October 12, 2017 § 2 Comments
Taking inspiration from the great A.A. Milne, what I really wanted to title this post was: In which I catch you up on everything I read to my kids this past summer, while attempting to demonstrate why we should never abandon reading aloud to our children, even when they are happily reading on their own.
Recently, I was chatting with a dad who wanted book recommendations for his newly independent reader. He looked at me, conspiratorially, and said with a chuckle, “I mean, this is it, right? I give him the books and he goes off and reads them. My work is done!”
To which I had to refrain from falling on the sidewalk and wailing, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
I hear this all the time. There seems to exist a parental myth that reading aloud is like toilet training. That once our kids can pull down their own underwear, we should herald their independence and get out of the way. That it’s our job as parents to instill a thirst for literature in our children by reading to them when they’re young—but once they’re reading on their own, we should just leave them to it. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s the most wonderful sight in the world to see our children curled up with their nose in a book, even when they ignore our pleas to come to dinner or go to sleep. To watch them develop their own tastes for certain genres. Even to have them roll their eyes and reply, “Oh, Mom, you wouldn’t understand,” when we ask, “What’s so funny?”
But there are a multitude of benefits—even for us—in continuing to read aloud to our children for years and years after they’ve built their own independent relationship with reading. And not the least of which is: the books you get to read get better.
#10: Reading aloud pushes our children outside their comfort zones.
Sure, they’re reading, but what are they reading? If it’s my ten-year-old, he’s reading plot-driven adventures by Rick Riordan or graphic novels like Mighty Jack or funny comics like Calvin and Hobbes. He likes what he likes, he rarely heeds my suggestions, and he often rereads favorites more than he picks up new things. But he reads voraciously, and I love it.
When I read to him, I deliberately choose books I know he won’t choose himself (see #9, #8, and #4). Books where, after a few pages, he’d likely deem them too hard, too boring, too slow. I read him the kind of books I hope he will someday choose himself: books with beautiful descriptive passages, with complex characters, with nuanced interpretations of the world. And never do I close the book for the night without him saying, “Oh, I wish you would keep reading.” (Shhh, he thinks I don’t know, but he’ll often pick up the book and continue reading after I leave the room.)
Our children’s world is only as expansive as their exposure. The same goes for vocabulary. Furthermore, children can’t know how a word is pronounced unless they hear it spoken aloud. I thought about this over the summer, as we made our way through all four books in The Familiars series (Ages 10-14, younger if reading aloud), by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobsen. For a fast-paced, episodic fantasy series starring three spell-casting animals (I chose it because I was looking for something to tide over my magic-obsessed children in between Harry Potter books, see #2), it incorporates challenging vocabulary. Take this passage from the third installment, Circle of Heroes:
Unfortunately, a penchant for self-indulgence was not all that afflicted the golden toad’s owner. The Baroness seemed to be paranoid as well. There were hippo soldiers in the watchtowers, and more patrolling the perimeter of the grounds with their blowguns. A Fjord Guard, a giant with blue-tinted skin and armpit hair that hung to his elbow, stalked the premises, making sure that no one broke in…or out.
Were my kids to attempt these books on their own, they’d likely skip over the big words, perhaps ignore entire passages in favor of the action or funny bits (of which there is plenty). Hearing these stories read aloud gives them a chance to absorb deliciously descriptive language in ways they otherwise wouldn’t (“armpit hair” and all).
In as much as I choose books relating to my children’s interests or studies, I also use reading aloud as a preview of coming attractions. Nothing enhances a family trip to a museum or a foreign country or even a local nature preserve than some fun advance reading. Before we headed to Boston this past summer, where we knew we wanted to take the kids on The Freedom Trail, I read to my son a book my father read to me: Esther Forbes’ 1943 Newbery Medal winner, Johnny Tremain (Ages 10-14), an historical novel about the days leading up to the Revolutionary War. It’s a difficult book for kids to read on their own, not least because of the 18th century vocabulary. In short, it’s a perfect read aloud.
