Raising Readers in Scotland: Interviewing Dr. Coree Brown Swan of Working Moms Make It Work
And 5 braw picture books your kids will love
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I am desperate to get myself to Scotland. I love that there are the Highlands and Lowlands, the Mainland, and the Islands. There’s something inexplicably romantic to me about Scotland. I am determined to go there and figure out what.
At the root of it, I believe it’s because Scotland calls to the writer in me. It seems like the ultimate muse with its wild, natural beauty—there’s a magic in the striking way the mountains reach out to the sky at the very edge of the world, with valleys and lochs nestled in between. And, let’s be real, the fascination is also fed because of haunting title sequences like this. It just seems like the perfect place to let every wild notion in your head loose and watch imaginary characters transform from wisps into reality. I always believed that J.K. Rowling had to have written Harry Potter in Scotland; it was only after it had been confirmed did I even realize I had been operating under assumption this whole time.
So given my immense admiration for Scotland, you can imagine how delighted I was that Dr. Coree Brown Swan of Edinburgh agreed to an interview to share what it’s been like for her to encourage a love for reading in her 6-year-old son, T, who has just begun P2 (the equivalent of first grade in the US), in a place that has inspired so many writers.
Coree is a political scientist living right outside of Edinburgh. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in the US, Coree has been settled in Scotland for the past 12 years. She originally made her way to Scotland for her Master’s and then Ph.D. Alongside her work as a university lecturer, she also runs the Working Moms Make It Work newsletter which is a peek into the life of families with working parents. I love it because it’s so much fun to see how others are doing things and if there’s anything I can borrow that will make my own life just a little bit easier then all the better!
SRI: Coree, what’s the overall reading culture in Scotland and how is it different from the US?
COREE: Edinburgh is a bit of an academic bubble and has a massive festival, arts, and literary scene, so this skews my perspective so there’s a selection bias. But generally, I see lots of people reading. We’ve seen lots of indie bookshops open in recent years, and the bookshops seem busy. Waterstones is our Barnes & Noble equivalent and the city center shops are always busy.
My favorite moment was walking into a bookshop with 4 facts about a book, but no recollection of the author/title, and the bookseller getting it straight away. It was George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time—delightful!
SRI: I love that! This just reaffirms my belief that independent booksellers are artisans in their own right. What about book clubs? Are they a thing?
COREE: I’ve heard rumors of book clubs but haven’t yet managed to wrangle an invite to one. People seem to discover new titles through shop windows, newsletters from chain and indie bookstores, social media, etc. My colleague and I joke that we’ve never left the airport bookshop emptyhanded, which is a problem when you fly weekly like I’ve been doing for the last 2 years. They always have the most popular new releases in these big paperback versions, so they are much cheaper (not sure if this is a UK thing but it is great…)
SRI: Wow that’s so interesting! I don’t think books sold at airports in the US are cheaper; more likely the same or even slightly more expensive. I know in the US people heavily rely on their libraries. They are a pretty big deal not only for books but as a gathering spot for community activities. What sort of role do libraries play in Scotland?
COREE: Libraries have been hard-hit by austerity/budget cuts but still remain a really valuable resource for the community. Sometimes I work at the library for a change of scene, and it’s busy with families, the elderly, etc., lots checking out books, but also accessing various services (free bus passes, tech help, just a general chat if they feel lonely). Energy prices are out of control in the UK and they are also used as warming centers, a place where you can warm up if you can’t afford to keep your home sufficiently warm. A grim state of affairs but it’s good that there is some place for folks to go.
We often go to the library a few times a week... I’ve convinced my son that “working with mumma” at the library is a fun thing to do, and I can often get an hour’s work done while he plays with Lego, wanders the stacks, draws, or colors.
SRI: It’s upsetting that libraries have been so affected by austerity measures especially when it’s clear that they play an important role in the community. I love that you encourage your son to “work” with you at the library. Do libraries have children’s programming in the same way they do in the States?
COREE: There’s a national Book Bug program of songs, games, and stories, and people will often go to their local library with young kids to attend. All the parents know the Book Bug songs. The libraries also provide a variety of other programming—our library has a Lego club, coding club, and often has people in to do talks and activities, etc. We popped in to return books recently and a local science organization had a USB microscope set up and loads of creatures that kids could examine, etc.
