January 11. Friday evening. “I’m tired of that stupid book.” My eight-year-old daughter, reluctant to continue with the Golden Compass, which we had started over Christmas.
February 29. Friday afternoon. “Papa, would could you read a little Golden Compass.” This, as she lay in the bathroom, amid towels and pillows, having left school early, having thrown up, still queasy and weak and wary of throwing up again. A very timid endorsement, perhaps succumbing because of her nauseous weakness.
March 3. Monday morning. My daughter is white as a ghost, listening to the penultimate chapter of Part 2 (Bolvangar). She stares straight ahead, beyond rapt, petrified of what may occur in one of the scariest and ominous passages we have ever read aloud. (To a parent, monitoring the vicarious reactions of children-listeners, it is a memorable, all-time moment.)
March 4. Tuesday evening. “Papa, keep reading! Don’t stop! Come on, Iorek Byrnison!” This, amid the last chapter of Part 2, of the Golden Compass. To a parent, these are the golden words you want to hear, that mean your child is hooked, that mean you have done the right thing carving and creating and preserving the time to read.
And in this case, it means that I was a) right to put the book away on the shelf for a month (maybe forever), and b) right to attempt the book in the first place, content in my parental confidence that something that began slow would eventually thrill and entertain.
These are essential and valuable principles to understand and remember about reading aloud to your children. But easy to forget or lose sight of amid the challenges of parenting and the complexities and tensions of our lives.
1) It’s right to challenge them. In our case, my eight-year-old wanted to read the Golden Compass, not because her older sisters had, but because she wanted to see the movie. (And we have a strict rule in our family: If the movie comes from a worthwhile work of literature, you have to read the book first. No shortcuts short-changing the long-term value of literature.)
2) It’s OK to put a book down. One is always reluctant – and often feel guilty – but it’s vital that reading aloud not be a forced thing. If a book isn’t working, then continuing to read it can negatively re-inforce the impression of reading aloud as boring, drudgery, forced. Figuring out when is the trick. At the very least, you’ve got to finish the first chapter to get used to an author’s prose style. (Modeling that kind of patience is beneficial for your child.) And some books don’t start off with a bang, even if they have varied pleasures further in. But if you’ve finished a defined chunk of the book – in this case Part 1, 150+ pages – it’s OK to acknowledge, perhaps this isn’t the right book, or the right time for this book.
3) ‘Father knows best.’ But usually – unless the book is brand new to the parent reader, too – a parent does know what pleasures lurk deeper inside a book. And a parent has the patience to soldier on through a section that feels or seems slower to a child. No book is perfect. But the lesson here is that it is worth persevering until your listener is hooked. You can’t overuse the notion of “just one more chapter” or you lose your credibility. But it’s prudent and wise to offer a little carrot or reward to reach a milestone while you’re letting a book work it’s patient magic.
In the case of the Golden Compass it took longer than I thought. But two sections (and 300 pages) in – with two more books to complete the trilogy – I am sure we were right and our patience has been rewarded. It’s worth remembering, as a parent reader, that a child doesn’t need to be perfectly, 100% fulfilled or satisfied every second of every reading experience. A little unsatisfied curiosity, a little impatience, these are normal and necessary to appreciating the value of any experience – a movie, a baseball game, a hike. And it’s worth remembering as parents that we have the patience to share and bestow on our children to wait for the part that hooks you.