By Mary M. Burns and Ann A. Flowers
Suddenly, literacy is a hot topic. While definitions may vary, there is general agreement that it’s a good thing, and the more of it, the better. The problem seems to be discovering how to nurture it. Because Americans incline toward Puritanism when faced with self-improvement, the process can seem singularly dreary. By adding our voices to the chorus of admonitions and prescriptions, we hope to restore literacy to its rightful place as a joyous exchange between adults and children without fear of failure. Basically, we’re promoting reading aloud, a time-honored tradition. It is educational, but most of all, it’s fun.
No, we can’t guarantee your child’s acceptance to the college of his or her choice; nor can we promise that your listeners will be in the top reading group. But if you try — and persevere — you will find mutual pleasure and increased understanding of one another’s ideas and dreams. You will have opened up a channel of communication that can compete with for-profit networks. If that happens, reading scores may improve as well, not to mention achievement in math and science, as a recent study seems to suggest. But remember, pleasure comes first; story hour is not simply school in disguise.
Once committed to the idea of immersing your household in books, how do you begin? Many families have already established regular story times but want to perfect skills; others may have found scheduling just a bit too difficult in these hectic days; still others may have decided that older children are too sophisticated for get-togethers with books. All of these challenges can be considered under three major headings: where and when to read; what to read; how to read.
1. Where and when to read
Just about anywhere and anytime — as long as you’re not disturbing someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed. Of course, there’s the familiar bedtime ritual for toddlers. But have you considered using the time spent waiting for doctors or dentists? Amusing one child during another’s music lesson or sports practice? Adding a new dimension to birthday parties or holiday celebrations with a pre-planned story program?
Bring books to the playground, pool, or shore. Have books in the car; tapes may be used if motion makes you too queasy to read. One enterprising mother used to bring books to the hairdresser! Another brought suitable books to religious services so that her preschooler wouldn’t fidget during sermons. (They read aloud before and after the rites concluded.) But you have to be armed at all times. Remember, paperbacks make it easy to have a well-stocked traveling library.
2. What to read
You are not alone. Consult your local children’s librarian. Look for lists, like the one that follows, which suggest popular titles. Make a file of your own favorites — the books that make your audiences ask, “Read it again, please!”
You will find that the right books have certain elements in common: the themes are clearly defined; plots develop logically and progressively with few, if any, flashbacks; the characters are memorable; there is often an element of suspense, perhaps a problem that must be solved, to keep readers interested. They are child-centered, but never cute. They offer security, and they frequently empower the child, particularly preschoolers, without condescending. Be aware that some books may appeal to older rather than younger audiences. When looking for new books, compare them with your and your children’s favorites to see if they measure up. And never use a book that you yourself don’t enjoy! Remember, shared pleasure is one of the rewards for reading aloud.
Picture books are prime choices for reading aloud, particularly in limited spans of time. The stories are short; the illustrations help to focus the audience’s attention. And they’re not only for pre-schoolers — just ask the teenagers and adults who have discovered Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka. We live in a visual age; the dramatic increase in sophisticated picture books seems an inevitable development in the electronic era. Many also appeal to reluctant readers.
Be careful when selecting books with numerous sidebars or speech-balloons for your initial efforts with larger groups. These may make it difficult for your audience to follow the storyline. There are, of course, exceptions that demand some creative interpretation. Also, be sure that illustrations are sizable enough to be seen at a distance. Some books, like The Tale of Peter Rabbit in its original format, are really best suited for sharing with one or two children. They are for lap-sitters.
And never, never read a book aloud that you haven’t read first, particularly in a group setting. It may be too long, too short, boring, inadequately illustrated, poorly synchronized, or unsuitable for the audience. If a child asks you to use something unfamiliar, suggest postponing the reading until you have a chance to preview the selection.
3. How to Read
How to read is closely related to what to read. Having selected a book you enjoy, read at a pace that allows your listener(s) to absorb both words and pictures. Developing visual literacy is an important part of story time. Don’t rush, but don’t lose the rhythm either. Let the book dictate your tempo.
Although we suggest that you can read just about anywhere, particularly one-to-one, we also urge you, if possible, to create a distraction-free environment. Comfortable seating for both reader and listener(s) is important. And non-glare lighting is a must; otherwise, those handsome illustrations will be lost on a squinting audience.
These are just a few basic ideas we’ve learned as parents, teachers, and librarians. Ann told stories for more than two decades at the Wayland Public Library; Mary honed her skills at Playland on Boston Common, near traffic-saturated Tremont Street, as part of a Boston Public Library outreach program. Believe us, you can do it!
The stories in the following collection have been proven successful in holding the interest of children. Some are suspenseful and exciting, some are funny, some are soothing, but they all work.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Harper, 32 pp. Illus. by Clement Hurd.
The quintessential bedtime book, quiet, serene, and comforting in its familiarity.
Carle, Eric. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Philomel, 32 pp.
A cutout book in which a caterpillar eats its way through a steadily increasing number of delectable foods and finally becomes a butterfly — a natural history lesson and a counting book as an added bonus.
dePaola, Tomie. Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose. Putnam, 127 pp.
