Monday, October 6, 2008

The Never-Ending Story time

We are a reading family. Early on, I made it a parenting goal to make sure all the members of our family liked to read. Once a child was six months old, the picture books began in earnest. Many a day when they were preschoolers, I would sit with several on my lap and read till my voice was gone. Regular trips to the library were a must, and as the kids were growing up, we visited the library weekly except for one short period of time. This was when one child was determined to tear pages out of any book he could reach, and we just couldn’t afford to replace library books on a weekly basis. But since that stage passed, the librarians came to expect us, and knew most of us on a first name basis.

There were many times when picture book reading was spontaneous—several times a day, in fact. We had favorites that we never tired of; Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel looms most prominently in my memory. Some books were favorites of one but left others screaming for escape. Look Baby, See Baby, Do Baby comes to mind as a picture book that the preschoolers chose for mom to “read”, but it drove dad nuts because there were no words in it to read.

Once the children graduated to books without pictures, family reading time began in earnest. I was always the reader because, being hearing-impaired, doing the reading myself would ensure that I heard the story. Every night that we could pull it off, we had a short fifteen-minute read-aloud time after dinner from the book we were currently working on. Groans of disappointment usually greeted the announcement that we didn’t have time that evening for story time. Dad always made the announcement because I never would. Groans were also the response when once again Dad made the announcement to me to find a stopping place for the night. “Please, Dad, one more chapter!” they would beg. I was as bad as the kids. “Gee, honey, don’t you think we could get in a few more pages.” I have a difficult time feeling guilty about the guilt I put my husband through in choosing to stop. And in truth, he didn’t want to stop either—but boring things needed to get done sometime, like finances. Thanks, sweetie, for doing them so faithfully!

It was amazing how many books we could get through in a year. The progress in a book sky-rocketed whenever vacation time rolled around. We would read aloud in the car for as long as my voice held up as we drove down the road. It was considered a serious failure on my part to forget the water bottle so my voice would last longer. I had to sit in the back row of the minivan and project my voice as loudly as I could so that the front row could hear over the roar of semis rumbling by. This was the only time I cried for mercy to stop story reading, and even then I stopped only when my dry throat protested with fits of coughing that even the water bottle couldn’t stop.

Somehow books-on-tape never took off for us as a family. With one exception. I got in the habit of having a book-on-tape ready to go whenever I was driving the kids around town. There was a period of time when the same people were in the same car every day and we managed to listen to a minimum of a dozen books a year while that lasted. We even developed a preference for particular narrators. Some were so good, we have listened to them read the same book multiple times. Under the Blood Red Sun narrated by Johnny Heller is one, as well as The Phantom Toll-Booth, and The Pushcart War, by other narrators.

Does reading aloud turn the listeners into readers themselves? Seems to work for us. I once read that if you finished one book a year you were in the top 5% of readers in the United States. Is that pathetic or what? All my kids are way above the top 5% then. Kids who read supposedly score very well on SATs. I won’t say what my kid’s scores have been, but they have supported that theory. It has also been reported that families who have dinner together, will have kids who score well on their SATs. Our family’s experience supports that evidence too, since you have to have dinner together, to read after dinner together!

Several decades ago I decided to make a list of every book I could think of that I had read. Since I made the list, I continued to add to it the books I was currently reading. The entries on the list are simple: the month and year I finished reading it, the title, the author. It’s helpful for a number of reasons. Now that short-term memory is getting challenging, I don’t have to think up what title or author of a book I am trying to remember. I can look it up. When my kids ask me what would be a good book to read, I can get out my list and say, “Have you read this yet?” It also helps me see gaps in my reading selections, or inspires me to do a reading project. Once I put three years aside and read everything that Charles Dickens ever wrote. And yes, I did read every word of Bleak House. I have done the same thing with other favorite authors since and find it a satisfying reading style. I am reading biographies of presidents now, and make sure I get another history book in every year.

For a while I read more juvenile novels than adult fiction. That has paid off in being able to make firsthand recommendations to my kids. Plus when books are assigned at school, I don’t have to wonder if it’s any good, or if I need to protest the assignment, or sit down and have a talk with my kid about what my objections to it are and why. Many times I have already read it, or if not, put it at the top of my list of must-reads.

Making reading aloud a family tradition has paid off. All of my kids do read, and often ask me what I recommend. I have given some of them a list of books that they should read before they die. My oldest sons and I often go out to lunch together after they have completed one of those books, and we discuss it over a deli sandwich or Aubree’s pizza. And now they tell me what books I need to read too. I would not probably have thought of choosing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Ender’s Game if they hadn’t slipped me the suggestion. We’ll go to see the movie versions too, and agree afterwards that the book was better. And then they will tell me of another book on a never-ending list of must-read stories.

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