Every night before I went to bed when I was a kid, my mom or dad would read me a story. The one I remember the most vividly is Stephanie’s Ponytail, a book about a girl who keeps changing her ponytail style after students and teachers alike repeatedly copy her signature ‘dos. It was a book I connected to for very profound reasons: I too often wore my hair in a ponytail to school and I had a friend named Stephanie. You could say that six-year-old me felt the book was, so to speak, the story of my life.
When I was old enough, my dad read to me the entirety of The Chronicles of Narnia, which really shows the extent of the man’s patience since that series pulls a real X-Files and starts to lose itself once it replaces so many of its original characters. I haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia since my dad read them to me, and I probably won’t until I read them to my own kids, in part because I want to preserve the memory of those nights exploring Narnia before falling asleep, but also because the experience of being read to was such an integral part of my Narnia experience that I don’t think that I’d like them as much now as I did then.
Bedtime reading was such a formative part of my childhood, and it continued well into elementary school even after I had started reading for pleasure by myself. Being read to was something I enjoyed just as much as I enjoyed reading alone. When my parents read to me, I began to appreciate the theatre inherent in storytelling, the potential for expression within each line of narration or dialogue. They didn’t just read to me, they threw themselves into it by doing voices or building suspense. Whether I realized it at the time or not, bedtime stories opened me to different experiences, different people, and different cultures. They helped to hone my sense of humor. They also made me ask questions, taught me to be curious, and to have wide-ranging interests. Being introduced to the stories of other people made me aware of my own capacity to tell stories, made me a better person.
In writing this piece, I had a feeling that my experience was not necessarily a unique one. Therefore, I asked some of my fellow BookNotaries to talk about how their experiences being read to as children (or not) influenced their lives now and along the way:
I vividly remember my parents reading to me. Mom would stick to children’s books, whereas dad always went for comic books. I always preferred reading sessions with my dad since he was really good at changing his voice whenever a new character was talking. After a while though, he became bored to death with reading aloud the same comic books over and over again, so he started skipping pages. I was bored to death as well. That’s when I knew I needed to take matters in my own hands, so I decided to learn how to read on my own. How did my parents inspire my reading? They introduced me to how magical a book can be and then they bored me to death with their choice in books. (After the tenth re-read, even a five-year-old needs new material! Die, Mickey Mouse, die!) They showed me what imagination looks like when it’s put on paper and then they encouraged me to enrich my imagination. Needless to say, I still remember how desperate my dad looked every time I asked him to read to me the adventures of an anthropomorphic mouse with oversized hands and a creepy set of eyes.
If I was read to as a child, it was only when I was too young to remember. Instead, I expressed a desire for and a fascination with books, partially of my own accord and partially because my mother spent hours of the day immersed in them. As such, I was encouraged in this fascination but as a solitary past time. It wasn’t until I found myself in a classroom setting discussing assigned reading that I discovered the joy of sharing books and literature. I believe that there is something of unparalleled importance in sharing a well-loved story with friends and family. Storytelling, after all, is one of the most consistent aspects of human history.
Although I cannot say for certain, I believe that my brother and I may have had a better chance to bond over mutual love of a story. We would have had a better understanding of our parents as children, had they chosen to read us the stories they loved in their youth.
By not reading to children, we miss the little modifications and embellishments that make a story our own, that bring into the family and make it dear to us both individually and as a whole. Literature at its heart is meant to be a shared experience, and there is nothing but benefit that can come from passing on great story to your own child.
Reading for me was a door to other worlds, a place to escape the mundane realities of kindergarten. But I could only open those doors because my mom was adamant that I would learn to read well before kindergarten. Reading was a family process; I know she read to me not because I remember it, but because by the time she was reading to and teaching my younger sister I was reading my own book next to them. And now I read and write for a living, and try to pass on that love to the next generation of potential book lovers. But I never would have found my love for books if someone, my mother, hadn’t helped me take those first steps through those doors. As a foundational practice to give children their best shot for the future, reading needs to be a family habit. Its the only addiction in the world that has a positive benefit; go get your friends, family, and in the future, your children, absolutely hooked.
My experiences of being read to as a child can be inextricably linked to my love of literature. All of my very early memories of stories come from the fairy tales, fantasy novels and nonsense rhymes that my family read to my sister and I as we fell asleep at night. My mum didn’t let my sister and I watch TV as kids, I remember only one video – 1984’s The Trap Door series – being allowed in our house. The rest of the time we spent imploring our various family members to entertain us with tales. Each one of them brought their own bookish propensities to the table; or bedside table as was so often the setting. Grandma loved Enid Blyton’s tales of childhood adventurers and gifted me with a strong affinity to The Magic Faraway Tree. Granny’s love of poetry is ingrained in me because of the light-hearted, idiosyncratic rhymes of Edward Lear and E. Nesbitt. I’ll always remember The Hobbit with Dad’s most energetic imitations of Bilbo and Smeagol, and I’ll never forget my Mum’s enthusiastic ad-libs that transformed and personalized each story and fairy tale she read to us. It’s absolutely not a coincidence that I find myself fascinated with children’s literature to this day.
I wasn’t really read to as a kid. As a classic child of divorce that’s something that always seemed to fall through the gaps. Boarding school bridged the gap, and I was, in fact, in the bottom set of the class in terms of reading ability. What revolutionised this – And I can actually hear you roll your eyes at the cliché – was the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Although only a few years old by the time I first saw it, it was nonetheless captivating. I needed more and that more was found in the novel from which it was adapted, where all credit must be given to the veracity of the adaptation. That novel alone not only left a legacy of school essays that took not a little from the style of Austen, but also raised my vocabulary, my critical thinking, and not least sparked the realisation that there is something wonderful, tangible, and desirable to be found in reading. Within months I could stick two (metaphorical) fingers to the establishment and read Pongwiffy – a novel I distinctly remember being told was ‘too advanced’ for me. From there my reading became voracious and my academic performance significantly improved. As such, reading, and reading from an early age has been not only formative but also definitive, yet it was mere luck that I found how astonishingly transportive it could be. I almost missed something that I would be passionate about for the rest of my life. Why would you risk denying such understanding, such pleasure to your children when they could have not only the world but endless worlds?
Personally, I will share stories with my own future children simply because it seems a waste not to. Reading should be just as enjoyable as throwing a ball around in the front yard or conducting well-intentioned but misguided science experiments in the kitchen, not something that feels forced and tedious as compelled piano lessons tend to be.
Perhaps I speak from the standpoint of a person who might still be closer to her childhood than to the tempered kind of adulthood that results in intentional progeny, but maybe that in itself speaks to the power of books and stories as experienced guides and mentors who stay with you even after you’ve put them down.
So do them a favor, and read to your kids.
Do you have an experience with childhood reading? Comment here or tweet @bookfeet and let us know!