Read to Me

Originally published in Home Education Magazine

 September-October 2012

“If you can get ready for bed in 10 minutes – teeth, potty and jammies – then we’ll have time to do read aloud.”
 
My horde of four thunders past, jockeying for position as they crash up the stairs.  (Are there only four?  They sound like 20.)
 
“First in the bathroom!!” bellows the oldest.
 
“Second!!” yell the rest.
 
“Youngest to oldest in the bathroom!” I can yell with the best of them.
 
Two minutes later, my youngest runs into the family room and vaults over the arm of the couch.
 
“Ready!” he shouts, blankie and favorite stuffies in hand.
 
In two minute intervals, the remaining three come bounding in, splaying across pillows on the floor, arranging blankets just so, nudging one another with toes.
 
“Are you all here? Is everyone brushed and jammied?”
 
“Yes!!” “Read! Read!” they chorus.
 
“OK,” I say, sitting in my designated chair. They are expectant, waiting. “Who wants to give a quick summary? Where did we leave off last time?”
 
The quiet attentiveness is shattered by everyone trying to out-shout the others to answer. I let the cacophony continue for a minute and then interrupt to designate one person to summarize. My younger daughter is 10 and although she has a tendency to ramble in her wrap-ups, she has a sharp memory and often mentions important details even I’ve forgotten.
 
And then I read.
 
The kids are still. They are silent. They are listening. They are beyond listening; they’re riveted. I pause, infrequently, to explain the occasional big word or archaic activity. They laugh at the funny parts, they cry at the sad parts, they writhe in agony when chapters end with cliff hangers.
 
And no matter how long I read – I think my record is an hour and I stopped because I’d lost my voice – it’s never enough. Every time I close the book, I’m met with a chorus of protest, of begging for more, of indignation – you can’t stop noooowwwww, not theeeeerrrree!
 
My kids range in age from eight through 15, boys and girls, and we’ve been “doing read aloud,” as we call it, for the last three or four years. We’ve read about mermaids, pirates, rabbits, and evil men intent on world domination. And no matter what we’re reading, everyone relishes the time.
 
I think I started doing this because I thought it was “educational,” and as a new homeschooler, I was anxious to justify every minute by making sure it fit that description. I also wanted to be sure I impressed upon the kids the importance of books and the superiority of reading over other leisure activities. But those justifications evaporated long ago. Now I do it simply because we all love it so much. It’s a peaceful, shared experience, largely free of mom nagging or siblings bickering. We laugh together, we worry together, we wonder what comes next together. We have inside jokes that are now part of our family vernacular; we still sing Happy Birthday with a German accent and think of Torpedoman Ober (and you’ll have to read Nick of Time to appreciate that reference). We use read aloud books to place ourselves in time, as in “Remember the summer we read The Penderwicks?” This reminds me of what it is like to vacation together and create common memories.
 
People are sometimes surprised when I mention that I read aloud to all the kids.  “Aren’t they a little old for that?” they ask. Too old for what? Doing something fun, relaxing, and wholesome together as a family? “Can’t they read to themselves?” Yes, they can do lots of things themselves now, including read (which they do a lot of on their own), but reading can be just as enjoyable to do as a group. “How do you find books that they all will like?” Well, honestly, that hasn’t been a problem, and I don’t think it’s entirely because of my terrific book selections, although no one wants to read the phone book of course. I suspect it’s because what they enjoy the most are the warm feelings of togetherness; the plot is, frankly, secondary. There are few if any other pursuits that bring us this close together and that we all cherish as an inalienable family tradition.
 
“This is all well and good in your home,” you may be thinking, “but it would never work in mine. My kids are too young, too old, too rambunctious, too busy, too independent. My kids would think this was old-fashioned and boring.”
 
Well, maybe they are, and maybe they will. But I heartily encourage you to try it anyway. With a minimum of effort, you can make these Norman Rockwell moments happen in your house, too. Here are a few suggestions on how to get started:
 
1.    Make it fun. Let me say that one again – make it fun. Loosen up! Use different voices for each character. Pull out those random foreign accents and put them to use. I’m no actor, but a little bit goes a long way.


2.    Read every day, preferably at the same time. If you only read sporadically, the kids will forget the story and nothing about the reading aloud experience will be compelling.


3.    Before you begin reading, ask one of the kids to remind the group where you left off last time. This helps get everyone back up to speed and able to listen to what comes next without having to simultaneously remember what happened yesterday. I’ve noticed my younger children are thrilled to provide yesterday’s summary; I think it makes them feel older.


4.    Don’t turn this into an academic opportunity. Just enjoy the reading and the time together.

 

Now you’ve got the kids lined up on the couch, you’ve practiced your Irish accent, and you’ve turned off the TV and the phone. What do you read? Here are a handful of our favorites. They are all fairly well written and suspenseful enough that most days my children were all clamoring, whining, pleading for me to read another chapter. In no particular order:
 
1.    The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall. Although all three books in this series center on four girls and their summer adventures, boys would be happy to listen to these as well (and there are boys in the stories). These are great for summer reads, as they take place during summer vacations. They have an old-fashioned charm, with kids running through the woods instead of texting, and school is only tangential.


2.    The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. If you enjoyed reading The Velveteen Rabbit, if you have ever loved a stuffed animal, this is the book for you. I had trouble reading it because it made me cry (and all of my kids did, too, even my 12 year old son).


3.    The Doll People, by Ann Martin and Laura Godwin. There are three books in this series, each telling the adventures of doll house figures that come to life. What kid hasn’t imagined that scenario? The first book is the strongest of the trio.


4.    The Tail of Emily Windsnap, by Liz Kessler. What if you found out one day that you were half mermaid? Although this book is a little bubble-gummy, and the writing declines as the series progresses (there are several sequels), it is charming and cute, and yes, even my sons tolerated it. Another favorite family saying came out of this series, which we all deliver in a deep, commanding voice: “I order it!”


5.    Watership Down, by Richard Adams.This is a children’s classic, a story of rabbits, survival, and friendship. These are real rabbits, not cute fluffy bunnies, and there is enough violence and outdoorsiness to keep any boy on the edge of his seat. This is a long book, and therefore intimidating, I think, for a child to pick up and read on his own. This is a book that everyone should read in their lifetime so why not read it with your kids?


6.    Poppy, by Avi. Another tale of animals in the wild, this is the first of several in the series about the adventures of a courageous outdoor mouse. Perfect for either gender.


7.    The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. A gifted boy finds himself being trained by a criminal and, with other children, must find an escape. This is also a series, but as much as we enjoyed the first book, I found the second disappointing and we haven’t read any further.


8.    Nick of Time, by Ted Bell. This is the story of a 12 year old seafaring boy who battles both time-traveling pirates and Nazis. There are lines from this book that are now part of our family vernacular, and we’ve all perfected our German accents.  The sequel is next up in our reading queue.


9.    Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. These are hilarious, true stories from a family of 12 children circa 1920, written by two of the kids, and these tales still resonate today. (Two words of warning: the father dies at the end, although it is neither morbid nor crushingly sad; and there is one vignette that mentions birth control, without detail, but if this is a topic you don’t wish to discuss, you can easily skip this essay without impacting the flow of the book). And if you’re a movie watching family, you might try the 1950s version with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy; it’s very true to the book. This book also has a sequel, which we have nearly finished.
 
There is a whole world of books out there for you to explore with your kids, and although they may not remember the plot of every read aloud you do, they will remember the tranquility of this time spent together. Grab the kids, grab a book, grab a couch, and get started making memories they will carry forever. It’s never too late to start a beautiful new tradition.