By George Grant
“‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”
Edward Lear (1812-1888)
Silent reading is a fairly modern innovation. As late as the eighteenth century, it was thought that the best way to truly appreciate the classics was to read them aloud—all the better to relish the beauty of the words, the music of the composition, and the architecture of the ideas. Of course, the classics are not limited to great philosophical tomes by the likes of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. In fact, some of the greatest classic works ever written are books for children—books that are at their very best when read aloud.
The best thing about reading aloud to children aside from developmental progress and all that good stuff, is onomatopoeia. “Clang, clang!” “Harrumph!” “Chugga-chugga” “Choo-Choo” “Splat” “Ring! Ring!” “Flutter, Flutter.” Wonderful children’s literature doesn’t just progress along the pages in staid font transferring information, it sings out from the very book at us! Be it Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel digging away furiously or Peter Rabbit hopping lippity, lippity through Mr. MacGregor’s dangerous garden patch, we are fully engaged from once-upon-a-time to everyone-lived-happily-ever-after. Ducks wear poke bonnets, trains wish desperately to make children happy, dreams come true, elephants and carpets fly, and small children affect the outcome of their worlds. Adults who wear business attire and behave perfectly appropriately in steel and glass towers day after monotonous day transform themselves into snakes, mean old hags, princesses with snooty accents, and sorrowful baby bears when a small child is snuggled on their lap with a good book. Is it any wonder that a happy child’s evening litany includes “Read one more book, please?”
Children’s classics are those books that can be read over and over and over again, with great anticipation and satisfaction. Character traits that would serve well both presidents and street sweepers are inculcated between the few pages, and good, while often tattered, does overcome evil in the end. Lost battles are still worth the fight. As in real life, the honor and import of the struggle count more than winning.
Do you miss it? Then rush out to a school in your own neighborhood and ask for the privilege to read to some children once a week. Better yet, ask for the greater privilege of teaching someone to read as a volunteer tutor in a local school. The rewards of macaroni necklaces, somewhat sticky hugs, long, extremely detailed stories of the day’s adventures, and glittery homemade cards are surprisingly as touching as gifts from your own loved ones, as well as the quiet inner assurance that you are making a difference in the world forever after.
Rather than purchasing huge quantities of books for your children, purchase quality copies of some great ones, and read these over and over again.
Reading quietly to a small child in the tub just after the dinner hour has a calming effect on the entire household.
Do you have one of those busy little people in your family who finds it very difficult to sit still? They really can concentrate better on the story you’re reading if they have a crayon and paper in front of them or a small car to hold in their hands as you read.
Keep wonderful books such as The Chronicles of Narnia or the G.A. Henty adventures or the Jan Karon Mitford novels in the car and read aloud to the entire family if you have a regular long commute together or will be together on vacation.
Make sure each child has a bookshelf of their own or a space of their own on the family bookshelf. Books should never be kept in toyboxes where they will be destroyed. Treat them as if they are very valuable.
Your children must see you reading if they are to take reading seriously themselves.
Perhaps you missed out on many wonderful children’s classics as a child. Buy them, read them, then donate the books to area school libraries or create a small library at a shelter for kids in transitional housing. Any schoolteacher can provide you with the name of a young student who needs and would appreciate a book for Christmas.
If you have more than one child in your family, their reading skills will vary. Some children simply don’t read well; it is work for them, and not unadulterated joy. For these children especially, reading aloud to them for as many years as they will listen is especially important for their cultural understanding and development. Things as simple as the inflection in your voice when you read about an inappropriate action by a character will imprint upon your child’s moral character if read to often.
Some children simply aren’t as affectionate as others. They often get left out when it comes to reading time merely because it isn’t as sensuously enjoyable for everyone as with a snuggling sweetheart engaged in the story. These children need your patience and time even more than others, who will probably find ways to get their needs met in life through normal daily interaction. Do whatever it takes to keep their attention: feed them cookies, let them blow bubbles, and concentrate on rhyming, fast-moving stories and beautiful illustrations. You may be the only person in their entire life who will take the time to interest them in books. A lot of extra stimulation is not advised however for a child easily read to. Imagination develops in wonderful ways when pure listening skills are employed.
“There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read. A man reading a Le Quex mystery wants to get to the end of it. A man reading the Dickens novel wished that it might never end.” George MacDonald (1824-1905)
“Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.” Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
“You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.” G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
“The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not yet read them.” Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
George Grant is the author of more than five dozen books, serves as pastor of Parish Presbyterian Church, and is the founder of King’s Meadow Study Center, the Chalmers Fund, New College Franklin, the Comenius School, and Franklin Classical School.