SRI: That sounds like so much fun. Aside from these library programs, how are kids in Scotland exposed to books?
COREE: We have an amazing charity in Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust, which sends home “book bags” at various ages and stages, to ensure that every child has books at home. So even if parents aren’t able to access books or don’t prioritize books, every child will have a selection growing up. The book bags are provided first by the health visitor when children are young, and then by nursery/school. It’s a really lovely system.
Charity shops (thrift shops in the US) are also a huge, and normal, thing in the UK, in a way they don’t seem to be in the US. So it’s a nice way of accessing affordable books if your budget doesn’t extend to brand new books or library books aren’t accessible to you.
In our home, we read loads, probably more so than some of the families around us. I think this is rooted in my son’s temperament, he’s a kid who really likes to be read to, and my own—I’d much rather read than do pretend-play or Lego. When I was growing up, my nana looked after me during the holidays and after school and we were always at the library. My parents didn’t have loads of money when I was young, but my mom, like me, can’t resist the allure of the bookshop.
SRI: I think it’s so smart you found an activity you both enjoyed doing. It’s a really lovely way to connect with each other. As T gets older, how is he going to be taught to read? Who leads teaching kids to read?
COREE: We’re lucky that in Scotland children get a certain number of funded nursery hours from 3 years old so most children do go to nursery at least a few days a week, but this is largely play-based. My son’s nursery did some numbers, and letters, if the kids were keen but I think they mostly played in the mud.
Children learn at school and I don’t think there’s an assumption of significant parental involvement beyond reading the practice books that get sent home from school. P1 (equivalent to kindergarten in the US), the first year of school, is also pretty play-based, but they work on phonics, etc., and start sending home the early readers.
Each school seems to use a different phonics scheme, but from perusing them they’re all fairly similar, using CVC words to start with. The children definitely know what level they are and how that compares to their classmates, so it’s a bit weird… they do their reading in groups of 3-4 and a teacher tries to listen to each child on a regular basis and write in their little book.
There is phonics/numeracy testing in P1 and then some sort of testing in P6 (equivalent to 5th grade in the US), but parents aren’t informed of the results of these, they are just to assess the performance of the population as a whole/the school specifically it seems.
Personally, I find the practice books themselves boring and we’ve tried to supplement with some of the Julia Donaldson phonics books and Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie series, etc. Sometimes we get into a pickle with my American accent and my son justifies any creative pronunciations with “I’m Scottish!” which, with American/English parents, we really can’t argue with.
SRI: I’m chuckling at the accent “discrepancies” in sounding out words. I didn’t even think about that! Those are some great books to get started with. What are other favorites that T highly recommends?
COREE: The Gruffalo is probably the classic response but we also loved all of the Chris Haughton books—Shh, We Have a Plan!—is still quoted on the regular. Little Blue Truck was also a toddler favorite.
As T grew, he was all in on Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs and I loved the Alfie and Annie Rose books by Shirley Hughes. I love Alfie, he’s the perfect mix of cheeky and sweet. The Virginia Lee Burton vehicle books also got a lot of reading time.
We still read quite a few picture books, and there have been so many beautiful titles in recent years. I am a sucker for good illustrations and keep saying I’m going to stop buying picture books but then they are beautiful and my resolve weakens. We do Home Exchanges and every guest comments on the huge variety of kids' books.
We’re currently working our way through the D’Aulaire Norse Myths, as we’re in a big Viking phase and he’s on book 11 of How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell on audio. We’re actually off to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival and we are very excited!
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Here are a few of my and T’s book recommendations!
Shh! We Have A Plan
Written and Illustrated by Chris Haughton
Recommended Ages: 1-4 years old
The sparse but color-rich illustrations of this book make it easy for the physical comedy to stand out in this hilarious book of plans gone awry. Four friends set out to catch a beautiful bird. The littlest amongst the four waves a greeting to the bird but is shushed as the other three whisper, “Shh! We have a plan.” Despite their “plan,” they inevitably fail to hilarious effect. The littlest has a different approach that proves to be successful. The text is minimal and repetitive which makes it great for beginning readers or as a read-aloud to get kids to chime in on the eponymous refrain.
