Reading aloud and why it must never end

Long before I had a baby, long before I was even in the reckoning for it, I had developed an appetite for children’s books. Perhaps it had to do with my diminishing attention span or inability to focus those days. I would read them aloud, imagine someone reading them aloud to me, buy myself a copy, and buy extra copies and gift them to friends who were having babies when babies are meant to be had. I remember buying The Caterpillar who grew a Mustache for my friend Rashna’s daughter Shibumi and relishing it so much, I didn’t want to give it away.  Needless to say, I was everyone’s favorite aunt, but the whole process created a whole new world for me to live in, where things could be the way I wanted them to be.

I don’t remember too many books from my early childhood, and the earliest books I can remember were from the time I was seven or eight. This was because a large part of my early years was spent listening to stories told by my grandmother, rather than being read to. When I recently tried to put together a book of family stories for Scholastic, I realized I remember each and every story that my grandmother told me, (except one, which I have forgotten the twist to). It’s been nearly four decades, but such is the power of listening.

I began reading to Re quite early, even as I was nursing him. My friend Abira gifted him his first book – Karen Katz’s Where is Baby’s Belly Button?. It was a book he ate, read, played with and listened to, over and over. Reading aloud became our nighttime ritual and it seemed to soothe him and me equally. We moved on to Spot’s antics, Dr Seuss’s delightful journeys, Arthur’s strange neighbours, Pippi’s fascinating adventures, the colorful world of the Mudpuddle farm and many other books, unfolding many new worlds as we grew up. Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allen Ahlberg is one baby book we have been reading for five years, and there is still that magical moment when we spot Mother Hubbard in the cupboard. We have read aloud brochures and inflight magazines on planes, when a book was in the overhead compartment and clumsy to access; we have read aloud road signs and hoardings and bus shelters on bumpy rides that made reading difficult. We never tired of reading aloud.

Of course technology, the not-so-silent predator, was lurking around everywhere, sometimes in the next room, where his father consumed hundreds of hours of screen time, watching television or gaming. But I carried on, trying to dilute the effects with my nighttime ritual which lasted half hour to an hour, every single day, and still does.

Some days, his father would abandon his controller and join us, and just the fact that the three of us were huddled together, reading aloud, transporting ourselves, took us to a warm fuzzy place. It was like we had coalesced into the family we were meant to be.

I know it’s very easy for any child (even Re) to be completely usurped by technology. It is designed to do that. But as long as I stick my neck out and read to him every day, and as long as he knows that he cannot go to bed without hearing a story from his mamma or dadda or aunt or grandma, all will be well.

Spoon-feeding is easy, and there are just millions of ways of doing so and the iPad is just one. But allowing our children to create their own magical worlds exercising those imagination muscles is harder. It takes time, it takes work, but is oh-so-rewarding in the long run.

The husband, who has been wholly consumed by technology, wanted to do his bit and downloaded glitzy story books on the iPad (something he legitimized the buy of by saying, “it’s for story time”, much to my chagrin). Sure the iPad offers visual, interactive story-telling. But it can’t allow your child to paint the land of Carabas or hear him giggle when he touches his belly button or says “Rumpelsliltskin”. The iPad can’t answer why.

How long do you read aloud? Forever, if you ask me. Weaning a child off reading aloud time just because he can read is like weaning a child off breastfeeding just because he can eat solids. Even social media-infused, technology-deformed people and children come alive when they are read aloud to. At a recent storytelling event I attended at the Loft in Pune, which was packed to the gills, I realized how starved adults are of listening to stories unfold.

Of course the Internet is winning the books vs Internet war. Which only means we have to work harder on our children. Like Megan Cox Gurdon wrote recently in her article in the Wall Street Journal, “In an epoch in which screens of one sort or another have become ubiquitous, it is more vital than ever to read aloud often, and at length, for as long as children will stay to listen. Without sustained adult effort, many kids won’t bother going through the gateway at all.”

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 20th July, 2015)

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