Johnny Tremain is a fictional character: a silversmith whose apprenticeship abruptly ends when he disfigures his hand, landing him instead a job as a news carrier for the Sons of Liberty. And yet, many of the people with whom Johnny spends his days, as well as the events he witnesses, are straight out of the history books. My son was enraptured from start to finish, and we devoted one entire day of our trip to tracing Johnny’s steps through Boston. We stood in front of the Old South Meeting House, where Johnny awaited the signal from Sam Adams to rush the British ships. We threw crates of tea overboard in a re-enactment at the Boston Tea Party Museum. And we visited Paul Revere’s house, where Johnny watched the silversmith ride off to warn the Yankees of the British descent on Lexington. I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the loveliest days we’ve ever spent as a family.
Alas, the time has come: my children now meet my explanations about the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. But seeing something in print? Now that’s an authority they still find worthy of genuine respect. (Next up: teaching them how to spot fake news.)
Did you know that if sharks become extinct, the ocean will eventually dry up? This is my new favorite revelation, straight from the pages of Lily Williams’ non-fiction picture book, If Sharks Disappeared (Ages 6-10), which we were inspired to purchase after attending a National Geographic show about sharks this summer. There is so much to love about this book (beginning with the fact that the little girl happens to have brown skin), which simply and elegantly showcases ecological concepts like food chains, “trophic cascades,” and conservation, all as they relate to the over-fishing of sharks. If we follow Williams’ researched logic—and it’s hard not to—then the extinction of sharks is something we should all be working to prevent.
Never underestimate the power of humor to impress children. I love it when my children think I’m funny (as opposed to grumpy or cross or serious or indifferent). As it turns out, they think I’m especially funny when we read funny things (bonus if I read them in funny voices). Some of you will remember my children’s deep fondness for the antics of a porcine caretaker by the name of Nanny Piggins. This summer, it was another British gem—Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Ages 7-10), the first of four books originally written in the 1950s by Catherine Storr and recently reissued in a single volume by The New York Review—which slayed my daughter.
If Little Red Riding Hood were to get a feminist makeover, it might look something like this. Because while young Polly might seem to the anthropomorphized wolf to be the perfect unsuspecting victim, she outsmarts him every single time. Despite an increasing fondness for the hapless beast, Polly never fails to beat him at his own game, twisting the wolf’s words back onto himself until he staggers off as befuddled as unsatiated. Did my Emily ever grow tired of Polly’s somewhat formulaic approach? Of course not. She was laughing too hard.
#5: Reading aloud builds empathy.
As Atticus Finch tells his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Much has been made about the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy (it’s why R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a boy bullied for his facial deformity, is being taught in schools around the country). Can our kids get the benefit of empathy from reading on their own? Absolutely. But they are limited by what they choose to read (see #10).
Two years ago, when my daughter was first introduced to the world of American Girl, she wanted nothing to do with the “historical” dolls. I tried to steer her towards Kaya, the Native American doll whose fictional backstory sets her in 1764, with long black braids and a suede fringe dress (I may have been seduced by the idea of adding a horse and a tepee). “Mommy, I just don’t like the look of that doll,” she kept insisting—and I suspected some racially-motivated undertones.
Fast forward to this past summer, when—at a friend’s insistent recommendation, because I have always been skeptical—I started reading some of the early American Girl book series to my daughter, beginning with the six books starring Kaya (Ages 8-12). I was surprisingly impressed, not only by the sophisticated, sometimes daring content, but also by the way in which the stories incorporate actual history. Emily was riveted by Kaya’s life, which looked nothing like her own: undressing each morning to bathe in icy rivers; riding through brush fires on horseback; and escaping captivity. At the end of the summer, Emily came to me and announced she wanted a Kaya doll for her birthday. “You know, Mommy, I really didn’t think I liked Kaya when I first saw her, but now that I know so much about her, I realize she’s totally awesome!”
(Quick note about the American Girl books, of which Kaya, Kit, and Josephina are our favs. It pays to track down the original single books at the library (or buy them used), because the new reissued collections lack not only the color plates but the fantastic afterwards with historical context. Come on, American Girl. Why did you mess with a good thing?)
