Aim High

Reading aloud to your children starts when your children are small, before they can read to themselves.  It starts with toddlers learning that those spines on the shelf contain a world of color and variety and surprise, pages filled with animals and imaginative places – a limitless world of mountains and rainbows and forests and ice cream cones and creatures galore.

At some point, though, you and your child make the mysterious transition from reading picture books to reading chapter books.  When this happens, narrative begins to matter more, the illustrations less.  But good literature still has other “illustrative” pleasures – the skill and tone of the author; the unique way he/she paints with words; the felicitous or memorable phrases or moments conjured in the mind; the creation of characters and snatches of dialogue that hit home emotionally and stay with you (and your listener) long after a book is closed.

All of this comes from good literature, of any length, aimed at any reading level.  It can come from William Steig’s little 170 pp. gem, Dominic, or from behemoths like the final installments of the Harry Potter series.  The rewards are varied – from Steig’s choice vocabulary to J.K. Rowling’s indelible moments, both humorous and scary.  But they come from painting with words, from the skill and artistry of the author’s prose, and from his/her effectiveness at sparking a child’s imagination to conjure and envision those words and worlds and moments.

These pleasures and rewards are of course available in all literature, including or especially literature written for or aimed at (or primarily consumed by) adults.  And I am here suggest that you can share some of these works, too, with your children – as a family.  You don’t have to confine yourself to the children’s section of the library or bookstore – as rich as it may be.  Sometime you may want a different source of variety and you shouldn’t be afraid to try to branch out to a higher level of the shelf.  It will be good for your children – horizon-expanding – and salutary for you as the adult reader.

None of us want our children to grow up too fast.  From the time they are 2 to the time they are 17 we are constantly aware of the undulating way in which our children can seem young and carefree and silly, and the way they can be alternately mature and precocious and sophisticated.  But there is an awfully wide area of balance in between.  I know in my house, sometimes my children want to watch a silly movie that I’d just as soon pass on; and sometimes they are ready for more substantial fare that I can’t wait to share with them.

For me, much of the pleasure of reading aloud is the vicarious thrill I get sharing great moments – funny moments, scary moments, famous moments.  I love anticipating how they’ll react when Luke discovers Darth Vader is his father; or how they’ll handle wondering about whether or not to trust Severus Snape; or how they’ll react emotionally when Charlotte dies.  There are innumerable iconic moments like this and though I can’t be there for all of them, part of the joy of being a parent is knowing your children have those moments ahead of them and you can share in their experience.  That is why families in the middle of a good book invariably have one parent who says, “Don’t read until I get home.”  They don’t want to miss anything.  More specifically they don’t want to miss out on any of their children’s reactions, any of the choice things they might say or do or the questions they might ask.

But you don’t just have to read children’s books to have these moments.  You can aim higher, stimulate all of your adult brain receptors, and raise your children’s sights, too.  There are some families that read beyond Harry Potter – they read J.R.R. Tolkein, too, all 1300 pages of the Lord of the Rings saga.  In our own family, we tackled Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer a couple of years ago.  A century ago, Mark Twain might have been standard reading for school age children, but no more.  Now Twain’s work is “classic” and today’s children are not as familiar – not initially comfortable – with an older and more elliptical method of storytelling.  We read it aloud with a thirteen-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a seven-year-old.  I think it was a clear case where it might not have worked if we hadn’t tackled it as a family.  The 13-year-old cottoned on to Twain’s humour right away.  Her laughter made the rest of the story, and particularly Twain’s method of telling the story, infectious for everyone else.  My 7-year-old might not have been able to grasp the story if it had just been me and her trying to tackle Twain.  But in a family setting, moments great and small, from Tom watching the beetle in church, to Tom and Becky lost in the cave in the 4th of July, came alive and worked their magic on one and all.  Experienced together as a family, the humour and pleasures of the book were enhanced, the memories sharper and even more enduring.  (And our youngest even named her new puppy, ‘Sawyer’ as a result.)

Reading aloud with your children is often about showing them things they didn’t know – they can’t know – they will like and enjoy.  It’s about expanding their horizons, teaching them – vicariously – how to appreciate and become alert to more in the world – more people and places and historical situations.  It is to make them not only more sophisticated in the vocabulary they acquire, but less provincial about attitudes – places and times and peoples – different than their own.  That is why it is worth aiming high and occasionally exposing your children – and your family – to more sophisticated fare.

Here are three other titles that I have exposed my family to in the last three years that are perhaps worth sharing:

