Like any good mama, I waited eagerly for my children’s first words — “zibba” (zebra) for one daughter, “I do” for the other, and “dump truck” for my son. Once the words started piling up, though, I realized that my children expected me to talk to them.
I have an excellent vocabulary. I have ideas. I have stories that are worth passing on to my children. But I reside most times inside my mind, and my stories are often sad or beyond the ken of a child. I was, and am, a quiet person — neither extrovert nor actor, never at ease with make-believe. When I babysat as a teenager, my greatest anxiety was that a sleeping child would wake up and expect me to play. Long before I had children, I worried that my inability to play would disqualify me.
Of course, also like any good mama, I began reading to my children from the day they were born. Pat the Bunny, Corduroy, Goodnight Moon. I used to be a flutist; learning a new piece, I practiced the notes and phrases until, with enough repetition, the markings on the sheet of staff paper became music. Around the tenth or twentieth reading of Goodnight Moon, I experienced a similar shift. Somewhere between the “bowl full of mush” and “the quiet old lady whispering hush,” I was no longer reading words but playing them. And like when I played music, I felt enlivened.
We moved on to more books, like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. With my children’s bodies snuggled into mine, I opened to the first page. My voice started low and small as I read about the microscopic egg waiting for the sun to warm it. I inserted a dramatic pause before saying “Pop!” at the appearance of the tiny caterpillar. Then eight days of eating began. I built the tension slowly. I expressed my pleasure and distaste for the caterpillar’s selections, which, in addition to fruit, included cake, pickles, and salami. Each successive recitation of the phrase, "But the caterpillar was still hungry,” became more exaggerated. As the caterpillar grew, I rubbed my belly and wondered how much more this creature could eat. I groaned as if I were the one who had the stomachache. I sighed with relief as if it were I who, nearly sated, ate just one green leaf. Finally full, the caterpillar spun its cocoon, but it was I who emerged as a beautiful butterfly, spreading and stretching my arms, waving them in luxurious freedom.
Who is this person reading with such animation and vibrancy? The Very Hungry Caterpillar is an apt metaphor. Reading children’s books releases me from my reserve and my quiet ruminations.
Google the value of reading children’s books aloud and the answers are all about the kids — how it improves their vocabulary, teaches morals, tells truths, fires imagination and instills a love of reading. But what about the reader? As I step into the voices of the myriad characters I find in the stacks of books I buy or borrow — Pete the Cat, Madeline, the Lorax, a spider named Charlotte — I imagine my blood pressure dropping, my lungs opening, my blood flowing, the energy traveling up from my toes to my head and back down again. I am playing, a feeling as liberating to me as the first flight I took after getting over my fear of flying.
“Reading aloud captures the physicality of the words,” says Verlyn Klinkenborg in his essay “Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud” in a 2009 issue of the New York Times. “To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. … The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.” Yes, that’s it. Reading out loud, for me, is a form of communion. It doesn’t matter that the stories belong to someone else, that the words are not mine, because my body has been imbued with spirit.
Reading aloud is not a new tradition. Before we had stories beamed to us over radio waves, through television broadcasts, through the ether, and now via WiFi — families read to each other. They created tableaux and even their own plays. But reading children’s books — with their rhythm, quirky characters and stretching of reality -- allows me to become a character I rarely am any other time: silly, dramatic, playful.
My children are grown now, but I have grandnieces to read to and the babies and toddlers of the homeless mothers I work with at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. As I read Stellaluna, Lily’s Purple Purse or Chicka Chicka Boom Boom with a child nestled at my side, I marvel at how natural this feels. And as the child moves closer, leans across my chest and perhaps strokes my arm or hair, my voice becomes even more animated. I am transfixed by children, no longer afraid of their imaginations, their demands for interaction. I have been known to wake sleeping babies just to whisper rhymes and songs into their ears. I might even say I have become a child myself.