For the most part, when I’m reading to my children, I read up. I choose things that are slightly beyond what they can or should read themselves, not only in reading level but also in emotional content. Part of this is purely selfish: I will always prefer reading the juicier stuff to the Magic Tree Houses of the world. But part of this is because I believe there is immense value in children first learning about the big, scary, messy parts of life in the security of our embrace. Literature helps to nudge and shape these conversations.
I’m cheating a bit, because I didn’t technically read aloud Jack Cheng’s new middle-grade novel, See You in the Cosmos (Ages 10-14); we listened to it in the car. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of performance art, in large part thanks to Kivlighan de Montebello’s poignant narration as eleven-year-old Alex Petrokski, who records journal-like accounts of his daily life on a “golden iPod” which he intends to launch into space for the benefit of aliens (a la his idol, Carl Sagan). And yet, what Alex understands about his own life on Earth gets called into question when he begins to confront his single mother’s struggle with undiagnosed schizophrenia and the borderline negligence under which he has been living.
It’s a difficult story to stomach at times—made more intense by the audio performances—and I might not have had my seven year old in tow had I screened it in advance (note to self). And yet, my kids and I had conversations while listening to this book which I will never forget. Conversations about mental illness. About why our society attaches a stigma to it, often at the expense of helping. About what it means to be a parent and what happens when a parent can no longer handle that responsibility. And my favorite: about Alex’s unrelenting drive—as inspiring as it is risky—to see the best in people, even when their behavior suggests otherwise. About how this fervent belief in someone’s potential can be exactly what that someone needs to rise to the occasion.
When asked in an interview why she writes for children versus adults, Newberry award-winner Kate DiCamillo replied that when you write for children, there’s an unspoken understanding that you will end your stories with hope. Perhaps it’s this undercurrent of optimism that seduces me, too. As much as children’s literature informs or delights, it creates a lens through which our children see the world. And if we’re lucky, some of that perspective rubs off on our own (more jaded) selves.
Take Kit (Ages 8-12), another of our favorite heroines from the American Girl books. Set during the Great Depression, Kit Kittredge’s story begins with her father’s inability to find a job. Quickly, the comforts of her middle-class life disappear. But what personal resentment Kit feels is overshadowed by the starving, tattered bodies she notices at her local soup kitchen, or the “hobo jungles” on the outskirts of the rail yards. Not content to stand on the sidelines, Kit pitches in at home and in her community, even channeling her passion for writing into newspaper columns debunking stereotypes associated with poverty and homelessness. As in the best children’s literature, hardship yields opportunity, pain yields compassion, and where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I’ll admit it. As my children get older, I sometimes feel a little left out of their lives. They come home from school, and where they used to want to linger over snacks and show me their art projects, they now run to join the neighbors in a nerf gun battle. It’s exactly what they should be doing, but a part of me longs for the days when having fun meant hanging around me. This is where reading aloud has never failed me: when I’m reading to my children, we are bonding over a shared experience. We’re having fun together. We laugh, we gasp, we lean in. Sometimes we cry (or, as my daughter likes to point out, my son and I usually do the crying).
Of course, it’s a big plus if the book is as enjoyable for me as it is for them. And it’s an even bigger plus if we can get Dad to join in. On vacation this summer, my husband and I alternated reading aloud chapters from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ages 8-12), the second in J.K. Rowling’s series. There is perhaps nothing in the world better than listening to these books read aloud, and I am doing my darndest to limit my children’s exposure to one per year (they are free to re-read what we’ve read as many times as they want). As Rowling herself intended, I want my kids to age alongside their pals Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Furthermore, I want them to remember hearing each book for the first time out of the mouths of their kooky, dramatic parents, whose love for these books only grows when they catch sight of the amazement reflected back at them.
And that brings me to my last point.
#1: Reading aloud slows down time.
