On Reading Stories Aloud

One of my vivid memories from childhood is that of my Dad reading to the family. For parents to read books to their kids is nothing unusual in itself, but my Dad’s approach was perhaps a bit different for modern times. He didn’t read “kids’ books” and he didn’t do much to simplify the wording. Instead, he pretty much read the text verbatim and let the words work on us as they would. The titles favored historical subjects and classics of literature from the 18th and 19th centuries. I can recall several of the titles, covered sometime between when I was 3 and 8 years old:

  • Tom Sawyer
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Treasure Island
  • Gods, Graves, and Scholars (stories of famous archaeological discoveries)
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • I Married Adventure (autobiography)
  • Pioneer Memories (a book published by my great grandfather)
  • Swiss Family Robinson
  • Around the World In Eighty Days

In some ways, my experience probably resembled that of many kids growing up in the 1800’s, when literature, read aloud, was a primary form of entertainment. And I perceived it that way: I don’t recall feeling bored, or getting lost and not knowing what was going on in the story. I found the books to be interesting and enjoyable. My dad read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was five years old; although I have not read the book since, I remember quite a few bits of it and how they affected me. I remember being inspired by the plucky slave-girl Topsy (perhaps a week after reading about her, my dad spanked me for some reason and I responded, “Aw, that was nothing!”). I perceived the cruelty of Simon Legree. And I felt moved to sadness and spiritual longing by Uncle Tom’s semi-martyrdom at the end of the book.

As I said, my dad didn’t simplify too much. Occasionally, he would explain a word or background concept, but most of the time the story just flowed without interruption, and it was up to me to catch and keep what, in retrospect, was quite a bit more than many adults might have expected.

We watched so little TV that my retention of things I watched was probably about as good as for the literature. But somehow I suspect, that if our TV had been going as much as it did at many of our neighbors’ houses, I would remember neither the programs nor the stories—the latter because I likely would have been bored, and paid less attention.

Fast-forward thirty years to when I had a baby girl. I had always known that when I had kids, I would read to them. I even compiled a list of likely titles. So, when my daughter was one month old, I sat down next to her blanket on the floor and began to read nursery rhymes. She listened. She seemed to like them, so I kept it up. I began with poetry and then began to work stories into the mix. When she was sixteen months old, she sat on my lap and listened as I read Bread and Jam for Frances from start to finish. She seemed to have an incredible appetite for books, and almost never wanted to stop. So we kept going…and going.

My wife and I later had two boys, and I read to them as well. They liked stories, but their tastes (and stamina) weren’t always in line with their sister. Sometimes I read to the group, sometimes one-on-one; sometimes we switched off, alternating stories and nights.

Over the course of time, a few ground rules emerged. Here, in a nutshell, is how I did reading:

  • Read every night. (We were very consistent about this.)
  • It’s got to be fun. (It’s great if the kids learn something from the stories; it’s great if it helps them to develop certain mental capacities…but the main intention behind my reading was never to further that purpose. When a former teacher suggested that I try to work a teaching component into the reading, I refused. I felt that adding a new agenda would tend to corrupt the kids’ experience.)
  • It’s got to be fun for everyone, both the kids and me. (When my youngest son got burned out on Huckleberry Finn, we cut if off and went on to the next book. Similarly, when my boys wanted me to read a Pokemon book, I read it for one night and demurred the next; it just wasn’t working for me.)
  • Adjustments to the reading schedule were never associated with rewards or punishments. (I have always felt that the fun of the story should be reward enough. And even if one of my kids was being a pill, I would still read to them if at all possible.)
  • Openness: If I had planned to read with Kid A and Kid B asked to listen, I never refused. If Kid A had a problem with that, I would defend Kid B’s right to listen to the story.
  • I was happy to repeat books that were popular. (I believe I made about four passes through all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, reading them to Camille over the course of 6-7 years, and at least as many through the Penrod books.)

I have always read out loud with expression, but with daily repetition I polished this and experimented with new approaches. I started to read in different voices: male and female, with various accents, and so on. I probably won’t ever win a Tony award, but I tried to be consistent and my kids never complained. It was fun.