Harry And The Bucketful Of Dinosaurs
Written by Ian Whybrow and Illustrated by Adrian Reynolds
Recommended Ages: 2-5 years old
We all have specific toys that remain extra special… even if we’re no longer kids. In this story, we get to see how that bond originally forms. Harry and his grandmother find a box of old dinosaur figurines in the attic. Harry rolls up his sleeves and gets them all cleaned up. He brings them to the library and learns their names and details about them. From there on, where Harry goes, the dinosaurs follow. Until one day when Harry accidentally leaves them behind on the train. Heartbroken, his family helps him look for his dinosaurs. There’s a happy ending—Harry is happily reunited with his bucketful of dinosaurs. The illustrations are exceptionally sweet and if you look closely you observe a moment of magic—when Harry recites their names for the first time, the dinosaurs come alive. In the subsequent pages, you can see the dinosaurs’ sweet expressions as they show affection to the little boy who made them real.
The Big Alfie And Annie Rose Storybook
Written and Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
Recommended Ages: 2-6 years old
A picture book of short stories and poetry, this book is a walk down memory lane with its vintage, retro sketch illustrations (published in 1988 after all) and wholesome stories. The stories focus on Alfie and his baby sister, Annie Rose. Each story in this storybook is focused on ordinary occurrences: breakfast time, visiting a neighbor, looking through photo albums with Grandma, etc. but it’s brought to life in a beautiful, humorous way. If you think about it, daily existence for little kids doesn’t change dramatically day-to-day, and yet every day is full of little adventures. That’s what each story recounts so beautifully. I also love the sibling relationship portrayed—Alfie definitely finds Annie Rose annoying but there’s that deep-seated knowing you have between siblings that makes the relationship special. My favorite story perhaps is the one where Alfie has to walk down the aisle at a wedding. During the event, he is unexpectedly joined by his baby sister Annie Rose, mid-processional. With all the wisdom of his short life thus far, Alfie knows well enough that removing Annie Rose now would be catastrophic for the wedding. So he makes the best of it and lets her walk down with him. These stories gave me the warm fuzzies and I’m sure they’ll do the same for you and your kids. They’re a great bedtime read.
Written by Julia Donaldson and Illustrated by Alex
Recommended Ages: 3 years and older
If you’re unfamiliar with The Gruffalo, then please rectify that and read the book immediately. There is nothing as delightful and thrilling as a book of cleverness, rhyme, and seeing an undermouse come out on top. The story begins with a mouse walking alone in the forest; it comes across several animals who would like to make a meal out of the mouse. But this is no ordinary mouse—this mouse is cunning and lets these animals know he’s off to meet his friend The Gruffalo, a fearsome creature who would love to make a meal out of them. The animals skitter off in a panic and the mouse feels mighty proud of itself until who suddenly appears? The Gruffalo! But instead of losing its cool, the mouse does the ultimate thing to outwit not only The Gruffalo but all the other forest creatures too. This text has a wonderfully rhythmic rhyme making reading it aloud so much fun. We often tell kids that smarts are more important than [insert physical attribute] and this book does a great job of actually demonstrating it as the smallest creature in the forest one-ups all the predators. I love this book for how fun it is and what a great reminder it serves!
The Big Katie Morag Storybook
Written and Illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick
Recommended Ages: 5-9 years old
The entire time I was reading the short stories in this storybook, I had a smile on my face. Katie Morag is a precocious little girl who has the keen observations of a child—as adults we would consider it childish—but is actually quite sensible from a child’s perspective. Katie Morag lives on the fictional Isle of Struay which is based on the very real Isle of Coll (northwest Scotland). Accompanying Katie Morag on her adventures is her colorful cast of family, friends, and neighbors. The short stories are interspersed with interesting poems and introductions to animals and characters. All of it is set against the backdrop of beautiful watercolor sketches of the island. If you aren’t Scottish, buckle up because you’re going to learn quite a bit about what it must be like living in the Hebrides. There were quite a few times I had to look up certain words or dishes and it just added to the fun of the experience.
A question for you… do you have your own Scotland? A place that you haven’t been to but have a strangely deep fascination and yearning for? Tell me more by hitting the comment button below!
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