Category Archives: Reading Aloud Anecdotes

The Harry Potter Discs

Every year my family likes to create a ‘family present.’ Something everyone – kids and parents – can contribute to. Something low cost to produce – that can be shared and shipped to the ever-burgeoning list of family and friends.

One year we made a calendar based on kids’ art. One year we made a mix-tape of everyone’s favorite songs – a little bit of personality from each of us. One year we sent an elaborate set of Christmas haiku (printed, pasted, and mounted).

Four years ago my teen-age daughters came to me and said, “Let’s record the first Harry Potter book – and send that to the people we love.” OK. 16 chapters. Everyone recorded 3 chapters. Burned onto a set of CDs. (Not that expensive. A little time consuming.) In the mail. Voila. Merry Christmas.


It’s become a family tradition. Last year we recorded the 4th Harry Potter book – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 40 chapters. Would have required over 20 discs per recipient. Now that is expensive. And time consuming! So we ordered a bunch of cheap flash drives from Alibaba and loaded and sent the digital files. $5 a present. And most people listen on cell phones or iPods or computers now anyway.

Each year, as my daughters insisted we do another (longer) Harry Potter book (they get longer, as you probably know), I wondered about the prudence of the ‘gift.’ How overbearing is it to share with someone else – with or without children – multiple tracks of you and your children reading a children’s chapter book out loud? Can’t they read it themselves? Who nominated my family to be worthwhile readers? Does a present like this include some kind of guilt-inducing obligation? After all, not everyone is going to want to listen to each book, or all the chapters, even if they do have children?

Obviously any gift ought to come without obligation. When you give a book to someone (and I give ‘em a lot), you can’t be asking them every 6 weeks, “So, have you read it, have you read it, have you read it yet???” It’s up to them. Take it or leave it. A gift is a gesture, a spirited offering. Sharing. No more.

But the response of our recipients has put my anxieties to rest.

In some cases, even parentless friends have told us they like having the opportunity to hear my kids’ voices – as they grow up. (Three books to go!) So sharing a chapter book that your family has read turns out to be an intimate way of sharing your family with those who know them and care about them. Yes, a lot more involved than posting family vacay pictures on Facebook. It creates a more intimate, long-lasting memory, too. My kids voices are in our friends’ – even our single, childless friends’ – heads.

Naturally we’ve heard from parents with children. Not just cousins. Some of them haven’t quite gotten to Harry Potter yet. Some of them are in the middle of the series. And some of them include children who’ve already read HP and appear to relish the opportunity to listen to the stories again. To go back to the well and re-create that magical, listening, world-envisioning environment.

I don’t have to tell you that listening to a book – in the privacy of your bedroom, on a family car trip, via headphones – is a qualitatively different experience than ‘seeing the movie.’ A richer experience. Seeing the movie is thrilling but passive. Listening to the story puts J.K. Rowling back in charge. And the pace of a chapter read aloud allows the listener to imagine, to create word pictures, to look forward to their favorite parts (funny or scary), to anticipate, and to free associate. When you’re enveloped in that imaginative cloud, you don’t want to be interrupted. Even when you get to a rest stop, you can’t wait to start the next chapter.

We’re hearing from parents of these children how much they like to listen. How absorbed they get. How much they look forward to the next books discs/files. How many nights have been absorbed listening. (Just like we did when we were kids!) How they look forward to certain long car trips because they get to listen to the next book! And how strangely connected they feel to my daughters even if they don’t see them that often – or in some cases even know them that well.

We’ve heard from adults who do know my girls how nice it is to have a way to be connected. Something they can control and imbibe in bits. It doesn’t have to be Harry Potter. And yet Harry Potter is also the vehicle that brings out that level of high standard sharing showmanship in my kids.

Some close friends also relish hearing my girls’s voices grow up in successive readings. My voice doesn’t change – but my youngest daughter was 10 when we started reading Harry Potter onto the CDs. She’ll be 17 when we’re done. (Gulp.) And her voice has already changed a lot.

I’m not writing or sharing this to suggest you need to go out and record and share your favorite children’s chapter book with the people you love. I am writing it to share our family’s labor(s) of love. To share how enriching and inspiring it was for my family to read, and re-read, and live and experience and share Harry Potter growing up. To observe and remind us all that even as children grow up – they don’t want to lose stuff with the nostalgic stuff of their roots. Reading together as a family obviously creates rich, unforgettable memories. Those stories and characters – that time spent together – leaves an indelible warm fuzzy feeling for your family. In our case, even as they grew and matured, my girls didn’t want to give that feeling up. They wanted to re-access it. And to share it. What more can reading together as a family build and bring? Merry Christmas indeed.

