On reading books to children

You don’t have to know me well to know that I love books.

I love books indiscriminately. I read biographies, mysteries, sci fi/fantasy novels. I read ‘chick lit’ in spite of hating its category name. I read young adult and adult fiction of all possible brows. There is nothing like a book to fall into, to expand yourself beyond what is possible and inhabit the breadth and depth of someone else’s imagination. When I was young, people said that if I loved books so much I should become a teacher (though I have yet to see the connection). My college job was librarian assistant, and I developed a powerful ‘shush’ – mostly because people’s talking interrupted my reading at the desk.

I loved school because as I grew it was increasingly a place where people read books and talked about them all day long. That’s how I got my degrees, and why I considered staying on to get more. But, and this is perhaps important, none of my degrees were in English Literature.

That’s because I’d seen too many good stories tortured in those classes, poems read and analyzed line by line. It was terrible, and I’d howl in my head just read it out, let us hear it first. Narratives aren’t meant to be dismantled in this way, and knowing facts is not the same as understanding.

This all came back to me recently, when I listened to a parent reading to their small child. The father’s intention was to “quieten” the boy before leaving him with me by reading his favorite book. At the end of every page, this well-meaning father interrupted the story for a pop quiz – by which I mean a small question that the father already knew the answer to.

The penguins came down to the water…” he’d read. “Now, Tom. What do penguins eat?” And Tom would be obliged to say “fishes”, before the page was turned.

And baby penguin looked for his Grandma Peggy…” came the next installment. “What is your Grandma’s name, Tom?” Tom started to get frustrated and reached for the page himself, which the father held down with his thumb. “No, Tom. Now, point to the baby penguin and I’ll continue.”

Observing this, I have rarely been so grateful for being able to read to myself. The thing is though, it is hardly an uncommon practice. I’ve seen teachers do it very successfully, with a whole class full of children who gleefully scream at a specific character, or quack like a duck, or whatever other audience participation is asked of them. I’ve seen reading circles that reminded me of productions of Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the crowd knowing their call backs and thrilled to shout them out. But this particular instance bothered me, because it seemed so unwilling.

Eventually, the story was done and the father left. The child and I looked at each other.

“So,” I said. He looked me in the eye and held up the book. “Okay then,” I said, and we were off.

Here is a synopsis of what I did:

  • Read the book I was given approximately 984721 times in a row
  • Let Tom turn the pages back and forth, regardless of whether I’d finished
  • Read whatever page I was on, no matter what order they came in
  • Hear “AGAIN AGAIN AGAIN” many, many times
  • Feel the neurons of my brain begin to melt in the face of 100 words repeated endlessly, until all meaning was eroded from them, then
  • Remind myself of the weekend I had recently lost to watching Deadwood. Wasn’t hitting ‘next episode’ for hours in a row kind of the same thing as this? And was the vocabulary of that show really any better?
  • Begin to see a deeper, more melancholy meaning in this story of a penguin off to see his Grandmother. Peggy Penguin? Surely hers had not been an easy life.

I felt that, dross as this book was, it deserved to be read honestly. This child deserved to have a book read to him as he might read it himself, straight through or skipping as he pleased. It seemed that this might be more helpful than treating the book like a video game, in which each level had to be unlocked from within the one before. It seemed better than treating a book as test, or as a reward for passing a series of tests that never ended – not in school or at home, not ever.

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3 thoughts on “On reading books to children

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