The Power of a Bedtime Story

6th March 2013

pg1Oh, reading aloud. You were my blessing and curse in school. I was that kid squirming around in English as we read Flowers for Algernon, desperately hoping the person reading would just. read. faster. Those days of reading aloud were torture and sheer bliss. Because as that person struggled over the pronunciation of words (my 6th grade inner snob appalls me), I was reading way ahead, only turning back when the person in front of me began their page. Then I’d go through my page, looking for any words whose pronunciation I was unsure of and getting ready for my moment.

Dorks are easy to please.

And my moment would come, and I’d read my page, my cheeks hot from the pressure, pacing myself, thinking of how I could make this story sound better before the page would turn and the yoke would pass to the student behind me.

When I taught ESL, those days came back to me. The first semester, I thought I would die of boredom as students slowly, painstakingly read through the class readers. And believe me, I know how horrible that sounds. I absolutely adored those students, but I didn’t magically have more patience with slow reading, though I tried. My saving grace was seeing how much they enjoyed reading. And suddenly I could pick out the “me” in the classroom, that fidgeting student, flipping through the book, glancing around with a pained expression as someone mispronounced a word, volunteering to read if I ever asked. We’d wrap up a chapter, and I’d give them their outside reading assignment, but one particular day, they all groaned. Thinking they were upset with the homework, I asked, “What?”

“We want to keep reading.”

That, my friends, is the power of a good book.

Like many of you, bedtime stories were my first introduction to the world of reading. My mother had a cache of books tucked away, special books for which she would produce voices and sound effects. One of my favorites at that young age was The Monster at the End of This Book,ร‚ย a fantastically fun children’s book featuring Grover. She has since passed that book on to my cousin, who, for weeks, walked around saying the last line: “Oh, I am so embarrassed,” mimicking my mother’s intonation perfectly. Goodnight Moon, one of the most famous children’s books, was foremost on the shelf in my bedroom for many, many years. Then there were the Berenstein Bears, a small bear popping too much popcorn on Halloween, and Clifford. One of my favorite baby shower presents is a combination of these books, ready to be read to a new little one.

But the act of reading to children isn’t as common as most readers would think. Ask any elementary school teacher, most children love story time, craving it, sitting with crossed legs, leaning forward, swaying tiny bodies to and fro to catch every last glimpse of the illustrated page before the teacher turns it to the next. Many of those children don’t have parents who read to them, who make sure each night ends with an imaginary world. And how can I criticize? I don’t have children, and they seem endlessly exhausting. These days, I barely have time to read my own bedtime story before my eyelids begin to droop.

But those bedtime stories have stuck with me the last few weeks, in part because today is World Read Aloud Day. But I also read two essays in the last few weeks that brought about the theme for this post, one by Cassandra Neace, “Remembering They Were Readers” about going through her father and grandfather’s bookshelves and another by Rainbow Rowell, “Learn to Read, Kid, But Don’t Fall in Love.”

Both are beautiful testaments to the reading life.

My own reading life has been a beautiful thing, and I’ve often said that just as you have great writers, you also have great readers. I am the latter. (There’s that snobby 6th grader again.) I say this, though, because I can’t take credit for it. Those bedtime stories weren’t just picture books read to me when I was 2 and 3.

During summer breaks, Mom would take us to the library where we’d load up on books, me taking pride in bagging the limit. Summer reading contests? Please. The Ravey family had those all tied up. But even more memorable was the one book we’d choose to read as a family at night, Dad included. We’d sit in the living room, Mom and Dad on the sofa, my brother, sister, and I sitting at their feet. They’d take turns reading to us. The books we read as a family have stayed in my memory, redolent of safe, fun evenings, the smell of soap and strawberry shampoo filling my nose. Madeline L’Engle was a favorite. I first read A Wrinkle in Time on my own, but we read it as a family later. The Emperor’s Panda- though I can’t recall anything of the story (scenes flit through my head, but I can’t make any connections) – I remember adoring it. James and the Giant Peach. Just as now, the books and stories were important, but more important was the time we spent, no television on, no cell phone interruptions (if you called after 8 p.m., you were either rude or had an emergency).

My family is still close, and we still share books. We don’t sit together and read them aloud (we’re not that dorky), but we pass them on to one another, my sister berating me when I haven’t read a book she just loved, my dad telling me he doesn’t have enough time as I hand him a book and then raving about that same book he had absolutely no time to read. My brother bemoaned the decline in his own reading, and my parents got him a Nook Glowlight for Christmas, for long subway rides. He’s the one who handed me The Talented Mr. Ripley last summer. My mom and I have remained the biggest readers in my family, and discussing books isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

I feel imminently blessed by this. I know plenty of people started their blogs because they had no one bookish in their own lives. I know some readers don’t discover the world of books until much later in life. My own ESL students shared their experiences, telling me that in some of their countries, fiction just doesn’t exist, and they certainly aren’t encouraged to read it. So stories like The Tale of Two Cities, which most American students would abhor, are magical to them, and I came to treasure the days we read aloud in class, watching their faces as the story unfolded.

