Reading Aloud with a View
August 12, 2021 § Leave a comment
My kids will tell you that leading up to every vacation, I obsess over what book we’re going to bring with us as a read aloud. Well, they aren’t wrong. But neither am I, because matching our reading material to the view outside has always created a kind of magic for all of us.
We definitely got it right earlier this summer when we were in Montana visiting my sister, who lives with her family on a sprawling ranch outside of Bozeman. A Wolf Called Wander (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud, though there is some violence), by Rosanne Parry, dropped us into the psyche of a single male wolf, inspired by an actual wolf known to trackers as OR-7. Still alive today, OR-7 made a dangerous and highly unusual lone voyage across Oregon and California after losing his pack, traveling over a thousand miles before ultimately finding a mate and settling down to form his own pack.
In fast-moving, first-person prose, Parry imagines what it might have been like to be OR-7, whom she gives the fictional name Swift. One minute, the young wolf is safe and content with his pack in the mountains; the next minute, a rival pack attacks and sets his life on an extraordinary new course.
We may have been a few states away from Swift’s story, but we knew there were wolves in the mountains around us. We knew they were probably closer than we realized, hiding from view, as we explored Yellowstone National Park. Reading this book together—including marveling over the plentiful grey-and-white illustrations by Mónica Armiño—allowed us to appreciate the biodiversity around us. The unseen lives. The brutal, beautiful struggle for survival. The way our protagonist would strike down an elk without mercy, but stand back in awe as a string of wild horses stood before him. The way he forged partnerships with scavengers, like a black raven, who saved his life numerous times by guiding him to water. They way he hungered for food, thought of it constantly—but was nearly consumed by an even deeper hunger for companionship.
Sharing this story with my kids, what struck us wasn’t just Swift’s resiliency, but his adaptability. He teaches himself to fish, because for several stretches of his journey, there are no elk. He runs—barely makes it—from a forest fire. He calls longingly to a female wolf on the other side of a highway (what he refers to as the “black river”) only to realize that if she heeds his call, she could be hit by one of the monstrous “noisemakers” speeding by; he reluctantly changes his tone to one of aggression and drives her away.
My husband was the one to point out that Parry’s prose, though beautiful, is also truncated, replete with short, staccato-like sentences. This, I imagine, is a deliberate and highly effective choice to take us into the mind of an animal versus a human, of honoring instinct over insight, while still nodding to the sophistication that such creative survival requires.
I have said this time and again, but one of the greatest benefits of reading aloud to children, long after they are reading on their own, is that it allows you to broaden their repertoire. There’s zero chance that either of my kids would have picked up a book like this. And still, they loved it. They learned from it. Heck, it jump started something of a wolf frenzy in my daughter, who picked up a graphic novel about wolves at the airport using her own money and went on to read this magical realism novel about wolves.
Of course, the view didn’t hurt, either. I will continue to obsess over book choice on vacations. You can hold me to that.
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