The Brozinas grew through much together: Alice's mom left the family, her older sister left for college, and her dad became a single parent; there was a laryngitis episode, sleepovers, and the like. But dad and daughter persevered, and her story of "the Streak" led to a graduate school essay, a New York Times story, and this book.
Skillfully interweaving memoir with stories of the books they read, Ozma also provides a generous reading list at the back of the book, replete with standards such as L. Frank Baum, Judy Blume, and that old stalwart of my childhood, Encyclopedia Brown. She clearly emerged from the experience as an accomplished and sensitive writer, adding to the evidence that children whose caretakers read to them gain essential and excellent language skills.
One of those skills is dexterity with sentence construction, or syntax. Alice clearly has it; her prose moves well, briskly when it needs, more slowly in thoughtful parts. But what is syntax, anyway? Syntax is, at heart, the how and why of the construction of sentences. What are the rules that make a sentence a sentence? What is necessary? What makes a sentence not a sentence but perhaps an understandable communication nonetheless?
Sentences consist of subjects and predicates. Clauses consist of subjects and predicates. Subject/predicate is the backbone of English syntax. When the clause can stand by itself, it's a sentence, or independent clause. When it can't, it's a dependent clause.
Lots of things can be subjects, but most often nouns are. Predicates have to have a verb. "Ellen wrote" is a sentence. So is "Dad read." Those are so-called simple sentences. Simple sentences are independent clauses shorn of all ornament -- no modifying adverbs, adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, verbals, participles, and the like. In fact, you can add as many modifiers as you want to the bare subject/predicate backbone and still have a simple sentence -- as long as you don't add another independent or dependent clause.
If you add an independent clause, you get a compound sentence. "Dad read, and Ellen listened." Two subject/predicate backbones make a compound sentence. BUT -- and a very important but -- both backbones need to be able to stand up on their own.
If you add a dependent clause, you get a complex sentence. "When Dad read, Ellen listened." That "When Dad read" can't stand by itself, but "Ellen listened" can.
There: the three types of sentences. Some add a fourth type, the compound/complex sentence, in which one of the independent clauses has a dependent clause of its own: "When Dad read, Ellen listened, but the cat just yawned."
What about exclamations like "Stop!"? Or such as "What. Is. This. Grammar. Nonsense."? The first is a command, and it has a subject; we just can't see it. The subject is "you" -- someone other than the speaker (or, perhaps, a reflexive form of the speaker -- imagine a sentence such as "'Stop!' I told myself; no one is going to follow this grammar thing to the end.") The second is just a modern idiom, maybe a meme, popular for a few days or weeks, to vanish from Facebook and our internet discourse, a "that's so last week" appended to their appearance.
But reading to kids is never "that's so last week." I'm eternally grateful to my parents for reading to me, even if they didn't have quite the Cal Ripken-like consecutive streak that Alice Ozma's did.
What were some of your bedtime favorites as a child? And if you read to your children, what's a favorite -- and don’t say Goodnight Moon!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.