Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Once Upon a Time at Home: Why you should read aloud to your children

The following is my article in the September Memoria Press Newsletter:

One Saturday many years ago, when even my oldest children were young, we had a visit from two friends of ours. They were not quite my parents’ age, but they were old enough that they had just become grandparents. We invited them in, and, as happened when anyone entered our home at that time, they were beset with children.

Not everyone takes such things well, but for these friends, it was a welcome imposition. After a few formalities, Jim sat down on our living room couch and grabbed a children’s picture book, and my two oldest children, my son and my daughter automatically sat down next to him, and he read them a story as my wife and I—and Jim’s wife Renee—looked on.

In the process of just a few short minutes, a friendship was formed. I regret to say that we got together with Jim and Renee only a time or two in the ensuing years. But in that one moment there was an immediate bond of shared wonder between these two friends and my children, woven from a simple story.

Something about the act of reading aloud is communal. To read by yourself is to involve only one person, but to read aloud is to involve you and someone else—perhaps several people, all of whom are hearing the same thing at the same time from the same book read in the same voice. This is the first benefit of reading aloud: it makes a community out of those who had been mere individuals.

I don’t remember what Jim read to my children that day. Maybe it was Green Eggs and Ham, or The Story of Ferdinand, or possibly Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel.  It could have been a hundred others: we had them all.

I spend a lot of my time writing and speaking on education issues, and I frequently have occasion to extol the virtues of reading aloud to children. In my opinion, it is one of the most important ways, not only of bringing our individualistic modern selves together, but of simply introducing children to the wonder of reality. This is its second benefit: It brings a sort of enchantment into their everyday lives.

A very young child, of course, does not recognize the distinction between reality and magic. To a child, everything seems fantastic.  “When we are very young”, said G. K. Chesterton “we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

When our first child was only about a year old, we began reading to him at bedtime and ushering him into the world of Wynken, Blynken and Nod. I am quite confident that he had no trouble at all with the idea that three children, one night,
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
To him it would have seemed no more fantastic to sail off in a shoe than sailing off in a ship. In fact, to such a child raised on such poetry, sailing in something as mundane as a ship might seem positively unnatural.

Some of the books that so enchanted our children in this way had ushered my wife and me into the world as well. When our other children were born, we plied them with other favorites, such as Dr. Seuss’ The Sleep Book, our copy of which still bears, inside the front cover, an annotation: “1122 Bedroom Lane, Storybookland.” It was written there by my wife when she was a little girl.

And above my daughter’s bed, in a cross stitch sampler my late mother-in-law sewed for her children, was a prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
My wife would often pray it with her before she kissed her goodnight, and it was in one of the several books of children’s poetry we had on our shelves.

We read Little TootThe Little Red HenLittle Women, and The Little Engine that Could. We read The Little PrincessLittle BritchesThe Three Little Pigs, and Stuart Little. We read The Little FarmThe Little House, and Little House on the Prairie. Then, of course, there was The Story of Doctor Doolittle and the Little Golden Books, as well as Policeman SmallFireman SmallFarmer Small—and, last as well as least, The Teeny Tiny Woman.

We read The Big WaveThe Book of Giant Stories, and Danny and the Dinosaur.

We worked our way up from One Horse Farm and One Was Johnny, to The Three Billy Goats Gruff , and The Five Chinese Brothers, and then on up to Ten Apples Up On Top. We went Around the World in Eighty Days, and counted “… hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” (an expression we sometimes used of my mother’s farm in Kansas, where there seemed to be too many cats to count).

There were certain picture book illustrators and authors who became perennial family favorites: Bill Peet (The Caboose Who Got LooseCyrus the Seasick Sea Serpent, and The Wingdingdilly), Paul Galdone (Henny PennyThe Gingerbread Boy, and Hansel & Gretel), and Edward Lear (The Owl and the PussycatThe Jumblies, and The Pelican Chorus).

Each book was a fairy wand, waved over our home. Whenever we heard a loud explosion, it was Drummer Hoff, firing it off. Our home was not just good, it was The Best Nest. And sometimes the last one in got a swat on the bottom, just like Ping.  

And every bean was a magic bean.

Dr. Seuss worked his way subtly into our consciousness. If you were out too late and we had to go looking you, and we found you in the dark, we would take you home. We would call you “Clark.” And if someone offered you something you didn’t like, you could simply explain that you didn’t like it here or there, you didn’t like it anywhere.

