Writer, comedian and author of a new collection of true love stories, How We Met, Michele A’Court tells us about the books she reads to her granddaughter, and the tricks she uses at story time.
Reading Peepo to Ariana when she was a baby
As much as I am encouraging it, it is going to be a terrible day for me when my four-year-old granddaughter learns to read. That’s the day she is going to find out that I am a big fat liar.
It’s like this. When Ariana was born in November 2013, both her grandmothers were present. At some point after the birth, my daughter Holly asked us what we would each like to be called. Simultaneously, both of us said, 'Nana'. Awkward pause in the maternity ward. So we did a deal: there would be 'Nana G' for her paternal grandmother, and 'Nana Michy' for me. (Michy is the common diminutive of my name these days – I was 'Chele' for the first 30 years of my life, and now the front end of my name is getting a good go. The two halves only really get put together when I’m working or in trouble.)
Officially, then, in Ariana’s world, I am Nana Michy. Mostly, in practice, just Michy. She also has a 'Grandma' who is really her great-grandmother but it seemed too much for a small mouth to add that next generational level, so both Ariana and Holly call my mother 'Grandma'. If any of this sounds complicated, trust me, it works a treat.
Now, when Holly was little, one of her favourite books was Mercer Mayer’s Just Grandma and Me. Pretty sure my mother bought it for her, and I am entirely sure that when my mother snuggled up with Holly at bedtime to read it, part of Holly’s affection for the book was that it was clearly written especially for her and her Grandma. I mean, it had their names on the cover, right? 'Grandma' and 'Me'. This was personal.
So a couple of decades later when I pulled that book off the shelf to read to Ariana (I still have almost all Holly’s books, plus many from my own childhood), I instinctively switched out 'Grandma' for 'Michy'. Because this was about the two of us now, right? 'We went to the beach, just Michy and me…' Just like Holly had been, Ariana was tickled that there was a book especially for the two of us. It’s one of the ones she asks for when she’s staying the night with me. 'Michy, can you read the book you used to read me when I was little, Just Michy and Me?' Nostalgia is adorable in a pre-schooler.
But yes, I’m sitting on a ticking time bomb. One day not far from here, she’s going to sound out the letters on the cover of that book and know that I have been playing fast and loose with the truth. At which point I plan to have a frank and wide-ranging discussion with her about literary and artistic licence. Wish me luck.
Ariana laughing at Nana Michy's silly voices
The thing is, I need all the tools I can get my hands on to get Ariana to pay attention to books. She prefers pictures to move, and she wants everything to come with music and sound effects. A digital native, she can find YouTube on any unsupervised iPad (she calls them 'highpads') and watches so many clips of eggs being unwrapped, I now get notifications whenever Baby Big Mouth uploads new content.
If she’s scratchy in the afternoon and Grandma suggests she might like a book and a cuddle, she’ll do a double-take and point out that IT IS NOT BEDTIME. And when it is bedtime and I offer a pile of books to choose from, she’ll give them the kind of look a Formula One racing car enthusiast might give a peddle-car, and ask for the highpad.
You can worry about this if you want to. But I also recall that a lot of my own reading as a child came from finding things on my own, digging around in bookshelves at home and in other people’s houses. So there are stacks of books in the room Ariana stays in, and more children’s books in my office which is a room she likes to explore. She can find Maurice Sendak there, and Alice Walker’s To Hell With Dying, and The Paper Bag Princess and Green Eggs and Ham. Buried treasure in plain sight, ready to be discovered.
But there are things that work. I can win her over to Peepo with the nostalgia factor – I’ve been reading it to her since she was born. Group singalongs work – there was a lovely afternoon with Ariana, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother singing along to The Topp Twins' Treasury of Sing-Along Stories which comes with a CD. Four generations of women belting out 'She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain' to the Topps’ soundtrack until it all got a bit much and Ariana fell off the chair she was dancing on.
At bedtime, I have tremendous success with Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd’s My Cat Likes To Hide In Boxes by doing different voices for each cat. Accents for the French, Greek and Spanish cats, a voice that sounds like your mouth is full for the fat Norwegian, and a lot of interruptive sneezing for the cat from Brazil. (Risky if Ariana is too wide awake at this point – she likes to slap her hand over my mouth to catch the sneezes and this can get a little rambunctious.) I also have an actual blue fan for the cat from Japan which we wave about.
None of this, of course, is helping to get her to sleep. So naturally, after the book, I will let her have my highpad and calm down.
Ariana and Nana Michy with Nukutawhiti, the day after he was born
Michele A’Court is a comedian, social commentator and author. Her first book, Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter (HarperCollins NZ, 2015), was based on the comedy show Michele suddenly had time to write when her daughter, Holly, left home. Michele has a granddaughter, Ariana, and a brand new grandson, Nukutawhiti.
Michele’s second book is a collection of stories about how real people fall in love, and the role storytelling plays in helping to weave our lives together. How We Met (HarperCollins NZ, 2018) is out now.
Photo by Kate Little