Every child needs a Mother Goose; this one contains a wide selection of nursery rhymes with lively, handsome illustrations and comfortable large print.
Hest, Amy. In the Rain with Baby Duck. Illus. by Jill Barton. Candlewick, 24 pp.
Baby Duck does not like the rain, to the consternation of her parents. But sympathetic Grampa Duck knows just what to do; he finds her mother’s childhood umbrella and boots. A splendid book for a rainy day.
Hill, Eric. Where’s Spot? Putnam, 24 pp.
Spot the puppy hides from his mother in a raise-the-flap book that allows every child to have the pleasure of being Spot’s discoverer.
Wells, Rosemary. Max’s First Word. Dial, 12 pp.
A board book in which Max quietly outgenerals his bossy older sister Ruby in her attempts to run his life. Max and Ruby have many epic confrontations in further sequels. Very gratifying for the not-so-underdog.
Freeman, Don. Corduroy. Viking, 32 pp.
It is love at first sight when young Lisa sees Corduroy, a stuffed bear with one button missing from his overalls, for sale in a department store, but she lacks enough money to buy him. The happy conclusion is deeply satisfying.
Hadithi, Mwenye. Hot Hippo. Illus. by Adrienne Kennaway. Little, 32 pp.
Hippo is so hot! But Ngai, the god of Everything and Everywhere, allows only fishes to live in the water. So Hippo and Ngai work out an agreement, and hippos even today follow Ngai’s rules.
Hughes, Shirley. Alfie’s Feet. Lothrop, 32 pp.
Something is wrong with Alfie’s new rain boots; they feel funny. But the problem turns out not to be Alfie’s boots at all in a surprise (or maybe not such a surprise) ending.
Keats, Ezra Jack. Peter’s Chair. Harper, 32 pp.
Peter is certainly not willing to share his own little chair with his new baby sister, so he takes it and hides. But Mother knows just what to do.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Harper, 40 pp.
The most famous picture book of its day retains its fascination for children, who recognize Max’s bad behavior, his romp with the wild things, and especially his return home, as part of their wishes and dreams.
Zion, Gene. Harry the Dirty Dog. Illus. by Margaret Bloy Graham. Harper, 32 pp.
Harry is a friendly, curious dog whose sooty but enjoyable wanderings turn his white coat with black spots into a black coat with white spots. But how will his family ever recognize him now?
Allard, Harry. Miss Nelson Is Missing! Illus. by James Marshall. Houghton, 32 pp.
What can have happened to dear Miss Nelson, who deserts her class in desperation when they keep on acting up? And where did her replacement, horrible Miss Viola Swamp, emerge from?
dePaola, Tomie. Strega Nona. Simon, 32 pp.
Poor Big Anthony can’t stop Strega Nona’s magic pasta pot from overflowing in a famous Italian tale.
McCloskey, Robert. Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man. Viking, 64 pp.
Burt Dow’s fantastic adventures out in his fishing dory include being swallowed and (even more difficult!) unswallowed by a whale.
Rathmann, Peggy. Officer Buckle and Gloria. Putnam, 32 pp.
Officer Buckle, the police safety officer, kind but somewhat dull, does not realize that his dog Gloria is the real star of his school talks.
Rayner, Mary. Mr. and Mrs. Pig’s Evening Out. Atheneum, 32 pp.
Mr. and Mrs. Pig carelessly leave their children in charge of Mrs. Wolf, but the piglets, especially Sorrel, are equal to anything.
Waber, Bernard. Ira Sleeps Over. Houghton, 46 pp.
Feeling ashamed of wanting to bring his teddy bear with him, and heckled by his sister, Ira is seriously insecure in his first-ever sleepover, but he finds comfort unexpectedly.
Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. Viking, 32 pp.
The tale of Miss Rumphius who, after her retirement as a librarian, plants lupines all over New England is a beautiful example of a life well spent.
Mahy, Margaret. The Great White Man-Eating Shark. Illus. by Jonathan Allen. Dial, 32 pp.
Norvin, a fine but selfish young swimmer who wants to have the whole beach to himself, finds the perfect way to discourage other swimmers. Maybe.
Scieszka, Jon. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Illus. by Lane Smith. Viking, 56 pp.
Folktales as you have never heard them, such as “The Really Ugly Duckling” and “The Other Frog Prince.” Wild spoofs and even wilder illustrations will keep you on your toes.
Steig, William. Doctor De Soto. Farrar, 32 pp.
Doctor De Soto, a kindly mouse dentist, treats all animals in pain. But when a fox tries to take advantage of him, in a menu-planning sort of way, Doctor De Soto devises a splendid revenge.
Turkle, Brinton. Do Not Open. Dutton, 32 pp.
Miss Moody and her cat, Captain Kidd, find, while beachcombing, a curious purple glass bottle. Should they open it?
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Stranger. Houghton, 32 pp.
The enigmatic but pleasant stranger recovering at Farmer Bailey’s house after an accident doesn’t even speak. But unusual weather and other bizarre occur-rences give rise to questions in the Baileys’ minds.
Mary Burns and Ann Flowers are long-time reviewers for The Horn Book Magazine.
From the March/April 1997 issue of The Horn Book Magazine