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Loud and Clear

On the second annual World Read Aloud Day, consider the great educational, religious, and familial benefits to be gained from sharing stories with our children

Marjorie Ingall
March 01, 2011
Maxine, at 14 months, and her dad read Bears! by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.(Marjorie Ingall)
Maxine, at 14 months, and her dad read Bears! by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.(Marjorie Ingall)

When my daughter Josie was a toddler, she’d imperiously hand a board book to whomever was sitting next to her on the subway and then issue a command: “Read.”

I used to smile apologetically and hasten to grab Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? But then I started wondering what would happen if I waited a moment before reaching for the book. The results of my little experiment were amazing. Sullen-looking teens in baggy jeans, gum-cracking girls with too much lipliner, workbooted men, and young women in hospital scrubs—they’d take the book from Josie’s pudgy little hand and start to read. They’d gain confidence as they went. Often the whole subway car would listen, smiling.

Lest you think I’m one of those mothers who finds her child’s annoying behavior absolutely enchanting, I promise that if the book-recipient showed any hesitation at Josie’s demand, I immediately took the book back and started to read aloud myself. But I was surprised at how much people enjoyed reading to my fierce, focused girl. The act of reading aloud connects the reader and the listener. And New Yorkers, despite our tough reps, seek out and love moments of human connection.

Almost a decade later, Josie still wants to be read to. (Thankfully, she doesn’t hand middle-grade novels to whomever’s sitting next to her on the F train.) I’d assumed she’d be over it by now, and I count among my greatest blessings that she isn’t. Maybe we’ll be like that dad-daughter duo who read aloud for 3,218 nights. Nothing would thrill me more.

These days I have the delicious task of finding bedtime books that appeal to both a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old. For a while, Maxie, my younger daughter, got her own bedtime stories—two picture books of her choosing—but now we’ve consolidated. Chapter books with lots of humor, lots of dialogue, a protagonist with a strong, clear voice, and a story that’s not too scary to chase sleep away work well for us.

As the whole point of reading aloud is sharing the story, we can do so globally on March 9, the second annual World Read Aloud Day, an event created by a literacy educator named Pam Allyn. The author of What to Read When, Allyn now runs a nonprofit called LitWorld. That organization advocates for global literacy, gets publishers to donate books for kids in need, and runs book clubs for girls in the United States, Kenya, Liberia, Ghana, and Iraq and writing groups for children who have experienced trauma. World Read Aloud Day had 40,000 participants in 35 countries last year; this year, the organization is presenting a 24-hour read-aloud marathon in Times Square. (Controversial New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black will be among the readers.)

LitWorld connects First World students with Third World students to share ideas about reading and writing. A couple of years ago, seventh graders at Woodlands Community Temple in Westchester County, N.Y., wrote stories for African kids inspired by Hebrew prayers. And a middle-schooler there set up a laptop at her bat mitzvah party on which guests could tell their own stories; her bat mitzvah centerpieces were bundles of crayons, markers, chalk, and other supplies that were donated to schools in Kenya and Liberia.

This isn’t surprising. We Jews are a read-aloud people. At Passover we have an edict to tell the Exodus tale to our children. We’re supposed to make the story so immediate that it should feel as if we, not our ancestors, are fleeing the Egyptians. Good storytelling will do that. And of course, what is a Torah reading if not telling a story every week?

According to Reading Is Fundamenal, the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in America, higher levels of maternal education are correlated with higher percentages of children who are read to, told stories, or sung to every day. Middle-class children own more books, visit the library more often, and attend schools with better-stocked classrooms and libraries than poorer kids. Unshockingly, American Jews tend to fit the non-poor, educated-mom profile.

