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Why I still read aloud to my tween and teen

(Lia Tin for The Washington Post)

It was Month 2,437 of the pandemic, and the eighth-grade boy in our house just couldn’t fathom finding anything interesting about the book he had to read for English class: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“We’ll read it on PDFs in class,” he said. “There’s an abridged version,” he shrugged.

Well, when your mom is, oh, me, there’s no skipping the real thing. I tried not to sound excited when I proposed we get a fresh copy of this book I hadn’t read in ages and read it out loud. Together.

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My two boys, 13 and 11, have spent their lives from utero onward listening to me read books to them. I was sure that if I raised them around books, if they saw me reading as much as I do, if I left books I thought they’d find interesting lying about, that they, too, would be readers like I was. That is, after all, the advice from librarians, reading specialists and authors, when they are asked how to encourage reluctant readers. Added to that, these boys have parents who are editors and writers. Scrabble on Saturday night! The New York Times Spelling Bee! Crossword puzzles! They’d surely get lost in a world made of words.

Motherhood, it turns out, is the best lesson in learning that you can control very little in this life.

Reading for Son No. 1, we found, was not a joy. In fact, he hated it, unless I was reading to him. We finally discovered why reading was such a frustrating, onerous task for this boy when he was diagnosed at 10 with a “reading learning disability" — often called dyslexia.

How could we not know?

“He’s smart and he found workarounds,” is how the psychologist explained. He found workarounds. That bright boy, suffering and finding his way through the very thing I loved most.

I found comfort knowing one of the workarounds was me.

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So I kept reading. I read not just because I wanted him to realize reading could be a joy, but because it was a joy to read with him and his brother. No matter what the day had been like, no matter how tired I came home from work, or how frustrating school had been, the three of us still had books that we could read together to close down the day. Books that encouraged conversations, taught empathy, spurred interesting thoughts. When they were little, it was picture books. Then “Mercy Watson” and “Because of Winn-Dixie.” “Who Was” biographies of their favorite baseball players, sports figures and chefs. “Ballpark Mysteries” and “Mr. Putter and Tabby.” They did find their own books — reading “The Crossover” themselves, Nathan Hale, anything by Jason Reynolds. Graphic novels of any sort.

And just when I was afraid they were getting too old to be read to, that it simply wouldn’t work anymore, I suggested we try “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

“I tried,” Boy No. 1 said. “Nope.”

“Not my thing,” Boy No. 2 assured me.

For once, I forced it. We cuddled up as I started Book 1, Chapter 1.

It worked. They were enthralled, and too soon for all of us, that first Rick Riordan series was over.

Percy Jackson, that brave little demigod, lit a fire under Boy No. 2, who now reads Riordan’s books himself, over and over. It’s his happy place at night, when he should be asleep. I don’t have to read to him, but it’s still one of the things I have as the mother to this tween. So if he balks at a book I think he’d really like? I suggest we read it out loud. Right now, that’s “Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows.”

Boy No. 1? He’s moved away from Percy. And now that he’s on the verge of high school and facing deeper, harder books, books that are assigned no longer “so he can learn to read, but read to learn,” as his teachers say, reading assignments are not a breeze. He made it through “I Never Had it Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson” with the help of a Kindle app that has a dyslexia font. I knew it worked because one morning, I overheard him asking my husband questions about George Wallace.

He’s finding his workarounds.

“The research says that reading aloud to middle school students benefits them just as much as it does smaller kids,” his reading specialist at his school told me when I asked about reading to him. “And there is that relationship component, where having that bonding time with your child, doing something together, you have that opportunity to question, to talk about interesting things. It’s family time. And you can use it that way, but it also can be support for students who are hesitant readers.”

And so when he balked at reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we picked a comfy spot and got to it. We walked into the world of Atticus and Scout and Boo together. We talked it through. We discussed. He wanted justice for Tom Robinson. I still did, too.

It’s true, deep into a pandemic year in which he still hasn’t set foot into his middle school, reading and school assignments can be a drag. Some nights, when it was time to read, he complained:

“My friends are waiting for me to play video games!”

“How many more pages?”

“Why do I have to read this when we’re watching the movie online?”

And then one night, as a chapter ended, I started to close the book, and I saw the spark: “Wait. I — We’re done?”

“We’re done,” I said. “Do you want me to continue?”

I had my own book waiting for me. A quiet evening ahead. He had his friends waiting for him to play video games and talk. He hesitated.

“We can wait till tomorrow,” he said.

That was enough for me. I knew he wanted to hear more. I folded the corner of the page (yes, I’m one of those). Chapter 19 tomorrow.

My boy will find his way, his workarounds. He will discover books he loves enough to read on his own, like he did with “Shoe Dog” and “It’s Trevor Noah.” Will my reading aloud turn my boy into a voracious reader who will want to sit in a corner with a book instead of playing ball outside? Maybe not. That makes sense to me now, and it’s okay. This reading together isn’t just about that. I read to these boys because this is what I have to give, this is our thing. As they grow and become the people they are becoming, as they spend more time with friends and separating from us parents — as they should — we still, for now, have this. Together.

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