How often do we slow down and savor time with our children? How often do we stop feeling overwhelmed or wrestle ourselves out from under the weight of our responsibilities, even for a few minutes? Well, duh, we all know that answer. Reading aloud is my breather. It’s my pause button. It’s the moment when I get to gather my babes into my arms, to sniff the tops of their heads, and to engage alongside them. To read paragraphs that give us chills, that make us erupt into laughter, that transport us out of the mundane and into the magical.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep reading to them, they won’t grow up quite so fast.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
Some of you may remember how audio books saved our family’s sanity last September. Previously, I had only thought to use them for long car rides (I’ll never forget listening to Martin Jarvis’s recording of The 101 Dalmatians—incidentally, a much better book than movie—and daring to wonder, OMG, are family road trips actually becoming fun?) Then, last year, we began commuting twenty minutes to and from a new school and, well, I really can’t get into the moaning and groaning because then I’ll have to reach for the wine and it’s only 1:10pm, so let’s just leave it at: audio books saved us.
So, today, after a larger-than-intended break from blogging, courtesy of the beer I spilled on my laptop, (pause: why is this post suddenly about my alcohol consumption? Oh right, it’s SEPTEMBER), I thought it fitting to resume with a list of our favorite audio books from this past year.
Assuming you would prefer escapism to sitting in a car with children whining about mushy grapes.
For those yet to expose their kids to audio books, let me offer a thought. Oftentimes, what my children enjoy most—and what tends to be easiest for them to follow (after all, the road can be distracting)—is listening to books they have already read (or have listened to me read). Speaking from personal experience, kids forget much of what they’ve heard in the past, and they listen with the fresh ears of whichever emotional milestone they’re encountering right now. In other words, great books are great each and every time they’re read.
One last thing before we begin: it so happens that this list is almost exclusively classics—or, at least, most are published over forty years ago. Trust me when I say that we listened to plenty of contemporary selections this past year. It’s just that the ones below rose to the top, both in content and in performance, and perhaps that’s no coincidence. There’s something about these books that, even the first time we hear them, feels like old friends.
Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, Howliday Inn, The Celery Strikes at Midnight, Nighty Nightmare, Return to Howliday Inn, and Bunnicula Strikes Again! written by James Howe, read by Victor Garber (Ages 8-12)
Vampire bunnies, mysterious night happenings, and haunted hotels—all with a healthy dose of misunderstanding and mayhem? A better series for October you won’t find. The only reason we didn’t keep going with the series after the first six (!) books is because Broadway actor Victor Garber stopped reading them. At that point, we were so invested, so enamored, so used to laughing our heads off at the banter—there’s Harold, the pragmatic middle-aged canine narrator; Chester, the hyper-paranoid cat (Woody Allen’s “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me” comes to mind); and Howie, the gullible sidekick puppy—that the new reader’s voices felt ALL WRONG, and we all three started yelling, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”
At one point last year, my son turned to me and said, “Mommy, you are getting really good at making food that I like.” I realize this was (probably?) intended as a compliment and not a backhanded nod at my servitude, but I still thought my children might benefit from listening to stories about families for whom everyday life is about making ends meet, sharing workloads, and prioritizing family togetherness. There is perhaps no sweeter cure for entitlement than Sydney Taylor’s classic about a Jewish-American immigrant family (think five daughters with another on the way), living in turn-of-the-century New York City. These are stories about penny-pinching, but they’re also stories about growing up in a time when being tall enough to reach the letterbox was a thrill worth savoring, when a single lost library book could lead to weeks of hard work and sisterly collaboration. As a bonus, my kids got a primer on Jewish traditions and holidays, and Toren’s rendition of the father’s Yiddish accent is pretty awesome.
Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read by Cherry Jones (Ages 6-12)
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s loosely autobiographical stories have inspired some of the best hours I’ve spent with my children this year—and not just listening to them, but discussing them. I had read the first five books to my children years ago and they loved them then, but what we lose in Garth Williams’ warm pencil sketches is more than made up for with the addition of real fiddle music, which opens and closes chapters and which Pa delights in sharing with his girls. Cherry Jones is a masterful reader, quiet and understated, conjuring up young Laura’s wide eyes as much as Pa’s seasoned chuckling ones, and enfolding us in her storytelling like we were all snuggled up under a warm quilt. We are now seven books in and gearing up to finish with Laura’s “grown-up” years in These Happy Golden Years and The First Four Years.
