“Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice,” writes Megan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer for the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. “Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is!”
Indeed! Among my many warm childhood memories is the satisfaction of my parents allowing my sister Barbara and me to each choose a Little Golden Book every week when our family shopped together for groceries. Or rather, our parents shopped while we carefully browsed the rack of inexpensive but sturdy books. Barb and I shared a bedroom and our parents would read from our big stack of Golden Books to us every night before tucking us in. As a parent, I did the same for my own two daughters, and have boxed and saved their favorite books for them to share with their children.
As Ms. Cox Gurdon points out, hearing stories read aloud fosters imagination in a way that movies cannot. She quotes a friend, a film producer who is also a mother: “Creating that world [of the spoken word] in your head is a muscle that must be exercised. Kids now are being spoon-fed visual storytelling, so there’s no reason for them to close their eyes and imagine a world, imagine what those people would look like, the clothes and smells and landscapes.”
I don’t believe the film producer is knocking children’s books, where illustrations enhance the words to our stories. Hearing books read aloud and studying the dozen or so illustrations in a typical picture book requires active listening. Watching “moving pictures” – whether on television or an iPad – is a passive experience that requires nothing of the child’s imagination.
Teachers, too, can foster children’s imaginations by reading aloud to them in the classroom. I hope this great pleasure has not been pushed aside by the current educational frenzy that pushes teachers into spending huge segments of time prepping students for standardized tests. All my elementary teachers regularly read aloud to us. My favorite, Miss Miracle, (who could forget a teacher with such a name!) would have us cross our arms on our desks and put our heads down. She walked around the room giving gentle pats to our backs as she read. (Or maybe she was checking to make sure we were awake. Whatever! I loved hearing her voice and imagining pictures to go with the stories.)
As a picture book author, all those hours of being read to have served me well. I can’t draw a lick – and have tremendous admiration for illustrators of my books – but I can imagine the pictures that will flesh out my stories. Nearly always, the illustrator’s visual interpretation of my words astonishes me and fills me with gratitude. Yes!
Writers, like parents and teachers, have an essential and – in Ms. Cox Gurdon’s words, “impossibly lovely” job. Our words foster children’s imaginations and love of reading, as well as their physical attachment to books.
Years ago, a woman showed up in my old office near the OSU campus, having tracked me down through Charlesbridge Publishing. Her niece’s family, who lived in a small central Ohio town, had lost nearly everything in a house fire. Among the losses was my picture book, Firefly Night. The aunt was unable to find it in a bookstore because it was out of print (or as I prefer to think of it – sold out). I keep multiple copies of my books, so I signed one and gave it to her. It made me happy to think I could give this little girl back at least one of the things she had lost.
‘You can access the full article by typing “The Great Gift of Reading Aloud” by Megan Cox Gurdon as a search term. If you are a WSJ subscriber, follow this link to the online edition: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-great-gift-of-reading-aloud-1436561248