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay.  A novel about a young English boy growing up in South Africa before W.W.II.  In the first half of the book he endures prep school as a persecuted minority at the hands of the Afrikaner majority.  He thus has a natural affinity and respect for the even more persecuted black population of South Africa.  The tale includes adult allies of the hero, nicknamed Peekay, including a Zulu witch doctor, a train conductor who instructs him in boxing, and a German professor of botany and zoology.  In the last portion of the book, Peekay grows up to work in a diamond mine in Rhodesia.  The book is not aimed at children.  The persecution and cruelty in the book are exactly as harsh and as cruel as you’d expect in a book of the American South.  But with a child narrator – who even befriends a scrawny chicken he names Grandpa Chook – it is all too easy for children with a secret hunger for sophistication to follow Peekay as their guide to another world – another place and time – while still learning some of the universal truths about survival (in this case, finding the power and strength to remain independent and true to yourself) that you’d expect from any long-lasting work of fiction.  These lessons, brought to us from unexpected characters and venues, are exactly what we read literature for.  The graduation from Charlotte’s Web to To Kill a Mocking Bird eventually leads here.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway.  This one was by accident.  I came across a brilliant, unabridged, audio recording of this book read by Campbell Scott, a little known American actor and director.  Scott’s reading is pitch perfect.  It exactly reproduces the way my own mind’s eye imagines Hemingway’s prose – the flat, beguiling simplicity – and the lugubrious, world-weary yet wise way in which Hemingway’s Spanish characters express themselves.  I’ve listened to this recording in the car (yes, you can put audio books on your iPod, too) and it has unexpectedly – yet charmingly – caught the ear of my wife and two oldest daughters.  For Whom the Bell Tolls is a tale of the Spanish Civil War, a romantic story of an American fighting for the Republic against the Fascists, teaming up with a band of guerrillas in the mountains.  The book is long, almost 500 pp., much longer than some of Hemingway’s other well known novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms or The Old Man and the Sea.  Once again, the book is not written for children.  But when you are aiming high you must be alert for what might unexpectedly grab their attention and beguile and teach them in ways you may not have first have anticipated.  My older children became charmed by the atmosphere of the pine needles and the cooking smoke in the mountains of Spain, by the repartee of the band of gypsies and guerrillas trying to survive there.  Like most Americans, they need a primer on the Spanish Civil War, but part of Hemingway’s genius is to reflect the common simplicity of the soldiers fighting for both sides, while offering their struggle as an existential example of how to live.  Hemingway admits the horrors committed by both sides in the conflict – again, why this is not a book written for children – but when children are old enough to know about war and what transpires within, then they are old enough to come to terms with Ernest Hemingway’s prose and lucky enough – if you take them – to have their eyes opened to a timeless account of how common soldiers appreciate the simplest things in life – a bowl of soup, a bird wheeling in the sky, a companion at night – amidst their struggle.

True Grit, by Charles Portis.  Another felicitous accident – but what friends are for.  True Grit was written in 1968 and quickly made into a famous movie starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.  At the time it was a phenomenon.  Today it is a forgotten classic.  A friend recently shared it with me and what a joyous and serendipitous discovery it turned out to be.  It checks in under 250 pages.  Written in the first person, this story is told by its young protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross.  Mattie aims to avenge the wrongful death of her father in Fort Smith, Arkansas (circa 1875), and to do so she recruits the talents of the notorious federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn.  The book is unexpectedly comic and funny.  I can’t tell you when I’ve laughed out loud as often. Mattie challenges the adults around her – almost all of them tough, western, frontier men – and holds her own and gets her way.  She is also charmingly matter of fact about all that befalls her, especially the thorns and scrapes of her time.  As a result, True Grit reads like Cormac McCarthy, but with humour in droves.  Is it for children?  I am sure the film, which won John Wayne his only Oscar, was seen by countless children in 1969.  Today?  As I laughed my way through Mattie’s quest to track down her father’s killer, I couldn’t help but imagine how much my own daughters would admire and identify with Mattie’s spitfire mettle.  Mattie’s humorous observations (“Men would live like goats if left alone,” she notes, upon entering Rooster’s living quarters) are just as funny to them as they are to us.  And Mattie’s matter of fact tone provides an educational introduction to a foreign time and its mores, from attending a public hanging to sleeping in a barn or sharing a bed in a rooming house.  As it happened, I managed to cajole my oldest daughter to reread it aloud to me (while cooking and doing other household chores – it is summer).  She took to it instantly.  Though not a performer, she very quickly acquired an Arkansas drawl to make Mattie’s “voice” convincing.  Doing so made reading aloud more fun for her, the reader, and more fun for me, the listener.  And it was Portis’ text that led her to it – not my suggestion or inveigling.  True Grit ends with a rousing, exciting, funny, elongated, drawn out climax that thrilled my daughter – and her listening sister – into cascading giggles.  What better way to share “adult” literature?  Along the way, both my daughter’s gained access to Mattie Ross’s ahead-of-her-time independence, properly couched in a Protestant spinster’s sense of rectitude.  What better way to get a sense of the strange and foreign attraction and charm of the past?  And that’s what literature is for.  When you aim high.

[Caveat: I must emphasize that each of these books contains material which might be objectionable for some adults to share with children.  Speaking at schools about children’s literature people can find all kinds of things to use to set limits, from witchcraft to nudity to curse words.  On my own account, I tend to think if the language, for example, is part of its time period, then it comes with protective quotation marks.  Such language is not an endorsement from the author or reader.  But others disagree.  What I say about television applies here, too:  It’s not as important what your policy is as that you have a policy.  I can understand if anyone objects to the nudity or racism in The Power of One; to the sexuality or violence in For Whom the Bell Tolls; or to the violence or language (though common to generations of Saturday Westerns) in True Grit.  It is really up to each parent to police their children’s reading and decide what pace is appropriate to introduce more sophisticated fare.  I repeat only that it is also each parent’s corollary responsibility to be alert for those moments when your child may be ready to aim higher, and to take advantage of them.  Read on and aim high.]

[Second caveat:  Coincidentally, I have since learned that Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a favorite book of both current presidential candidates.  Barack Obama cited it as one of the three most influential books he had read.  And John McCain is known to quote from it regularly.  It’s not every day a book published over fifty years ago can strike a chord like that with two men, influential and opposed.  Yet another reason to take a flier and explore.]

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