HOLD UP, people. I need to say two things to the nay-sayers (among them, my husband, who playfully teases us, “So what happened in the book today? Did they paint the house and sit around for four hours watching it dry?”). For those who think the Little House books are boringly old-fashioned or (horror) just for girls, I offer up my nine year son as proof: no one gets in the car faster to listen to the next installment than him—not even his younger sister, who talks about Laura, Mary, and Carrie as if they were her own siblings. Pioneer life is fraught with hardship and ruin at every turn, be it blizzards or bears or fire or swarming grasshoppers. It’s the very essence of grit.
For those who think the Little House books are racist: you’re right. The treatment of Native Americans, while realistic for the period in which the stories are set, is grossly stereotypical, often uncomfortable, and certainly—as with many classics—demanding of discussion and supplemental reading (I strongly suggest the historically accurate Kaya series by American Girl, about a Nez Perce girl living in the 1700s).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum, performed by Anne Hathaway (Ages 6-12)
This recording alone might be enough to justify an Audible subscription (Audible likes to put out exclusive recordings by Hollywood celebs). Before listening to Anne Hathaway perform L. Frank Baum’s original text—more lighthearted, humorous, and fabulously weird than the Judy Garland movie, with a vast and ever-changing cast of characters—I would not have thought it possible for one person to create so many unique voices. How Hathaway manages to do just that, then seamlessly bounce back and forth between them all, I’ll never know, but I guess that’s why she gets paid the Big Bucks. Here’s another case where we had read the book together as a family a few years ago, but it was like falling in love all over again.
The Witches, written by Roald Dahl, performed by Miranda Richardson (Ages 8-12)
While we’re on the subject of witches (and celebrities), let’s talk about my favorite Roald Dahl book from when I was a child (yup, here I go, telling you once again to share Roald Dahl with your children). True, this one is not for the faint of heart, being about real witches lurking under the disguise of regular-looking people, but the breathless terror with which I turned its pages as a child no doubt contributed to my love of reading today. How then could I resist a performance by Miranda Richardson, whose voice for the Grand High Witch will come dangerously close to blowing out your car speakers, at the same time that her soft, matter-of-fact delivery of the protagonist’s Grandmamma will make you wish you had a Norwegian grandmother of your own? As with all Dahl’s stories, the cleverness of a hapless young child outsmarts the lot of them.
(Whatever you do, don’t let your kids listen to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. It’s a liability. I simply cannot endorse it. I mean, you would be setting a bad example—your children might laugh at such disgusting, despicable behavior. Heck, they might even start making up their own stories about beards that never get washed or gluing furniture to the ceiling. Ok, fine, I can see some of you are going to do it anyway. Just don’t say you did it on my advice.)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, read by Barbara Caruso (Ages 8-12)
Of all the stories listed here, this is the most complex: a fantastical tale of a group of escaped, highly intelligent lab rats, who build a high-tech civilization under a stretch of farmland, and an ordinary field mouse, who discovers their secret on her quest to save her children. But it might also be the most intellectually rewarding. It won the Newberry Medal in 1971, and it was another favorite of mine as a child (I remember thinking Mrs. Frisby was the bravest mother in the world). What I didn’t remember are the fascinating ethical questions raised by the novel. What is intelligence? What if every species could learn to read? What is community? How should we treat one another—and at what expense?
I’ve already alluded to the joy of listening to these stories in a previous post, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you ever have the chance to listen to E.B. White read his own prose, seize it with open ears.
Boredom can be good, certainly it is necessary, but it doesn’t have to happen in the car. I promise my next list will include more contemporary reads, but in the meantime, happy back-to-school season and happy listening.
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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com (Audible) affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!