The written word is in trouble. When the T.V. Guide and The National Enquirer are the two most popular weekly magazines, that says something. When your local library’s book promotions include Goosebumps and Stephen King novels as top choices, with narry a reference to the classics, it is an indicator of a society that spends its time reading trash, if it reads at all. Of course, we already know this. But the question for the Christian is: how do I create a difference in my home?
There are many good choices Christians can and should make to consciously set a good course in their family life. I believe a time of “family read-aloud” is one of them.
Why Read Aloud?
Our family loves books. It’s a dead give-away to any observer. The coffee table and all the end tables have these little and not-so-little stacks of them, as do the night stands and dressers. We ran out of book shelf space long ago, so that books are placed sideways on top of others or languish in boxes. I think I can say that each person of reading age in the family is always in the process of reading a good book. At the same time, we are almost always in the midst of reading a book out loud as well. Why?
When a school, even a Christian school or home school, teaches a child to read, the emphasis is almost always on the mechanics of reading. They are often so busy teaching a child how to read that they forget that a child needs to want to read, to be motivated to master the process and “get to the good stuff”. Let’s face it, most reading books are boring. Compare any reader with the first few paragraphs of Treasure Island, and tell me which one you would prefer. The last thing we want elementary children thinking is that what they’re reading now will be as good as it gets. Reading good books out loud will not only expose children to the good books, but cause them to catch the bug to want to read more on their own.
Even a family with many varied ages can do this effectively because a person’s listening level is usually above their reading level. As an example, when my oldest was about 5 years old and the next around 3, I couldn’t face reading those Little Golden books anymore. (I like many of them, and still read them to my other little ones, but you get my point.) So I took out a 25 cent garage sale copy of Black Beauty, and simply began to read it aloud. I had never read it before and figured I’d give it a try. To my surprise, the children liked it and each day waited for the next chapter to be read. We’ve been reading “real” books ever since.
The added benefit is that we, as parents or grandparents, can now catch up on all those good books we missed as kids! Even if you are not a good reader yourself, the books are written on a generally easier level. And it is satisfying to see what a little practice can do in such circumstances.
When we read good books aloud to our children, grandchildren, or even the neighborhood children, we open them up to an expanded vocabulary. My 3 year old, Helen, has named one of her dolls Chamomile. It doesn’t matter that it’s a kind of tea. She heard it in one of her stories, and she liked the sound of it. Where else but in a book would she be repeatedly exposed to such words as “admirable”, “famished”, or “an embroidered muslin apron”? Little ones are not afraid of big words!
There is also the advantage of increasing attentiveness. With all the exposure to television viewing, which flashes a new image on the average of every 3–5 seconds, is anyone surprised that there is a serious deficit in children’s attention spans? A friend adopted a four year old boy who simply could not sit still through a story time. Besides greatly reducing his television viewing time, she bought him a few simple quality books. A few times a day, she would read to him while he sat on her lap. Now, while he still likes to move around, he can make it through any reading time that the family enjoys.
At the same time that these positive things are taking place, something else does too! We weave threads of family identity and belonging into our children’s lives. We share ideas and challenges that might otherwise not come into our experience when together.
What to Read
We also give something that isn’t so easily measured, but remains a priority goal, and that is a taste for quality literature. For that reason, I choose my titles carefully. I avoid books such as 1- or 5-minute bedtime stories. What’s the point? So we can hurry up and get this awful time over with? This type usually gives no author, either (who would confess?). Also off my list are condensed versions of classics, such as Heidi or Ben-Hur (they always leave the parts out that make it good), the single volumes of multiple biographies (too brief to draw one’s interest), the Disney and Sesame Street books (absolutely tasteless), and the Bearenstain Bears books (the father is always the fool!).
What I do like are true missionary stories. These go right to the children’s hearts. They’re filled with exciting things that really happened, and have the potential of turning our children’s hearts aflame with a passion of getting God’s Word out to a lost world. The Jungle Doctor series is a good one, as well as some children’s books published by Overseas Missionary Fellowship. But don’t leave out the “adult” ones, such as Peace Child, J. Hudson Taylor, A Foreign Devil in China, C. T. Studd, Gladys Aylward, and others.
Our spiritual fathers are another great fountain rarely drawn from. What do our children (or ourselves, for that matter) really know about Luther, Calvin, Hus, Wycliffe, etc. The ususal treatment is two paragraphs, or even two pages each, in a text book. Whose interest could possibly be fired about their lives and the issues which drove them?
But read a book out loud on Luther by Bainton (or the Triumph of Truth for the less brave), and I guarantee that the children will never forget who Luther is or what he did—and all without a test or study guide!
