Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Makes a Good Read-Aloud?


I try to read to my children every night. Even though they like to read themselves. And I think I'll keep doing it until they are in college - if they let me.

I was inspired to continue reading aloud to my kids far beyond those toddler years primarily after reading this fantastic New York Times article about a father and daughter who read aloud together every day until she was in college. They called it "The Streak" (because they never missed a day, not for prom, not for parties, not for the father being out of town), and the process gave them a common language, a shared way of imagining the world, and in many ways, it became the glue that held their family together through troubled times.

My fellow pediatrician and writer Perri Klass, the creator of the now national Reach Out and Read Program (a program in which pediatricians give out age- and language-appropriate books to young families at each and every well child visit and write "presciptions for reading") has talked about the benefits of reading aloud for both children and parents. In her words, "Families that make a habit of reading aloud create a habit of slowing down and lovingly interacting that is as good for parents as it is for children...In times of crisis...parents can use books and reading aloud to maintain routines and reassure children.”

A couple of months ago, I learned this first hand, when I had to make an unexpected emergency room visit with my 7yo daughter. A coffee table had unexpectedly attacked her eyebrow (OK, yes, she fell off a chair, and she's fine now, thanks to the miracles of dermabond "skin glue"). Needless to say, there was at first a lot of blood, and a lot of screaming. Worried about an interminable ER visit, I grabbed one of Gail Carson Levine's Fairy Haven books as we walked out the door. My daughter had calmed down a bit, but started whimpering in a heart-wrenching, terrified way when we got to the hospital. As the nurse settled us behind the curtain, I curled up next to her on the examination table and began reading. It was like magic. I felt her body immediately relax into mine as her mind drifted away on my voice, the images my words were making. Her 9yo brother, who had come along, and was pretty terrified too, relaxed and smiled and made jokes when we got to the funny parts of the book. I think it won us points with the nurse as well. She definitely looked a little misty eyed when she came in and found us immersed in storytime, as if the sterile, cold hospital room were one of our bedrooms at home.

But what I've discovered, in fact, is that not all read-alouds are alike. I adored George MacDonald's children's books as a child, but a recent attempt to read The Princess and the Goblin was a big bust. To their credit, the kids loved the story while we were reading it -- the language is glorious and the happenings magical. Yet, perhaps because of the slower pace of the book, none of us were particularly inspired to pick it up again night after night. Unlike the books they read on their own (and can read incessantly: while brushing teeth, while in the car, semi-secretly at night, etc.), a read aloud has to be interesting enough to pick up every night after having been put down for 24 hours. 

For us, good read-alouds also need good character voices. I was recently bemused to hear my daughter - while arguing with her brother - say "That's just rubbish!" in an approximation of the refined (fake) British accent I use for Hermione while reading Harry Potter. 

 In fact, I'm realizing those elements of "reader's theater" (distinguished voices, action, exciting plot) are what make the difference between exciting and so-so read-alouds. They certainly make a difference even to those books I hear on CD in the car. I've recently been listening to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld, narrated by Alan Cumming and his delicious Scottish brogue. (check out a sample here) The story is compelling and fun, yes, but Cumming's reading has made the book come alive for me. I can't wait to have his accents narrate my previously stressful commutes home.

I know slow and beautiful Newberry winner type books are supposed to be ideal for read-alouds. But I guess what I've realized, at least in our family, is that we prefer to read those sorts of books on our own - it's the many voices, and fun pace of action series that keep our attention during evening read-alouds (not to say that Newberry winners aren't sometimes fun and fast as well, but you know what I mean...).

What sorts of books are your favorite read-alouds?


  1. We love funny books! They are a sure hit in our family!

    Read Aloud Dad

  2. Great suggestion - thanks for the visit read aloud dad! I guess my trouble with humor is that it's often so nuanced and what my 9yo boy finds funny my 7yo girl doesn't really understand (yet). Although there are plenty of books that cross gender and age in re: humor, Michael Buckley's Sisters Grimm was a big hit when we read it aloud...

  3. I loved "The Curious Incident of the dog at the night time" - Mark Haddon.

    A lovely story about an adolescent with Autism. It is for slightly older kids. 10-12yr olds should enjoy it.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion "Harmony"! I agree - it's a lovely book but I never thought about it as a read aloud - you're right the language is so interesting it would actually be a great read-aloud!