And that magic is what it’s all about. As Rainbow Rowell said in her post, “People who fall in love with books never really stop falling.”

Thank God.

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  • Candy Morton

    How lovely! You’re reading memories are wonderful.

    I don’t recall any family read aloud times. I’m sure my mother read to me when I was little, but I just don’t remember. I was a terrible reader. I was the kid in class who sat there DREADING my turn to read. I was so embarrassed. I wanted so badly to be a good reader. My best friend and my cousins were readers, and when I went over to there house for a weekend, all they did was read!! So, I would try to read with them. But I was a slow reader, my mind would wander and I’d forget what I’d read and have to start over. VERY discouraging.

    As an adult, I took a reading class at the community collage, which helped me read faster. I learned the faster you read the more you comprehend. Now, I’m a happy reader!!

    • Oh Candy, I’m so sorry. It was nervewracking enough reading aloud, so I can’t imagine. I’m sorry my 6th grade self was impatient. But I’m also so glad you’re a happy reader. Reading really does enhance my life.

  • That was so EXACTLY me in elementary school during read-alouds. My proudest moments were when the teacher would say “why don’t we let Kristen keep going for a bit?” Now I have been reading aloud to Z every night for the past few years and I always make sure to give him the chance to read some of the story to me. The other day, I got to hear him do his bit in a class read-aloud during library time and he was the best in the class (and I’m not just saying that as his mom). He had perfect pronunciation and timing and even personality. I know he wouldn’t have been that good without our nightly read-aloud time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • You’re so right. It isn’t something that comes naturally, and I think that’s what bothers me when students have trouble reading aloud. I know it’s not (likely) been part of their experience. Yea for Z!

  • This is such a great post. Reading to my kids and encouraging them to read on their own is definitely going to be one of my biggest priorities when I do become a parent. Pretty much right behind food, clothing, and shelter.

    • Thanks, Charleen. I’m not a mom either, but boy, does it make a difference. I love that you see it as so important, too.

  • Cassandra

    Oh, Jenn – great piece and I am truly honored that you liked my little essay that much! This is probably my favorite of all reading-related events. Thinking about story time makes me wish I was still teaching elementary school. It’s the only time I miss it.

    • I absolutely did. I thought it was lovely and apt. When reading is such an important part of your life, it’s natural that we’d be interested in the reading lives of those we love.

  • Belle

    Thank you for that wonderful walk down memory lane with your family and bringing back good memories for my little girl summers and my mother of the littles years. Lovely.

    • Thank you for reading it. And yes, I love those memories.

  • mary

    This. post. is. awesome! Magical even. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m going directly to the LitWorld page!

    • What a compliment, Mary. Thanks so much. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • heidenkind

    Great post! I was like that in grade school, too. But I’d get way too emotionally involved in the stories and start crying or laughing and totally embarrass myself. Sooooo… not much has changed. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Hahaha! You’re too funny. I can remember that “I’m not supposed to laugh but can’t help myself” feeling.

  • Beautifully put Jenn. I was fortunate enough to have been read to every night as a child, and I too was the impatient child reading ahead while to my horror others crucified the English language. I am known for giving books to children at far too young an age, or so I am told. But, I believe a young mind is never too young for a book.

    • We’re some lucky people, Jo. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lovely :*) Lump in my throat lovely. Thanks for this.

    • Aw, thank you, Jennifer.

  • Awesome post, Jenn. I was very lucky to grow up in a family that read together. Books have always been a major part of my life.

    • Can you imagine if you hadn’t been? Appalling to think about, really.

  • While I am by far the most bookish person in my family, I was lucky enough to have parents who either read to my sisters and I or told us stories. I loved the stories that my dad made up! It’s great bonding and I think anything you can do to get kids interested in reading is just plain awesome!

  • Belle Wong

    Such a beautiful post! I love your description of your family reading times. My upbringing was somewhat similar, in that we had weekly trips to the library, which were always the highlight of my week, and several nights in the week would find my mom, my two sisters and I sprawled on my mom’s bed, reading our various books. But I was never read aloud to – so I’m really glad I discovered the pleasures of audiobooks a few years back! My youngest is 9 and I’ve been really enjoying reading to him all the children’s books that I loved when I was little. I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep reading to him even when he reaches his teens!