That’s because one of my first memories is of my mother reading aloud to me. The book was Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”; I still have the original copy. It moved from my childhood home to a small red bookshelf in my daughter’s first room.
My husband and I read aloud to our children from an early age. I didn’t grasp the importance then; it was just something we did, hauling out sturdy board books with indestructible pages for our squirmy toddlers. Those nights blur together, but there was a comfort to that routine: wash up, pajamas, teeth brushing, and reading the same stories over and over: Peggy Rathmann’s mischievous “Good Night, Gorilla,” Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson’s sweet “Owl Babies.”
The kids grew older. Reading became collaborative: They’d chime in on their favorites, like Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” They memorized all the words before they could actually read: “We’re going on a bear hunt! We’re going to catch a big one!”
In a few years we moved on to early readers. The kids practiced their skills and read aloud to us. We laughed over Kate DiCamillo’s spunky “Mercy Watson” series, tacked our own rhymes onto the end of Dr. Seuss favorites.
There came a time, with both kids in elementary school, that their interest in reading aloud started to fade. My husband and I agreed: It was time for the big one. We picked J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series to read aloud, as a family, all four of us stretched out on the biggest bed.
We began our journey with “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” We’d take turns so everyone could read a chapter. We rarely missed a night. By unanimous decree, we moved on to the second book, and then the third. Months passed. We read and we also talked, about friendship and loyalty, death and courage. That year we read all seven books, over 4,000 pages of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Snape, Dumbledore and Voldemort. It is one of my favorite memories of their childhood and, honestly, our parenting. In our world of too many screens and excessive busyness, we found the time for magic.
They are teenagers now and have no desire to read aloud with us. In fact, given their school reading lists, there’s not a lot of time for extra fiction these days. But here’s the good news: They like their literature classes. They understand story and underlying themes. They like to talk about their books. And — this is so tied to reading, believe me and any literacy expert — they’re good writers. While years with truly excellent reading teachers had a whole lot to do with that, I think our nights of reading aloud helped. Even now, sometimes, they will inhale a book. Their shelves include John Green, Malala Yousafzai, Jason Reynolds. The magic is still there, waiting for them.
I mentioned one of my first memories is my mother reading “Where the Wild Things Are” aloud to me. She and I would both tell you that memory is a tricky thing. Sometimes I wonder if that really is my earliest memory or if I’ve made it so for this reason: My mom has recited Sendek’s story aloud my whole life — first to me, then to my children. Even today, despite some memory loss, she still knows most of the words. As for me, I cannot read them without hearing her voice.
I do know this: It is in large part because of her that I am an avid reader and writer. My love for fiction is my mother’s legacy; the books my parents read to me expanded not just my vocabulary but my world view. So find the books your children love, read them aloud and (courtesy of Sendak’s masterpiece), “Let the wild rumpus start.”
Looking for book ideas? The Association for Library Services to Children website includes lists of notable children’s books and past award winners in categories like best picture book (the Caldecott Medal) and children’s literature (the Newbery Medal). Also, no pressure, but it turns out Scholastic is collaborating with LitWorld to promote World Read Aloud Day, which includes a celebration of Harry Potter Book Night on Feb. 1.
Kristin O’Keefe is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md. You can find more of her work at KristinOKeefe.com.