Reading to Other People

Oh yes. Reading to other people, sure. Every parent does that (or ought to if life circumstances permit). I read to my kids, too. From an early age, I’ve read board books, explained every page in a picture book, and assisted with lift-the-flap books. But this past month, my 5-year-old daughter has shown the patience to sit through a novel, one chapter at a time, over the course of a few weeks. This is a big deal for me.

I like the sound of my own voice, but more truthfully I really enjoy reading or speaking to other people, adding dramatic flourish to whatever I’m sharing. In high school I competed in storytelling events (I placed well at the state level reading Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man). Starting in college, I read books to Valerie before she was my wife. Now I’m terribly unromantic, so I’ll just say it was selfishly motivated; Valerie and I were both reading the Harry Potter series, but because we read at different rates, I thought reading to her would ensure we could talk about the books without spoiling anything for one of us. Our couple’s reading time continued out of college and into our marriage as we finished up Harry Potter, with a little bit of To Kill a Mocking Bird thrown in to mix things up.

And that was it, for many years. I’m terrible at reading anything these days, and the quote-unquote golden age of television has taken most of our attention when we want to consume some kind of media, especially after full days of work and parenting.

But then at a January book fair, my daughter judged a book by its cover. She saw a chapter book with a mermaid on the cover, and insisted we get it. Before I said anything, she said that she knew it had no pictures except for the tiny illustrations at the top of each chapter, but she wanted it anyway. The book was cheap enough, and we bought it. I read it to her nearly every night for over two weeks, and she was excited to tell me that she was seeing pictures in her mind about the story I was reading. It was a perfectly innocuous young adult novel (the first in a 6-part series, naturally…), but hardly great literature. If she had the patience to sit through this modest story, however, she was probably ready for something better…

A few weeks ago, my daughter told her mother and me that her kindergarten teacher has been reading Roald Dahl’s The B.F.G to the class, and she loves it. So last week I went to the library and checked out a copy of Matilda.

Let me tell you, the past week of reading has been an absolute joy for my daughter and me. I’d forgotten just how well Dahl tells a story, and how much the text begs to be read aloud with dramatic interpretation. The book is even filled with extensive descriptions of the tone and posture of various speakers, making for frequently loud and hilarious bedtime storytelling. I see, from the corner of my eye as I read, my daughter alternately hiding under her blanket and bouncing around with anticipation, or cackling at some of the incidents and conversations. The whole thing has reminded me of the fun of my earlier days.

I have to give credit where it’s due, of course. My own mom read both The B.F.G. and Matilda to my brothers and me. Those days were filled with howling laughter from my mom as much as us boys. And I can’t forget my 7th grade English teacher who spent the second half of the school year reading The Princess Bride to my class. I’d seen the movie a million times by then, but I think there’s a reason the film adaptation is framed as a story-telling visit.

My head is swirling with possibilities and books now, and I’m pretty excited about future reading. Of course there are more Dahl books, and C.S. Lewis, and eventually Harry Potter. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of unfamiliar books outside my own childhood or cultural experience. I just hope her own developing reading skills don’t make her bored of my voice too quickly.