I started reading to my baby girl Camille in August of 2004. As I write this on June 3, 2018, I know that tonight I intend to read a chapter or two of Rendezvous With Rama to my boys. (Camille finally dropped out last year; I think thirteen years was pretty good.)

Here is a fairly complete list of all the “chapter books” we have read at least once, from cover to cover, over the years (PDF download version):

Death of King Arthur, The

Ackroyd, Peter

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Adams, Douglas

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Adams, Douglas

Mostly Harmless

Adams, Douglas

Restaurant at the end of the Universe

Adams, Douglas

So Long and Thanks for all the Fish

Adams, Douglas

Tales from Watership Down

Adams, Richard

Watership Down

Adams, Richard

Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery

Arthur, Robert (editor)

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Bach, Richard

Little Princess, A

Burnett, Frances Hodgson

Secret Garden, The

Burnett, Frances Hodgson

Rendezvous With Rama

Clarke, Arthur

Mouse and the Motorcycle, The

Cleary, Beverly

Ribsy

Cleary, Beverly

R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH

Conly, Jane Leslie

Rasco and the Rats of NIMH

Conly, Jane Leslie

BFG, The

Dahl, Roald

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Dahl, Roald

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Dahl, Roald

Danny, Champion of the World

Dahl, Roald

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Dahl, Roald

George’s Marvelous Medicine

Dahl, Roald

Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The

Dahl, Roald

James and the Giant Peach

Dahl, Roald

Mathilda

Dahl, Roald

Witches, The

Dahl, Roald

Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

Dahl, Roald

Christmas Carol, A

Dickens, Charles

David Copperfield

Dickens, Charles

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

His Last Bow

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Hound of the Baskervilles, The

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Return of Sherlock Holmes

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Sherlock Holmes Casebook

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Sign of Four, The

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Study in Scarlet, A

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Valley of Fear, The

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

Child’s Book of Poems, A

Fujikawa, Gyo

Golden Book of Myths and Legends

Golden Press

Dinotopia

Gurney, James

Read-Aloud Poems for Young People

Hale, Gloria (editor)

George and the Unbreakable Code

Hawking, Lucy & Stephen

George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt

Hawking, Lucy & Stephen

George and the Big Bang

Hawking, Lucy & Stephen

All Creatures Great and Small

Herriot, James

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Herriot, James

All Things Wise and Wonderful

Herriot, James

Every Living Thing

Herriot, James

The Lord God Made Them All

Herriot, James

Tales of the Alhambra

Irving, Washington

Wrinkle In Time, A

L’Engle, Madeleine

Horse and His Boy, The

Lewis, C.S.

Last Battle, The

Lewis, C.S.

Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The

Lewis, C.S.

Magician’s Nephew, The

Lewis, C.S.

Prince Caspian

Lewis, C.S.

Silver Chair, The

Lewis, C.S.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Lewis, C.S.

Pippi Longstocking

Lindgren, Astrid

The fairy ring, or, Elsie and Frances fool the world

Losure, Mary

House at Pooh Corner, The

Milne, A.A.

Winnie the Pooh

Milne, A.A.

Emily of New Moon

Montgomery, L. M.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

O’Brien, Robert C.

Animal Farm

Orwell, George

Chinese Fairy Tales

Peter Pauper Press

Japanese Fairy Tales

Peter Pauper Press

Rude Tales and Glorious

Seare, Nicholas

Treasure Island

Stevenson, Robert Louis

Dracula

Stoker, Bram

Penrod

Tarkington, Booth

Penrod and Sam

Tarkington, Booth

Penrod Jashber

Tarkington, Booth

Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien, J.R.R.

Hobbit, The

Tolkien, J.R.R.

Return of the King

Tolkien, J.R.R.

Two Towers, The

Tolkien, J.R.R.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain, Mark

Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Twain, Mark

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, A

Twain, Mark

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Twain, Mark

Tom Sawyer Abroad

Twain, Mark

Tom Sawyer, Detective

Twain, Mark

Various short stories

Twain, Mark

Charlotte’s Web

White, E.B.

Stuart Little

White, E.B.

Trumpet of the Swan, The

White, E.B.

Little House on the Prairie

Wilder, Laura Ingalls

 

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