, you might notice that your own language skills are still fantastic in some areas, but are lacking in others. That was definitely my case when I had to hold long conversations with a three year old about tractors and combined harvesters, when my own upbringing had been in the middle of a capital city!

Follow your child's interests

I think it is important to source the right books, and to me right means that it is a book that captures the child’s interest. When my children were really young, their choice was driven by the colour of the cover, or by the sensory parts, like fluffy sheep or shiny glittery stars. As they got older, like 4 or 5, they wanted stories that had some unlikely events in them… like the one where the pirates were really angry, but when they ate pizza they suddenly became kind! So I also started to invent stories and create imaginary scenarios based on what they enjoyed at the time, and my storytelling skills have definitely improved since the start, when I had a limited set of ideas and memories from my own childhood. To be honest, the likes of Cinderella or Snowhite never quite captured their attention, but nowadays the choice of books is endless and as a parent you know what you children love best.
mother tongues
At the moment I am reading a book to my three children where poo is one of the main characters, and they are all enjoying it. Yes, a book about a girl who lived in extreme poverty and was given a golden ring that turned stuff into poo if she touched it. The way she uses the ring is extremely smart, and each night the children are glued to the book to find out what she will do next. This book was recommended to me in a bookshop in Rome… I told the guy that I needed something fun that my children would want to listen to even though their Italian skills were not the same of Italian children that age.. and he went straight to two books, and said that he could not imagine any child not enjoying these two. He was right! Last night the neighbours could probably hear us all laughing loudly about poo, and to me this is a great success!
So now in the evening everyone is looking forward to hearing what is going to happen to Lavinia, what she will transform into poo this time, and we can even talk about it before I start reading, to see which of the children has the best guess. Of course there are many words they don’t understand immediately, so I explain those in Italian and some rare times I might say the word in English when I want to move quickly and continue with the story. I am sure that they don’t always understand every single word, but they understand the story and they get the humour, and this is how my son who is now 10 is able to read books that are appropriate for his age. We read and read, and read some more, and like all language learners he fills his gaps in his own way, but guessing the meaning of a word and moving on. Don’t we all do it?

How to source books in your mother tongue

To source the books I used a mix of techniques: I bought some on my trips to Italy, I got lots of second hand ones from friends, and I borrowed some from the libraries in the UK and in Ireland. Some people may now know this, but the library system in Ireland is interconnected, so if you find a book in your language on the online catalogue you can request it and it will be sent to your local library. It may not be super easy to find the books at first, but try the online catalogue or ask your librarian for help!

What will I read next

Choosing a book is not always easy. You want to go with your child’s interests, but after 5 or 6 unicorn and fairies books I think you have the right to expand your child’s horizons and go for something different. Sometimes when I had to convince my daughter that the books with pink fairies were not the only good ones in the world I offered to read “your favourite and then my favourite”, and she usually liked the deal, because it meant that she got two books in one night. “My favourite” was a booked I knew would make her laugh, and she is one who loves jokes and funny stuff, so it was never hard for her to engage with “my book”. This way I was able to introduce different styles of writing and different narratives, which I think is very important for any child.

So, this may sound to you like it took hours browsing books in libraries, chasing booksellers, finding bargains in charity shops, getting recommendations from friends and nights of storytelling and reading… and the truth is that it did take time, like every other aspect of parenting. I think that if I didn’t start early, now my children would not be all laughing at poo jokes in Italian and they would not be asking for more stories, so I am glad I was able to keep going. As I celebrate 10 years of being a mother, I feel that all those nights reading, with my eyes closing while the children were asking for more, were all worth it. 

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