Back in the fifties, in my crowded parochial elementary school, the highest form of good luck landed you in Mrs. Sheeran’s fourth-grade class. The fact that Mrs. Sheeran wasn’t a nun marked her instantly as different.
But more significant than her street clothes and married name were two admirable practices. First, every day at 10:30 she smuggled us out the back door and down to the playground for an all-class dodgeball game. Second, she read aloud to our class at the end of the day, right before dismissal. Her books of choice were the Happy Hollisters series, and I was so taken with them that I asked for Happy Hollisters books that Christmas.
Years later, when I taught sixth grade in the 1990s, I, too, took my students outside for a mid-morning break (four-square was their game of choice). And I, too, read aloud every day. Sometimes, when my students looked particularly groggy, we began the day with reading aloud. At other times we settled down after lunch and recess with reading aloud. Our classroom — one of fifteen trying to coexist on three levels of open space dreamed up in the early seventies by architects, not teachers — could be a distracting environment. When I gathered my students in a circle to read aloud, it created a bubble of calm, an oasis of community that fed us all, teacher and students alike.
Reading picture books aloud to younger children is common practice — teachers during the school day, parents at bedtime. But reading aloud in the middle grades is less widespread. Once children start reading on their own, the demands of curriculum, testing, and the ever more splintered schedule cause teachers to abandon the practice. What a loss! At every age, listening to someone reading aloud is a gift. My college roommate described as “unforgettable” the day her seventh-grade teacher read Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” out loud, tapping his shoe against the desk the whole time, mimicking a steady heartbeat. Another friend told me that his favorite school memory was a young teacher reading The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. “I was so lucky to get her,” he said. The BBC still broadcasts “Book at Bedtime,” a program aimed at adults, aired nightly and beloved by many.
I encourage reading aloud to middle-grade children anywhere and everywhere: in the classroom, in the library, at home. It’s a shared pleasure that binds reader and listeners in a rich, intimate experience. In the large school where I am currently librarian, children often assume that I know each of them individually, that I remember the specific books they’ve read and the authors they love. They shout greetings across the playground or wave from the lunch tables, signaling that we have a personal friendship. I believe this bond is forged by sharing stories. When we read a story aloud and enjoy it together, we create a history: characters we know in common, times we’ve shared laughter, suspense, awe. Stories tie us together, become part of our collective history. Remember when Ramona thought she’d get a prize for staying in her seat because her teacher said, “Sit here for the present” (Ramona the Pest); remember when Fflewddur Fflam exaggerated and his lute string snapped (The Book of Three); remember when Templeton’s rotten egg broke (Charlotte’s Web)?
What makes a good book to read aloud? What criteria should we use in choosing? I suspect that this is as individual as our personal reading tastes. Some people prefer humor, others action. Some insist on positive role models. I like a book with rich language, a story unlikely to be read independently by most of my students. One thing is certain: it is crucial to read the entire book in advance to determine if it’s a good fit for the group and to scout out scenes or details needing explanation or support. Serious errors can occur when the reader has not read the book all the way through ahead of time.
For instance, a colleague chose to read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo to her fourth-grade class after reading the first few chapters. That year the mother of a student in the class was struggling with a fatal cancer. The first chapters went smoothly: the fancy toy rabbit, the prosperous Tulane household, the grandmother’s story of a witch and a princess. The class loved the illustrations and the old-fashioned look and feel of the book. But Edward’s journey is far from smooth. Midway through the book, the rabbit is given to young Sarah Ruth, who is dying. Her cough worsens over three full chapters chronicling her death. There was no question of abandoning the book—the class was hooked. The teacher had no choice but to plow through, worried the entire time about the child whose mother was dying, wondering what connections he was making.
A parent told me of this incident: in third grade her daughter was the only black child in the class. Her teacher chose to read aloud Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a book I admire greatly and have used in reading groups with sixth graders. A Newbery Medal winner, it describes the dignity, pride, and love of the Logan family, black landowners in 1930s Mississippi. Since it is an accurate historical novel, frightening scenes of racism and violence appear throughout the book. This conversation occurs in the second chapter:
“Heard tell they lynched a boy a few days ago at Crosston.”
“And ain’t a thing gonna be done ’bout it,” said Mr. Lanier…“Now I hear tells that some of them men that done it been round braggin’ ’bout it. Sayin’ they’d do it again if some other uppity nigger get out of line.”
The child experienced the racist language as directed at her, and she felt isolated and confused throughout the reading of the book. Years later, the parent was still bristling. I suspect the teacher had not read the book and chose it because of its stature as an award winner, or because the main character is a young black girl growing up in a strong loving family. But the story was too old for the group, even as a read-aloud.
I loved reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart with sixth graders, shuddering together at the villainy and suspense, but I wouldn’t read it aloud to a younger group, although many younger readers enjoy it as independent readers. Independent readers can and do abandon books that are not a good fit, but it’s hard to escape when a book is read aloud to the whole class. Inkheart contains evil characters who have the upper hand for a terrifying section of the book. My sixth graders, clear about the boundary between reality and fantasy, were not haunted or troubled by nightmares. I can’t be sure that would be true of younger children.
