By James Charney, MD

Much of the year my wife and I live about a 7-hour drive from our granddaughters, in Italy. The rest of the year, we’re a 7-hour flight away, in the US. So, though we visit them as often as we can, Facetime and WhatsApp have become vital connections. With the pandemic, and with us caught a full ocean away, they became an even more vital link. We try to have a live video visit most days and, failing that, an exchange of photos and comments on our day and theirs. Their parents have been very good at keeping us in the loop.

But in this odd time, knowing we aren’t likely to be able to actually be there with them anytime soon, these video visits took on a new importance. We wanted to really try to engage the girls in a different way. To get as close as we could to feeling “with” them. That meant, for us, looking for things we could do together—even though we were some 6000 miles apart. Not just chatting (though the girls are good at that) but finding activities that encouraged a back and forth sharing.

Video Chat Playtime

Their “Nonna,” my wife, discovered a couple of clever YouTube videos demonstrating how you could turn the shapes of your hand into animal drawings. Her discoveries are covered in a separate article (Virtual Grandparenting 101). These were perfect: something the girls could do with their kids drawing skills, and we could also do with our rather primitive efforts. The easiest way I found to do this together was for me to have the video on my large-screen iPad, while using Facetime or WhatsApp Video on my iPhone to both chat with the girls and show them the video on the iPad screen. This kept us in sync and in the moment. If the girls had the video on their own devices, it would have been hard for us to be sure we were seeing the same thing at the same time. This worked to help us feel like we were in the same room. We would watch the new hand-shape, and then try to guess what animal it was going to be turned into. Then, we would try to do one ourselves. Finally, we would share our works of art. Nonna liked to take photos of the finished drawings and post them later—a reminder of what we did that day.

Those drawings then inspired games of charades—with Nonna or “Greppen” (the girls’ name for me) miming being an elephant, and the girls being a T-Rex (they are into dinosaurs) or a ballet dancer.

Long-Distance Cooking

One day we did a cooking lesson. I set up my iPhone on a stand and made like Julia Child. Or at least tried to. We were making macaroons which needed shredded coconut. A fun and easy recipe that the girls could follow. Most of it required just one bowl and lots of stirring. Unfortunately the coconut the girls had was the wrong kind, and their cookies fell apart. No matter—making it was fun and their dad figured out how to use the coconut mixture they had made and turn it into chocolate-coconut cookies. Teaching them another skill besides cooking—flexibility.

Discovering New Authors Together

What I’ve been doing lately and enjoying very much is reading to the girls. The author and Independent Bookstore owner, Ann Patchett, had written an article about her belatedly discovering the children’s author Kate DiCamillo. Friends had been recommending DiCamillo’s books for several years, but she had never given them a try. Once she did, she found herself reading everything that DiCamillo had written. She said that her young adult novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, is one of the best and most touching she has ever read, period.  

DiCamillo is unusual in that she writes for children at every stage—picture books for the very young, short illustrated chapter books for new readers, and books for older children and even young teens. Her writing is clever and funny, taking a delight in language that children really enjoy. And she can turn on a dime and make an observation about music or friendship, or take delight in the ordinary, that makes you want to stop and share it with whoever is near.

I went in search of her picture books as a place to start. There are three Bink and Olly books, two girl friends who are very close and very different. Bink is small, impulsive and is always thinking about her next meal—usually pancakes. Olly loves to imagine she is a grand princess or climbing a high mountain—and brings Bink along for the adventure.

There is an especially funny and sweet story about their visit to a State Fair. But I’ll let you discover it for yourself—and with your kids. What was a delightful coincidence for us is that the size and personalities of the two friends in the book matched the ages and personalities of our granddaughters. So they really could identify. But even without that extra dimension, these stories were keepers. Our girls asked me to read them over and over.

Leveling Up with a Favorite Author: Kate DeCamillo

Then we discovered the next level of DeCamillo. A series of short chapter books about the denizens of Duckawoo Drive in a small, mid-America town: the Watsons, who adopted a pig they named Mercy, who slept in her own bed and loved buttered toast; the elderly Lincoln sisters—grumpy practical Eugenia and sweet daydreaming Baby; Frank and Stella, the children next door;  Francine Poulet, the animal control officer, and assorted other characters.

If one book focused on Baby Lincoln, you could be sure that Mercy the pig would show up, too. If it was a story of how Mercy saved the day, the Lincoln sisters or another local would be there. So, these books created a little world that the girls became enthralled with.

Buttered toast with “a great deal of butter” became their new snack of choice, thanks to Mercy.

Techniques for Long-Distance Reading with Children

We would stop reading often to look more closely at the witty illustrations (DiCamillo doesn’t illustrate them herself, but she has chosen her drawing partners very well), or to guess how this character or another was feeling about the offbeat thing that was happening or to guess what would happen next. When there is an unusual word, I’d check with them to be sure they know what it means—asking them first what they think it might mean. That often pulls us away from the story to talk about the peculiarities of language. Kids like words (especially our granddaughters, who are bilingual). Talking about the book while you are reading it, as well as after you have finished, is very much part of being together.

For the chapter books, which we would read over several days, I would ask the girls to remind me what had happened earlier—both to check on how much they understood the story and whether they were still interested in continuing. If they weren’t (it hasn’t happened yet) I would have switched to something else.

We haven’t moved on yet to the more grown-up novels like Edward Tulane. I’ll keep that one, and the others she has written for older children, for another year.

Make Your Own Reading List

Of course, DiCamillo is not the only author with whom you could entrance children. What was fun for me, however, was discovering an author I had never heard of—and finding her so good. The girls and I have enjoyed my reading to them books from my childhood and from the childhood of my son, their dad. Books like anything by Dr Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are, My Father’s Dragon, Charlotte’s Web, Winnie-the-Poo, or The Phantom Tollbooth, have all become favorites, often read more than once. This is a chance to introduce whatever were your childhood favorites.

Their dad has been reading them the Harry Potter books, which are much more complicated than anything I’ve read them so far. They are really enjoying them, too, which surprised me because I thought they were written for much older children (say age 10 and up).  I wonder if these more sophisticated books may need the bedtime routine and physical closeness that their parents can provide and that Facetime just can’t match?

I love it each day when I get a WhatsApp message asking me when I am free to read to the girls. That 30-45 minutes is precious, and fun. I am glad I can offer that time to free up their mom and dad from childcare for a few moments, but I get so much out of it too.

James Charney is a child psychiatrist and professor at Yale Medical School. This article is an excerpt from Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, by his son, Noah Charney.