Thursday, March 3, 2011

Reading Out Loud

Do you have kids?  Better yet, do you have kids young enough to enjoy stories read to them?

You might be surprised how young that is - or isn't.  Visiting a sister in Massachusetts a few years ago, our vacation coincided with the release of one of the Harry Potter novels.

Well.  We were well and truly hooked on the Potter novels, like about 40% of the entire human population.  We all piled into our assorted vehicles and drove into New Hampshire to a nearby bookstore, and snapped up the very last one they had, an unreserved jacketed copy that no one wanted to pay extra for.

I paid extra.  It was worth it.  If nothing else, the hard slipcover protected the book during the rest of our trip.

So that first night, we all got back to my sister's place and sat down to read the first chapter.  The boys were pretty young then, still single digits if I remember rightly.  But we got through the first two chapters and had a blast.  My sister wandered in and out, then in...then out...then in and stayed put.  Her husband - we'll call him Steve (because his name is Steve) seemed vaguely disinterested at first, but when I closed the book for the evening, he looked a little disappointed.

The next night after supper was over and showers were finished and everybody was in pajamas, I opened the book and was about to start reading when..."Wait for me!"  Steve came downstairs.

The next night, Steve brought the book to me and said, "You're reading tonight, right?"

So there you are.  You aren't too old to be read to, not ever.  Steve and my sister have kids of their own now, and I'm pretty sure they read to them.

If you ever wanted to be the star of a show but were certain you didn't have the gumption to actually get on stage, reading for kids makes you a star and the kids are a forgiving audience.  You don't have to memorize lines when they're already written out for you.

Maybe you think your reading skills aren't that great.  Again - kids don't mind it much.  And after you've read out loud for a few months, you'll notice your reading is smoother, your delivery more polished.  It helps a lot if the story you're reading is already familiar to you, but it's by no means necessary.

Doing different voices for the characters is huge fun.  Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's singularly distinctive FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast is a genteel New Orleans native, his drawl and subtlety are the height of manners of a different era, although Preston and Child's series of novels really aren't for young listeners.  Rubeus Hagrid, the gigantic gamekeeper so familiar to Harry Potter fans, is a rough, gravelly voice from what is actually a gentle man.

I got to practice my assorted English accents reading the entire collection of James Herriot's works.  Herriot's country vet career and barnyard workplace made him a verbal romp of inflections and tones.  Granted, neither son remembers those stories very much, since I read those books out loud when they were just babies, trying to sleep and needing to hear a voice to help lull them down.

But when your kids start to get old enough to talk, and to show an interest in reading, why then is the time to really pull out the stops.  Feel pretty good about your childhood?  Read those kids stuff you read for yourself.  I liked Henry Huggins and Homer Price, even though some of those stories were from a different time.  Contemporary, not hardly.  But they were fun nonetheless, so I couldn't get enough of them.  And when it came time for my kids to get a good story, I found them at the library and read them out loud.

By the time my kids could read, I knew it was time to break out the big guns: Dr. Seuss, Theo LeSieg (same guy actually), the Berenstain Bears.  All the books I muddled through as I made sense of those peculiar squiggly shapes, putting the letters together into sounds, the sounds together into words, I still had.  Same copies, stashed away all those years.  I still have some of them even now, waiting for grandkids.  Maybe someday.

A kid in your lap as you read out loud can't help but see those words on the page.  Follow along with your fingers, show him what the word is when you make the sound, he starts to pick it up.  It's a head start, and that's always a good thing.  Kids who are read to are more imaginative, more creative.  They have greater patience for things that happen at a slower pace - have you ever tried to watch a single episode of Tiny Toon Adventures?  If you aren't ADHD before the show, you will be by the time it's done.  Everything is so fast, topics change so rapidly, it's no wonder so many kids have trouble focusing on one thing for any length of time.  They've been trained not to.

So train your kids from a young age to be patient, to listen, to be creative.  Turn off the TV and you be the star for a while, draw your family around you and share a good book.  It's great fun, and the results pay off for years and years afterward.

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