That’s why when Jews talk about Jewish illiteracy we don’t often mean our community’s inability to read English but rather our cluelessness about Judaism. That’s a much bigger issue for us. And foundations are starting to use Jewish children’s books to combat it. Through kids’ books, Jewish organizations hope to educate parents, associate sweet footie-PJ-clad reading time with Jewish content, and spark a familial interest in Jewish identity. The PJ Library mails 70,000 books to families across North America every month, including works by Jewish kidlit rock stars like Simms Taback, Patricia Polacco, Eric Kimmel, Richard Michelson, Linda Heller, Howard Schwartz, and Yona Zeldis McDonough. The kid gets the thrill of getting a package in the mail every month; the parent gets free Jewish literature. Perhaps a taste will spark an even greater appetite.

So, what are some tips for reading aloud effectively? There’s some great advice in this month’s Parenting magazine: When you read to preschoolers, ask questions about the story (“what do you think will happen next?”) and encourage your child to talk about the pictures. Be agreeable about reading books again and again—repetition is a vital developmental stage. This is why you have to start your kid off with terrific books; you’re going to be hearing them a lot. And have your child pretend to read a beloved, and probably memorized, book to you.

When President Barack Obama read Where the Wild Things Are at the White House Easter Egg Roll—he called the Maurice Sendak classic “one of my favorite books”—he used excellent read-aloud strategies. He drew the kids in by asking if they’d ever seen a wild thing. He did monster voices. He made terrible claws with his fingers. He made the experience interactive by encouraging the kids to stare without blinking, just like Max. And Michelle Obama made sure her husband held the book so that all the kids could see the pictures.

If you can’t get the president to read to your children, the National Education Association suggests having older kids read to younger kids. The older kid feels proud of his or her skills and ability to educate; the younger kid enjoys the attention from a big idol.

And you can never begin reading aloud too soon. My friend KJ Dell’Antonia is the co-author (along with Susan Straub, founder of the literacy program Read to Me) of Reading With Babies, Toddlers and Twos. Not to freak you out, but research shows that the number of different words a baby hears each day is the single most important predictor of school success and social competence.

I recently read and loved The Book Whisperer, a guide to helping kids love books. Written by a sixth-grade language arts teacher, Donalyn Miller, it’s aimed at educators, but it’s super-useful for parents too. Some of her excellent read-aloud points: Let kids choose their own books, at least some of the time. (I give Josie and Maxie choices, but they decide what our bedtime reading will be.) Harness peer pressure; kids take book recommendations from other kids more seriously than they do recommendations from adults. (I know nothing about sci-fi and fantasy, a genre Josie likes, so she gets book suggestions from her friend Nora, and if they’re a bit too complex for her to read independently, I read them to her.) And even 15 minutes of reading a day is better than nothing.

And here are my own suggestions: You can’t go wrong with funny. For younger kids, rhyming books are great; they can guess at each rhyme, so there’s built-in suspense. Don’t restrict yourself to one genre: Try fiction, poetry, books about sports, graphic novels, science books. Respect your kids’ predilections: Josie never liked nonhuman protagonists. Maxine never liked picture books with pretty pastel art; she prefers bolder, cartoonier illustrations.

Some literacy machers say that up to a third of children lose interest in books in around 4th grade. That’s one reason to keep reading aloud.

Read with emotion. Do accents. Take dramatic pauses. Modulate your voice, raising and lowering it as you read. My kids love when I cry at emotional parts of a story. They like to comfort me. They already know I am a big sap.

If you’re trying to find worthwhile and fun Jewish books, go through the last few years of Sydney Taylor Award winners. Never get a book just because it’s Jewish. Jewish books should not be spinach. Get a book because you think your kid will like it.

One of my favorite bloggers, Monica Edinger, a teacher at the Dalton School in Manhattan, once described how she chooses the book she’ll read aloud on the first day of school. Every year she hopes to find “that magical story that will help connect us all and turn us from a bunch of strangers into a tight and unique learning community.”

That’s what reading aloud can do. It forges bonds. It can bring together a group of subway riders, the Jewish people, or a parent and a child.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.