So my fears have been put to rest. I confess that Harry Potter has been a huge part of our family bonding. We read all the books out loud with our girls – which means we read each book more than once. And yes the middle books were long and larded. But never was it a chore. We relished the chance to read again. And in fact look forward with relish to reading them yet again with our 5 year-old.

I can’t say enough about what it means to delve and imbibe and wallow in something that will clearly be shared across generations. To make it part of our spirit of Christmas giving. And to share what feels like so much of our family through a book. It feels so rewarding and right to receive feedback from our friends and family telling us that their children anticipate and re-listen to the chapters – asking for more. It feels like the true spirit of Christmas.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling.

Vocabulary Acquisition in Real Time!

First of all – a disclaimer.  My recent posts have principally concerned reading to older children – high elementary school, middle school, even high school.  Mainly because my own daughters have been growing up and my most recent experiences have been with them.  This blog receives input from moments of current inspiration and that’s where the spontaneous anecdotes and apercus have come from.

But all that has changed.  I have an infant in the house – now 20 months old (as of this writing) – and thus I happily, joyfully get to do it all over again – starting with those infamous board books and working our way quietly and patiently up to chapter books.

As I don’t have to tell you, it’s been delightful to introduce my son to books – to see what he responds to, becomes enthusiastic about, wants to hear again – and what words and phrases, images and scenes, he remembers, repeats, and learns.  To see him begin to respond emotionally to moments and characters – to identify with them, to laugh with them, to fear with them.  Who doesn’t know the joy of seeing your child light up at the zoo-keeper’s wife’s eyes on that otherwise all black page in Goodnight Gorilla?  My own son wants to skip the page when the scary bulldog with the big teeth chases the toy clown in Quentin Blake’s textless Clown.

Reading to an infant is all about noticing and proceeding through stages.  You never can tell how long a favorite book will last as a favorite (for us it was Caps for Sale and Go Dog Go and Green Eggs and Ham) to be replaced by the current obsession (baseball books, truck books) or how long the next stage will last.  But those stages also mark progress.  Can his attention span handle a book you can complete from beginning to end?  When can you add books with more text (or read the whole text)?  What kind of edgy material can he handle?  And best of all – what language acquisition to you see resulting from your reading?  Is that where he picks up colors?  How many obvious and eccentric nouns and objects does he acquire just from your books?

Recently, we’ve had one of those unexpected developments that I don’t remember from before – but now that I’m paying attention it’s clear as day.

One thing we know about reading to small children – they like to read their favorite books again and again.  Admittedly, this can be tiresome for their adult readers.  I have reflected on why they like this – and I think it is more than the mere truism that children like routine.  Yes, they like routine.  They also like novelty.  (Even when they don’t know it.)  But I think it’s something else, too.  Children are like little scientists who want to confirm their understanding of the world.  They want to check and make sure that what they “know” is still true.  They want to test and confirm the unconscious premises they are learning about their world – and make sure they are still true each day.  That is why they ask questions they already “know” the answers to.  And that, I think, is why they want to hear some stories again and again.  It makes them feel safe and sure – and confident – to be in command of a story – to know what’s going to happen and be right.  (Life, of course, isn’t like that – the cruel truth they will learn soon enough.)

Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale was the first picture book I ever read to my new son.  We read it in the public library in Evanston, Illinois when he was 14 months old. I had to paraphrase the sentences and narrate the action – but he was taken (as I believe all children are) by the monkeys going “Tsk, tsk, tsk” to the peddler.  I don’t know how many times he’s read (listened to) Caps for Sale since then but I do know that it is still in the rotation.  8 months later, he still picks it out and asks for it.

But in a recent reading, I noticed that what he gets out of the book – what he follows and enjoys and anticipates – is different than before.  Like most kids, he gets the most fun out of the monkeys, imitating and repeating their finger and fist shaking and foot stomping.  But he likes to act out what the peddler is doing, too.  So when the peddler gets sleepy for his nap – my son anticipates it with a big yawn.  When the peddler wakes up – he likes to stretch with the peddler.  (Don’t all little kids relish that big stretch when they wake up?  Don’t all parents?)

This time through, he added something more.  The story is clearly familiar to him.  He knows how to anticipate what will happen next.  He knows when you come to the picture of the sun (“The peddler slept for a very long time”) on the next page the peddler will wake up and he will get to stretch.  But after learning about caps and trees – and monkeys – and about different colors (and aren’t those blue/green caps confusing – what do you call them??) – there is still more to be mined verbally from a simple picture book like Caps for Sale.

We can’t help but teach them and show them about the nouns and objects and characters and perhaps the feelings of characters in our picture books.  And they can’t help but learn them.  If we’re energetic and they are attentive – we use picture books to teach about descriptive things like colors.  It comes naturally.  You can’t help it.  But sometimes there’s even more.

