A lifelong shared reading has built unbreakable bonds

One family's experience of reading books out loud is that it is something that need not stop - ever.

For a moment, I'd forgotten the age difference between Scout and Jem.

"They're four years apart," my daughter, Georgia, reminded me.

Sure enough, Scout, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, is eight and Jem, her brother, is nearly 13.

Georgia hadn't actually read Harper Lee's novel, though. She knew this detail because she'd heard me read it aloud just a few days before.

My wife and I have been reading aloud to Georgia for 15 years. Once we'd started, we just never stopped. As family time it's more engaging and active than watching a movie and not as competitive as playing some board games.

And the benefits are boundless. Georgia's listening comprehension continues to develop; she reads aloud sometimes as well, thus gaining confidence; her own writing has improved; and her world broadens with every choice of book to read, whether a novel or non-fiction.

Like most parents, we started with picture books, with Georgia on our laps. We went through a couple of copies of Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one because Georgia chewed it after we read it. And did we read it! Night after night after night. Children enjoy repetition. It helps memory. It builds their ability to see cause and effect and predict outcome. My wife and I also believed it was a way to end the day on a quiet note. We ourselves read before turning out the lights, so why not pass on this comforting legacy?

Children are never too young to have stories read to them, according to early childhood educators, who cite reading as the foundation of all learning, the building block upon which everything rests, from success in school and work to self-worth and health.

Only when Georgia was about 2 years old did we discover she had hearing loss in each ear. It was a surprise to her nursery teachers, however, that she had as wide a vocabulary as she did. It was no surprise to her parents. We hoped that by reading aloud to Georgia, she would develop the language and listening skills necessary for early schooling before she learnt to write and, forever afterward, a lifetime of learning.

Picture books gave way to early readers, like Little Bear and Amelia Bedelia, which in turn gave way to simple chapter books, such as the Ramona series. As Georgia matured, so did the reading material.

We let her interests and ours guide our reading decisions. If we liked a book about one particular subject we searched out others for subsequent reading. In this way, her knowledge deepened and her perspective broadened. At seven years old, Georgia, born in the former Soviet Union, became our resident "expert" on the Russian Revolution, the Romanovs and Princess Anastasia and the atrocities of Stalin. This led to eventual, and age-appropriate, reading about the Second World War and the Holocaust.

It was only about this time that Georgia saw her first motion picture or video. As a younger child, she had never seemed interested in watching television or movies, a proclivity we did not discourage. When she did become interested, we found books tied to a show (the Quebec animation Caillou, for example) or we read the books on which the movie was based. The Lord of the Rings provided months of reading enjoyment.

We read Georgia the entire Chronicles of Narnia when she was about seven. (Last year she reread them on her own in less than two weeks.) It took a few months. I remember reading the concluding, emotional pages of The Last Battle. It was a Sunday, after lunch, and we were at the kitchen table, tears welling in our eyes. I was running late for work. But the book came first.

When we were done with that series, my wife tried to introduce Georgia to the Harry Potter books. Georgia found the writing paled compared with CS Lewis's. She was 12 or 13 before she finally read The Philosopher's Stone and didn't bother reading volumes 2 through 5; we saw the films instead. Last autumn, she read volume 6 on her own; together we read volume 7, The Deathly Hallows, before the movies came out.

As Georgia has grown older she's used her veto power more often. The beginning of Great Expectations was too creepy, Pride and Prejudice too slow, The Book Thief too something or other. She didn't explain and we didn't worry. How often have we ourselves abandoned books after reading just a few chapters? (And sometimes returned to them when we were ready.)

Most of the books, however, have been good stories well told. And like a book that's so good you don't want it to end - we could hardly bear to finish To Kill a Mockingbird last March - I hope we'll always be reading aloud with Georgia ... and someday, with her family.

Published: August 2, 2011 04:00 AM

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