God’s Care and Continuance of His Church by Vreugdenhill is a three volume series that I constantly recommend. We began reading this in the car during one of our marathon car-riding vacations, and it was so good, we just kept going through the whole series. You know you have a winner when the children beg for another chapter. The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom, provoked more questions and thoughtful discussions than any other book we have read.
Magazines also make a good resource for in the home. They are short, colorful (the little ones especially like that), and come in the mail with their name on them! We subscribe to God’s World News, Nature Friend, Voice of the Martyrs, Creation ex Nihilo (yes, we read an occasional article out loud to them all, plus they have a children’s section), and World. This is a combination of children and adult fare, and it’s surprising how often the lines are crossed in both directions!
Then there are the books which are not necessarily Christian, but rank tops as a “good read” and still teach Christian values. (Remember Phil 4:8ff which says that whatever is noble, whatever is of good repute, if there is any virtue, anything praiseworthy, to think on those things.) What comes to mind in this line is Old Yeller (the movie doesn’t count!), Rascal, Lassie, the Anne of Green Gables series, the Little House on the Prairie series, books by Charles Dickens such as David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol (again, the T.V. special doesn’t count!), The Hobbit, Stories of the Old Dominion, The Chronicles of Narnia, Stand By, Boys (account of the flooding in the Netherlands), The Wheel on the School, the Grandma’s Attic series. . .the list goes on and on.
Younger ones, who don’t read at all, like the familiar favorites over and over again, with rhymes, repetition and predictable lines: I’ll huff and I’ll puff; Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey; or Tiddly Widdly, Mrs. Tittlemouse. I have found Beatrix Potter’s books to be the prime solution for providing the things that children love to hear along with a charming story line that keeps me entertained as well. But don’t limit them or yourself. We have just discovered some very good art books for little ones, I Spy, by Lucy Micklethwait. They might be very willing to hear stories about how germs work, or how the Romans fought the Gauls. You only need to provide a lap and a little time, and most youngsters just snuggle right in. Just be prepared for lots of interruptions and seemingly irrelevant questions.
Believe it or not, poetry is a favorite around our house. I don’t know why poetry gets such a bad reputation. Perhaps it was the turn off from having to study it instead of just reading and enjoying it. I think that applies as well to many of the classics. I mean, do you know of any author or poet who wrote their works with the intention that they be studied by a classroom or investigated through the lens of a study guide? Anyway, we read poetry just for the pleasure of the sound of the words, for the measured cadence, for the sheer delight in thoughts put so succinctly and yet so beautifully. And there is such a fun selection out there. Try Robert Service for the boys—adventurous tales of the Yukon and wild animals, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s, A Child’s Garden of Verses (be choosy of the illustrations if you buy), or collections such as Favorite Poems Old and New, Best-Loved Poems of the American People, or 101 Favorite Poems. We tend to steer clear of the newer, weird stuff like Shel Silverstein. Why do schools ignore such stirring classics as The Charge of the Light Brigade, Paul Revere’s Ride or Excelsior?
Yet another occasional option is listening to books on tape. We just purchased an excellent unabridged version of Pilgrim’s Progress. My 10-year old listened to the entire book straight through in 2 days. This is also a nice idea for those long car trips.
Dos and Don’ts
Here is a list of Do’s and Don’ts for reading aloud:
1) Read what you like. Children will know if you’re not enjoying it.
2) If a book is bad, forget it, but give it a few chapters—some slow starters end up being the best. (Reading ahead eliminates this.)
3) Caldecott Medal and Newberry Award books are usually very good, but this is not a fool-proof test. The newer ones especially need a critical eye.
4) Get Dad to do his share. Reading should not be looked upon as a feminine thing. With most of our elementary teachers being women, and homeschoolers at home with mom all day, it’s time to inject some masculinity into this picture.
5) Don’t be afraid to mark the favorite passages in your books. It’s really nice to be able to go back and find that one quote to share later on.
6) Let the little ones play quietly near by while you’re reading something for the older ones. It may not look like it, but they are listening to every word! We even let the big ones draw or color or knit. Sometimes better listening takes place when hands are busy.
7) Never use reading aloud as a threat. Example: No reading tonight if you don’t finish your chores.
8) Limit the television viewing time no matter what. Example: The T.V. goes off in this house at 8:00, whether there is a story or not. Never let them think that the book has deprived them of the T.V.
9) One expert recommends not getting too comfortable (so you don’t get tired?), but we sometimes get our pajamas on and scratch each other backs, or all gather on the bed together. Whatever your family is comfortable with, or the situation calls for.
10) Occasionally read a book beyond their level and stretch them a bit.
11) When beginning a new session, review the context by asking, “What happened last time?”
12) Don’t turn these precious times into a quiz or “learning experience”. Let children ask the questions if they have any.
13) Avoid moralizing. The story will teach itself. However, if something is relevant to a current situation, I will draw connections.