As I sat reading this time, he focused on new words – new concepts! – in the story.  The peddler sought to keep his 17 caps straight on his head.  “Straight” my son repeated.  The peddler walked slowly to keep the caps balanced.  “Slowly” my son repeated.  The peddler sat down to nap by the tree – very carefully.  “Carefully” my son repeated.  Lo and behold – my son was picking up adverbs!

Did I have anything to do with it?  I don’t really think so.  Did I do anything to re-iterate or emphasize or clarify the concepts of straightness or slowliness or carefulness?  Definitely not.  It is a truism that young children’s minds are sponges – hungry and capable of absorbing new information – especially verbal information.  This is what reading aloud can do for them.  Their own hungry minds can reach out on their own and pick up all the elements of language they will need in school and life.  And we don’t have to do anything but pick good books, read with enthusiasm, and be patient when they want to confirm their hypotheses.

What I was witnessed was my son’s acquisition of adverbs – right in front of my nose – live in real time! Without explanation.  Without didactic instruction.  Merely from his (unconscious) extrapolation from context.  That is the power of reading aloud.  If we only stop to pay attention and enable its natural course.

Panera Bibly Study

On a recent Saturday morning I had a curious, unexpected experience – I witnessed something delightful and intriguing. It has stayed with me and I feel the need to share it with you – let you ponder it a little.

My daughter had some early testing for high school so I was up before the rest of my family. I got a craving for pain au chocolat (a chocolate croissant) and decided to drop by a Panera Bread that recently opened up in a student neighborhood near my home. I got my pastry and a cup of coffee and sat down to read the paper before getting home to my family.

The Panera was not busy or crowded at 8 a.m on a Saturday morning. But I quickly noticed that several of the booths were peopled by pairs of young men reading the Bible together. They were all youngish – in their 20s. They all seemed a little scarred, marked. Not dirty, not threatening. Most were wearing varieties of baggy canvas jackets with capacious pockets. (I confess, at first blush, they looked like ex-cons.) But most significantly each booth – there were half a dozen – contained one man reading to another from a very small, portable, paperback Bible. They were each reading quietly and earnestly. And they were each being listened to intently.

As near as I could tell there was no group leader. They were not sitting in a group. They were distinctly in pairs. I supposed it could have been a small Bible study group. Perhaps it was a dozen men doing some prep work before an AA meeting. It most struck me as perhaps a meeting of parolees. I did not intrude on them to ask.

But the sight, the image, the very attentive dialogue I could see happening at each table – not dogmatic, not a harangue, not one-sided, not loud – has stayed with me. And sparked several thoughts.

It is true that once upon a time – for over 300 years – the Bible was the one thing shared by families as a source of common, shared reading, moral instruction, and discussion. The Bible was a source of common culture. I often make this observation in presenting to groups about reading aloud because families reading children novels aloud are merely an extension of that long lost tradition. Some families certainly still read Bible verses and stories together. But it is no longer a ubiquitous aspect of common culture.

And in truth the very notion of a common culture is waning. Today we are fragmented into our own generational, vocational, and extra-curricular niche interests. Common culture today can now be found in mass media events like the Super Bowl or American Idol or an occasional film like Avatar. Rarely any more is it a book. A series like Harry Potter – that somehow manages to reel in more than one generation- is the rare exception. But gang-buster best-sellers like Cold Mountain or the Da Vanci Code are no longer really sources of common culture – not like a film like the Godfather or a book like Erich Segal’s Love Story was in the 1970s.

The Bible is still surely a source of common culture – but it ain’t like it used to be. I am certain that if we did a Biblical reference identification test among our fellow Americans (or Canadians), we as a population would not do very well – much less well then if we had compared results from a century ago. I recall that when I wrote a screenplay about Pontius Pilate a decade ago, I polled friends and colleagues and acquaintances just to see who knew who Pontius Pilate was. Even among largely college educated adults the results were dispiriting. Harry Potter and the latest American Idol winner are sure to do better on such a test than Pontius Pilate or Cold Mountain.

But the men in the Panera Bread booths were engaging in an act of common culture. Individually (or in pairs) they were fervently consuming a shared text, and just as intently exploring and sharing it with their discussion and dialogue. It was a small example – or it seemed that way to me – of the value and power of a common text – and of sharing it by reading aloud. I doubt very much whether the men involved would have appreciated or mined their text as well had they not shared it that way. Had they not listened to another read it – and bounced their impressions off of each other. That, I am sure, is the power and value of reading aloud. Of creating and re-inforcing a shared artifact of common culture. We encourage families to do it. But anybody can. Married or courting couples can do it. Circles of friends can do it. Book clubs can do it. Teachers and classes can do it. And of course families can do it. In fact, as with the Bible, it starts with the family.