The year I turned 15 I was assigned to read a Charles Dickens book for the first time. Now, I had been raised on musicals and I’m pretty sure I knew every word to the “Oliver!” soundtrack by the time I was 4. Dickens was an old friend. Read Dickens? No problem! Read Dickens? Easily. And so I began.
And I quickly realized I had no idea what Dickens was talking about. It seems easy enough to follow now, but I guess I was a late bloomer in this regard, because I did not get it. At all. A Tale of Two Cities was an incredible slog to get through and I didn’t really understand or appreciate any of it. So I did what any beleaguered teenager does. I complained to my mom. “This is the worst, most boring book I’ve ever read! I don’t see how I’m going to finish it. I don’t have any idea what any of it means.” “No, no,” retorted my mom, “Dickens is a genius. Keep going; I know you’re going to love it.” But I did not love it. The more I read, the more I hated reading. “I’ll tell you what,” suggested my wise mama, “I’ll read a few chapters aloud to you every night and I’ll explain anything you don’t understand.” Perfect! So that’s what we did. My mom laughed hysterically over parts of the book. She laughed so hard she cried when we came to scenes at the home of the Cruncher family and the “flopping” Mrs. Cruncher. Her infectious enthusiam for the book and her matter of fact explanations of everything that baffled me made all the difference. And…we were off together on an exciting adventure through France and England in the late 1700s. We alternately laughed and cried, and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, both in the bonding that it brought to share a book and an adventure together, and in the intellectual stimulation we both felt.
And that simple act of reading a difficult book aloud to me altered the course of my life.
Although I was a bright kid, reading hadn’t come particularly easily to me. And then came the interminable time of trudging through Dick and Jane books. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!” Well, that was enough to decide that reading was not for me. Nope, not interested. Of course, I could read, I just didn’t. I don’t recall ever having been asked to read anything very challenging or very interesting before A Tale of Two Cities was assigned me. However, every night from babyhood until I was 12 or so, my judicious mama spent about an hour reading aloud to me from all the classics, picture books to novels. She was faithful in doing so even though it must have seemed a useless endeavor, since I still would not read on my own for pleasure. Sure, I’d read picture books and easy reads, but nothing really difficult and meaty…until Dickens.
It was her reading Dickens aloud to me as a teenager, that made me see that all books were open to me. I could understand them, I could appreciate them, and they were worth the grind it sometimes took to get to the deliciousness of the story. And then, suddenly, after so many years of my devoted mama reading aloud to me, I was hooked. Eventually, I became an English major and then later still, a homeschool mama with a strong inclination towards read-alouds. If I do nothing else with these years, I will make my kids feel what my own mama made me feel–capable of enjoying and taking in difficult but beautiful books. So, no matter what else we accomplish in a day, I read aloud to them. I read history, science, biographies, folk tales, classics, nature stories, fairy tales, poetry, books about math, anything worth reading. Because I know how tranformative it is, I read aloud to my kids.