The first time you see your child hunched over a little notebook or scrap of construction paper, tongue firmly fixed in the corner of her mouth, her little knuckles turning white from the death grip she has on her pencil or crayon, it’s hard not to imagine a budding Jane Austen or Toni Morrison. Sure, all she has written so far is: m3 txy 5np ooly, but you’re certain if you could just crack the code, it would be brilliant. You imagine her first glowing book review; the prestigious awards; that acknowledgement page in the back of her first novel that clearly states that none of her success would be possible without her amazing, unbelievably supportive family …
For parents of award-winning author and poet Gayle Brandeis, the above was no pie-in-the-sky fantasy. At the tender age of three the future Bellwether Prize winner picked up a newspaper and, after looking it over for a few moments, asked her parents if they were aware that President Nixon had "pluhbitis" (phlebitis). By four, Ms. Brandeis had composed her first poem: "Blow, little wind/Blow the trees, little wind/Blow the seas, little wind/Blow me until I am free, little wind."
So what’s the secret? I caught up with Gayle recently to ask her about her childhood and how she fell in love with reading and writing. I also asked about her own children (Arin and Hannah, both in their teens), and how she introduced them to the written word. Her responses provided wonderful insight into the private world of an author who has truly had a lifelong love affair with words.
DF: Tell me a little bit about your history with reading and writing. How instrumental were your parents in your becoming both a professional writer and avid reader?
GB: My parents read to me constantly when I was little. Not just bedtime, but throughout the day – anytime I asked for a story, or there was some downtime to fill. I loved books more than anything. Books were very prominent in my childhood apartment. I would love to stare at all the books on our cool "floating" set of bookshelves. I would run my hands along their spines, slip one out and crack it open and fall into another world. My dad has always been playful with language – he makes great puns, and invented words and lullabies as I was growing up. And if my mom was upset about anything, she would write a letter to try to right the injustice. Through them, I learned that writing can be playful and can change things in the world.
DF: You began writing so young! How did your parents encourage you and support your gift?
GB: [My parents] were always incredibly supportive of my writing – when I was 10 and created a neighborhood newspaper, my dad took it to his office to make copies so I could sell the subscriptions door to door. My mom got her hands on some wallpaper samples so I could make sturdy covers for my little homemade books. They both encouraged my writing in every way possible.
DF: How did you introduce reading and writing to your children?
GB: I read to my kids abundantly when they were little, the same way my parents read to me. I wanted to make books fun and exciting for them, and it seems to have worked – they are still voracious readers at 13 and 16. I bought some sugar cookies shaped like letters when my daughter was first learning to read. I wanted letters, language, to carry a sense of sweetness for her. We sometimes still read books aloud together, and recommend books to each other, and listen to audio books together on long car rides. I’m sure a shared love of reading will always connect us.
DF: What would be your number one piece of advice to parents looking to develop a love of reading and writing in their children?
GB: Read to your children as much as you can. Let them see you reading, and hear you talk about books you enjoy, so they know that books can always be an important part of a person’s life. Let them see you writing, as well. And in their early stabs at creative writing, keep the focus on their imagination, their storytelling, more than on correct spelling and punctuation and grammar. Those things will come with time, but imagination is ripest when kids are little, and if their imaginations are encouraged and fostered when they are young, I believe they are more likely to be open to creative thinking and expression throughout their lives.