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.