Several years ago I was preparing to speak before my children’s elementary school. It was the first time I was asked to speak at the full PTA meeting (the one where half the parents are just there to see their children perform during the entertainment portion of the evening). I had so much to say. This was my first chance to explain the One School, One Book program to my local home audience, to discourse on all the reasons we should be reading aloud, and encouraging and enabling those families not yet doing so.
The day I was to speak happened to be the day before Halloween and the New York Times ran this editorial, by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). I was faced w/ a dilemma. The editorial said something powerful and subtle that is one of the hardest things to explain to parents and teachers and principals. It said something that some people just get naturally – and others need to be convinced – and others can’t be convinced. He said that letting children encounter and experience “scary things” is not only OK, not only salutary, it’s even necessary. Not an easy thing to say – and he said it well.
I chose to read the entire editorial at the PTA meeting. That’s how valuable and important I found – and continue to find – the sensitive way he expressed this difficult concept.
There are lots of reasons to read at all, and lots of reasons to read aloud. And I needn’t explore the full catalogue here. What I want to offer here is a gloss on Handler’s insight – on why it’s not only OK, but salutary, even necessary to challenge our children when we read aloud to them.
Challenging doesn’t mean scaring them. And it doesn’t mean inundating them w/ information. It does mean offering them new worlds and new experiences, new authors and new styles. Many children want the old familiar at the dinner table and the old familiar when they pick up a book. It’s fine if they want to re-read safe, comfortable, familiar books. But when you read aloud together, that’s an opportunity for you and he/she to explore something new – something fresh – something daring.
[Not that you have to. I, too, love to re-read my favorite adult books – the topic of another essay, perhaps. And there is joy, too, in re-reading a favorite book w/ your children – from Little House on the Prairie to Lord of the Rings. That’s just not the element I want highlight here.]
I found another example of this phenomenon, also worth sharing, in A.O. Scott’s recent essay on children’s films, especially Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox (both, of course, based on children’s books). I haven’t seen either film yet – but his track record is strong enough (though sophisticated, Scott understands and appreciates children’s films) – that I am confident that even if I end up having misgivings about either film (possible) his insights are still valuable.
As Scott says, parents do worry about (and judge each other on) what films their children see. That’s the duty and responsibility of being parents. And as Scott also says, where there is happiness, there is also discomfort. That’s life. Scott asks if Fantastic Mr. Fox is too scary or confusing? I don’t actually know, but I do know these are the right questions to ask. And I believe that we shouldn’t be afraid to let our children sometimes help us answer them – we can do so by gauging their reaction to edgier films/books like these. But in order to do so, we have to be willing to push the envelope a little here and there. Sometimes a book or film works thru some strange alchemy we don’t understand. If we try to identify or delineate its constituent parts, it doesn’t add up. But it is the strength of the artist or creator to understand something we don’t. This is how art – and literature – work. We just have to be brave enough to let it.
Finally, David Brooks contributed a recent op/ed piece (also in the Times) that has a lot to say about the broad way we help educate ourselves – specifically the auxiliary education we create – that ends up being a secondary education for our children as well. I am sure each of us can think of other interests in our lives that seep into our children’s understanding of the world – interests similar to but other than Bruce Springsteen – interests that constitute the auxiliary education of which he speaks.
I remark on it here because reading aloud is one of those things we do to create that auxiliary education. It is the time spent sharing culture together – books, movies, music, but also shared activities like cooking or sports or hunting or craft-making – that inform that auxiliary education. It can be the way we talk about things in the books we read together. But even more it is the habit of doing so – the inconspicuous things that a child doesn’t notice but that take effort and patience and perseverance – like just making the time to read together – that are the heart of this process. In many ways it is the example we set – what children see us do and consume – that informs that education. (“My Dad listens to Bruce Springsteen. Or Johnny Cash. Or U2. Or Bob Dylan. My mother reads Oprah’s magazine, O – or Oprah’s book club selections – or never reads at all, except to me. My father likes to work in the basement. My mother is always cooking in a hurry.” Etc.)
These are the components of that auxiliary education. How valuable it is to recognize this and know that we have this time w/ them to inform it and bolster it and enrich it. We each provide the curriculum for that education, whether we’re trying to or not. Here’s to suggesting we each pay some conscious attention to what goes in – as we do when choosing or not choosing books and movies – and to remember that doing some things and sharing some things together should give us the strength to be brave and bold and daring and insure that that auxiliary education is as rich and stimulating and challenging as it can be. Do not shy from life. Doing so is not only salutary – but necessary.
[I am somewhat embarrassed that each of the pieces cited here are from the New York Times. I can’t really control that. You collect what you encounter, it percolates, and eventually adds up to a blog piece. In this case, these pieces coalesced for me. Pure coincidence that they all come from the Times.
Further, once I do get around to seeing Where the Wild Things Are and Fanastic Mr. Fox, if I have any adjustments to make, I’ll post them here.]