Some books deserve to be read, and savored, privately. One of my favorite books, All Alone in the Universe by Lynne Rae Perkins, is an account of the summer that Debbie, the narrator, is stranded, dumped by her best friend, her place taken by Glenna: “If I thought about Glenna Flaiber at all, I guess I hoped that she would evaporate while I was gone. But she seemed to have congealed, like cold gravy and then cement, and I was the one turning into thin air.” I love Debbie’s observations, her candid reflections, and, of course, Perkins’s writing. I include All Alone in the Universe on my suggested reading list every summer, I would definitely choose it for a reading group, and I use sections when talking about writing. But when a story is largely interior, there might not be enough action to hold a group’s attention.
A recent book I do plan to read aloud is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Miranda is another keenly observant narrator who loses her best. But the story that unfolds is a mystery with plenty of action. Who is sending Miranda the strange anonymous letters that contain predictions and uncanny knowledge of her life? I can imagine the various theories that will float up in discussions as the story unfolds.
When a portion of a book requires thoughtful support, reading aloud can be a solution. When assigned The Giver, a core book for sixth grade, students read chunks of the book independently, but I asked my class to stop before chapter nineteen, in which we learn what it means to be “released.” With the class sitting in a circle, I read aloud the scene of the father killing the smaller twin “newchild.” I wanted us to experience the shock together, with ample opportunity to express confusion, outrage, sadness.
For me, the language in the book has to be strong and rich to sustain my commitment over several weeks of reading. Reading A Wizard of Earthsea to my sixth graders, I always felt as if I could lean back into Le Guin’s prose and it would hold me up. Right from the start, from her description of the Archipelago on the first page, we enter a world woven of words as powerful as any incantation by the wizards of Roke Island.
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk.
Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series has language that flows like a song and characters whose speech is wonderfully idiosyncratic. Within just a few pages of meeting Gurgi (“its hair was so matted and covered with leaves that it looked like an owl’s nest in need of housecleaning”), my students could all rhyme and whine like him with his crunchings and munchings, shakings and breakings, squeakings and shriekings. (Note: the latest editions of the Prydain books contain pronunciation guides, a boon in coping with the multitude of consonant-strewn names.)
I like a book that’s a stretch in language or plot for my listeners, a bit beyond their independent reading. I remember two brilliant eleven-yearold boys, recent immigrants from China, leaning forward to catch every word of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. Their receptive language outpaced their independent reading; White’s prose and details satisfied their imaginations and intellects. And another class listened with puzzled smiles to Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, finally asking me, “Where did you get this?” They begged for more every day, delighting in the fisherman, the mermaid, the bear, the lynx.
I like to pose questions when we read aloud together. In December, reading Erik Haugaard’s translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” to older grades, I ask, Who is the audience, who is this written for, who would enjoy it? In Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers, the question is embedded in the text: which child is telling the story? Part of the fun of the book is catching the clues that the narrator drops.
Every year, picking up the clues and unraveling the mystery together made Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game a hit with my sixth graders. The approach was part read-aloud, part reader’s theater. By reading Raskin’s words out loud, all members of the class were invited into the book. After the class takes an oath not to read ahead, I read the first chapters aloud, asking my students to map out the setting, sketch the apartment house, figure out where each apartment is. Right from the start something strange is afoot:
The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faces east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. Th is glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chosen tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.
The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup.
Once we meet the characters/suspects and they are summoned to the Westing Mansion, I would give out the parts: sixteen suspects, a handful of minor characters, several narrators, a clue and note reader. Every year there were one or two students who had already read the book; they were given the charge of planting red herrings, leading the class astray with false theories and accusations. Everyone kept a “detective’s notebook” for writing down clues, hunches, characters’ connections to Sam Westing. We read the book aloud together, sharing hunches and details noticed. Raskin changes point of view seamlessly, so a reader needs to ask, Whose point of view is this? Is this a fact or the character’s perception? The Westing Game is a brilliant and challenging book, and it gave my class a heady feeling of accomplishment derived from shared listening and the pleasure of untangling the mystery together. When the book is read aloud, every student has access to this experience; it is not reserved for only the top reading group or the expert reader.
Episodic books are often good choices for reading aloud. Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price and Philip Pullman’s The Scarecrow and His Servant are wonderfully constructed and take us far from the here-and-now. Who can forget the donut machine and Homer’s search for the missing jewelry? And the scarecrow is a wise fool traipsing across the countryside, weathering adventure at every turn. My favorite moment comes when the boy is hungry and the scarecrow simply pulls his turnip head from his shoulders and insists that the boy take a bite. The story of another wise fool, Roald Dahl’s The BFG, begs to be shared aloud. Reading his malapropisms aloud produces laughter every time and opens up a discussion of what phrase the giant meant to say.
One last thought about reading aloud: it can’t be hurried. As the world spins faster and communication shrinks to the size of Twitter, we need to make room for the sound of a voice reading a story: details creating another place; the well-paced unfolding of plot; the blossoming of character; the luxury of language. Thus is culture passed on, through story shared, language spoken and heard.
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
The BFG by Roald Dahl
The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit
The Scarecrow and His Servant by Philip Pullman
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White
From the January/February 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.