14) Try to read with expression. For example, Gollum’s voice in The Hobbit should have a certain quality. On the other hand, I have heard my father-in-law read a whole story in monotone-and fast!-and the kids hung on every word. You don’t have to be artistic to please.
15) While suggestions from the listeners are appreciated, you should choose what will be read. You’re the one in charge, and you will have a better tendency to choose what is of value.
16) Remember the emotional levels of the children. Where the Red Fern Grows is an excellent book, but some parts are too intense for a younger heart.
17) Try to set a specific, regular time. This is not always practical, however, especially if you’re the grandparent doing the reading. But don’t worry. Once I was reading Old Yeller to my children when a missionary family came to visit for a week on their vacation. We just kept reading as normal. When we visited them a year later, the children asked if I had brought along the book so we could finish it.
18) If there is a large gap in ages, I find it better to pick the level of the older ones, and then make it up to the younger ones by giving them their own special time of reading at a different time.
19) Occasionally vary the fare of your reading. Depending on the ages of your children, it is appropriate and wise to intersperse a few non-fiction choices, or perhaps a humorous one.
Ways of Influence
You can cultivate a love for books within your children by doing a few simple things. One is to give them a book of their very own. This can be a good thing for grandparents to do, or a good gift at holiday times. Put their name in it. Make it a quality book, like a hardcover version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Another thing is to have books displayed around the house. Just lay that book about pirates and their weapons on the coffee table, and see if it doesn’t get read. Do your children have their own bookshelf in their room? How about a book in the bathroom with short excerpts, such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or The Answers Book published by Answers in Genesis? Isn’t this better than reading about the latest kidnapping in The Reader’s Digest? Here is an opportunity to make one of those conscious choices of the not-so-bad vs. the best. We have a wicker basket in our living room where all the new library books go. You could also give the children an extra 15 minutes after bed time to read whatever they choose while in bed.
Perhaps the most obvious help is to strictly limit the amount of television viewing. This is made more difficult because parents are more strongly attached to the T.V. than they care to admit. All the more reason to sever those choking chords! If you read out loud together, it gives everyone something else to do, and eases the withdrawal pains. To get started, perhaps choose a particular night, say, Thursday and Saturday, which is designated as Reading Night. Pop some popcorn (the reader will have to forego eating) and make it fun. In winter, we sometimes light lots of candles.
But the strongest influence, by far, is the example of seeing you and your spouse read yourselves, for your own enjoyment. Be it the newspaper, a good novel, a history or a theological work, nothing shines through as knowing that Dad and Mom (or Grandfather and Grandmother, or Aunt Eloise) think reading is worthwhile. While you’re at it, share an excerpt, be it funny, thought-provoking, or simply well-written, from the book you’re currently reading.
There are some good resource books out there that give lists, descriptions and even categorize according to age and topic. Try out Elizabeth Wilson’s Books Children Love, Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart, Terry Glaspey’s Great Books of the Christian Tradition, Jim Trelease’s The Read Aloud Handbook, and one forthcoming from Canon Press called The Book Tree.
The Home Library
What about the home library? Is it required to purchase all these books? No. Many of the good, moral books are to be found at the local library, or through the inter-library loan system. Church libraries also usually have many excellent Christian fiction and non-fiction titles on their shelves, and are looking for good ideas for future purchases. It could be that your church has the Piet Prins World War II series for boys.
But either way, in my opinion, there is nothing quite like owning a good book yourself. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. I have built a substantial home library mostly through garage sales, second-hand stores, library sales, and school book clubs. Watch carefully for content, though, even in the school book clubs. If you familiarize yourself with the good titles listed in the resource books above, you’ll instantly recognize what you want. And let’s not be stingy. We don’t blink at a $20 night out, but often balk at spending that much on a new hardcover book that will last for generations.
For the real tiny tots, board books are great. There’s not much text, so their patience doesn’t wear thin, and they are durable! Plus, duct tape always puts them right! Use the opportunity to train even one year olds that their books are to be treated with care. Younger ones don’t require a great variety of titles. They like the same stories over and over.
But whether you buy or borrow, nothing can replace the experience of the whole family gathered to share a story together. No one is shushed when a question arises about the character or plot (like watching TV). It’s relaxed, and can be put down and picked up again whenever the time is right. It’s a time that belongs to everyone and will most assuredly become a cherished memory.
Parents have a wide open opportunity to build, block by block, day by day, good, godly virtues into the lives of their children. The reading aloud of good books is one the best, easiest and most enjoyable ways of doing this. Open one and get started! And may God bless your efforts. He certainly has ours!
Mrs. Karen Adams is the wife of Rev. Peter Adams of Grace URC in Alto, Michigan. Together they are bringing up seven children ranging in age from 2 to 17.