Why World Read Aloud Day is my favorite holiday

(Courtesy of Greenwillow)
(Courtesy of Greenwillow)

To raise awareness of the educational challenges that many children face, a non-profit organization called LitWorld has designated the first Wednesday of every March “World Read Aloud Day.”

It’s hard to imagine a more delightful holiday: “to celebrate the power of words and create a community of readers taking action to show the world that the right to literacy belongs to all people.”

Reading aloud holds a sacred place in our family. My earliest memory of my father involves the two of us squealing with laughter as he read from “Winnie the Pooh” when “Eeyore Has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents.” Almost 50 years later, every time I see a popped balloon, I think of Piglet’s apocalyptic terror.

When my wife and I had our first daughter, we weren’t sure we’d ever be allowed to share that joy with her. A traumatic brain injury during birth indicated that she might never be able to enjoy the sound of language or the thrill of a story. And besides, those first few brutalizing years left us thinking about little else besides keeping each other alive.

But we kept reading to her, even when it felt like we were just reading to ourselves.

One of the many books we tried was “Ride a Purple Pelican,” a bouncy collection of original nursery rhymes that Jack Prelutsky published in 1986.

Rumpitty Tumpitty Rumpitty Tum,

Buntington Bunny is beating the drum.

Suddenly, we had found the key: A smile exploded across her face and energized her whole body. She was present in a way I’d never seen before.

Late one night in Kalamazoo,

the baboons had a barbecue.

More! More! These alliterative poems with their heavy beats and perfect rhymes called for dramatic voices breaking into song, and we responded like doomed people pulled from a well. Our daughter adored it. Soon, she would start giggling in anticipation of “Grandma Bear from Delaware.” She would wince as “Hinnikin Minnikin,/ Minnie and Moe,/ went to Chicago/ to see the wind blow.”

For me, it was the first indication that she was really there, with us, in on the joke — no matter how locked in a black box she might sometimes seem. We read on and on. Alphabet books – particularly “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” — also became great favorites. And then we romped in the world of Dr. Seuss (“Hop on Pop”). It’s no exaggeration to say that reading aloud saved our family.

Today she lives very happily in a group home in California. And every night when we Skype with her, she smiles out loud when we ask, “Shall we read you a book?”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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