Having been read Where the Wild Things Are, my children knew, when they were told, “I’ll eat you up I love you so,” just how much love that meant. They had been read P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? and so they knew what to think when, after saying “Mommy?!” to get their mother’s attention while she was trying to get supper together, she responded impatiently, “I am not your mother. I am a snort!”

In fact, the kitchen was often a place of instruction and admonition in practical wisdom born of books. There was more than one cake baked there about which it was asked “Who will eat this cake?” And always there was a chorus of “I wills” from the very voices who had answered “Not I” when the question was who would help to make it. The message was understood, but always the voice that could have said “Then I will eat it!” was merciful.

We laughed when Betsy made “everything stew” and it tasted awful in Betsy-Tacy—and when  Jack outwitted the giants in The Jack Tales. But it wasn’t only delight we found in books. One night, my wife came back into the living room after having read a chapter in Anne of Green Gables to my daughter, the half-opened book hanging limply from her hand. I could tell she had been crying. Matthew, Anne’s beloved adoptive uncle, had died.

Bedtime wasn’t the only time they were read to. As part of our home school day, they were read to in the early afternoon, usually after lunch. One of my fondest memories is the many times I passed by the living room and poked my head in to see my wife sitting on the sofa, with one child in her lap, one sitting next to her coloring in a book, and another on the floor quietly playing as she read the Bible.

And this a third benefit that comes from reading aloud: These were not only learning the Bible by listening. They were learning to listen. Listening, like reading and writing and figuring, is a skill.

And this training in how to listen extended even to the dinner table. After supper, I would push the dishes away, grab a book, and begin reading. These were usually chapter books.The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, Rascal, by Sterling North, The Good Master, by Kate Seredy, Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, Pollyanna, by Eleanor Porter, The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, and Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White. In addition to the Little House on the Prairie books and the Chronicles of Narnia, there were books we read again and again as dessert was served: Penrod, by Booth Tarkington, and Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

I don’t know how well my children remember all of these books. I suspect they remember most of them. I know I remember them.

But as Chesterton points out, it is not the very young child who needs this magic the most: The older the child, the more such magic should be mandatory. In fact, it is the oldest children—adults themselves—who often benefit the most. Everything these stories touched was transformed, and even the most mundane of circumstances was cast in a new light.

Occasionally I would notice my wife missing, and after searching for a few minutes would find her sitting up on our bed reading a magazine, her back propped up on a pillow. Around her wriggled the signs that her search for a few moments of solitude had been unsuccessful. She would look up at me, put a loving hand on the head of the squirming child nearest her, and with a bemused expression say, “I do not like this bed at all. A lot of things have come to call.”

More than once I would be working at the dining room table long after the voice of my wife, reading in the next room, had become but background noise. All of a sudden I would realize that the children had all escaped to the back yard long ago, and there was silence in the house. I would poke my head in the living room, where she would still be sitting on the couch, reading the same book. “Are you okay?” I would ask. “Yes,” she would say, “but listen to this, …” and she would share some pearl of wisdom she, an adult, had learned from a book meant for children.

This is one of the reasons you should not stop reading to your children when they learn to read themselves. I still read frequently after dinner, even though our youngest is now 17 years old. He will often complain that he has better things to do, but he’ll listen anyway, and often, though he doesn’t like to admit it, he enjoys it.
And I often read to my wife, even when there are no children around.

In Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, a woman passes by a little dilapidated house in the city one day. It turns out that the house had once been out in the country, but the city had grown all around it. “No one wanted to live in her and take care of her any more.” She finds out that it actually belonged to her great-great grandfather, and it “couldn’t be sold for silver or gold.” So she had the little house moved out in the country and lived in it.

We too own a house in the country, having moved from the suburbs before our children were born. And when my wife gets in one of her cleaning moods, she will often cast her eyes on the many books we have acquired over the years, many of them children’s books, and she sometimes wonders out loud how they might sell at a yard sale. They just sit there on the shelves, gathering dust. No one wants to read or take care of them any more.

Some of them (the not-so-good ones that were only read once) may need to go, but some day there will be a grandchild who walks by those shelves, and some of those books may be moved to his or her own bookshelf at 1122 Bedroom Lane, Storybookland. And that’s why they can never be sold—for silver or gold.

1 comment:

Ann said...

This is one of your blog posts I actually agreed with and enjoyed reading. It helps to be reminded of the important things in life. :-)