Read Me a Story: How Being Read to Shaped My Life
When I'm depressed, feeling that debilitating worthlessness that comes of non-productive fatigue, illness, or disappointment, God generally sends in an inspirational messenger to boost me back into awareness of my great good fortune in this life. As I thought about this I began to realize that most of my early "messengers" or role models were actually characters out of books and some are from books that were read aloud to me.
Instead of useless boo-hooing over my lack of resources or some other minor pitfall, I'm shown what blessings there are for me and others if I just put up with certain personal deficits and focus on all I have to be grateful for. This is the more politically correct way of stating, "there are a whole lot of others worse off than you are," with the unspoken addition of, "who seem to be doing better than you are. Figure it out!"
The "can-do" spirit of these others has helped to jog me out of many a funk. In some cases, however, just recognizing that there are others who are less advantaged than I am seems to shame me into appreciation for my lot in life.
Here are the 'stand-out' characters from books who walked along with me during the first few years of life:
I was born in the middle of land-locked Saskatchewan in the middle of Canada in the middle of the last century (1950) near the middle of November. I was not a middle child, but born the eldest child of an eldest child and an eldest son. My father had only one older sibling, and she did not marry or have children for five years after I was born, so, yes, I was the firstborn grandchild on both sides of two large extended families.
When I feel glum and hard-done-by I just have to cast my mind back to life with those people who cared enough to read aloud to me from books that may seem maudlin and preachy now, but expressed so much feeling small children can relate to. No, there was really no "snuggle time" that I can remember in my childhood-- but sitting near the story teller, nestled in their fine, expressive reader's voices was the next best thing to cuddling in my experience.
My father's parents, Bill and his wife, Mary Flatt Rempel, lived on the farm my Dad had grown up on until they "moved to town" when I was in my teens. My visits to their farm provided peace and solid feeling of connection to "the land" and those that farmed it. There was never any yelling or bossing around, as I recall. There was, instead, a long broad lawn edged by hardy prairie fruit trees (varieties of plums and crabapples that could survive -40F winters) and flowers like gladioli and lilies. There was a small wooded ravine with a tiny log-house that had been my aunt's playhouse. Grandma had a big garden with exotic vegetables like asparagus and of course lots of peas, beans, and root vegetables. At that time, they had no livestock so a scene that would usually be dominated by a barn was taken up by an impressive grain-storage elevator painted the same creamy wheat colours as the house. My stays at the farm involved lots of rambling about forming little stories for my own amusement.
And in the house there were lots of children's books on shelves. My Grandma had been a school ma'rm and a mother, and her sister, my great-aunt, Miss Jean Fraser Flatt, had been the first in that family's generation to attain a university graduate degree, and in the years of my childhood she worked as a librarian for the City of Victoria, BC. The children's books were a spin-off of those family circumstances.
Grandma read to me from a book called "Beautiful Joe"1 before I started to school. Beautiful Joe was a mutilated, abused dog who was rescued by a lovely, nurturing family. This book is purportedly based on "a true story" and I think has at least some small influence over my having chosen social work as my life career. I'm not sure if I was around enough to have had the entire book read to me, but I certainly have a clear remembered empathy for that poor mistreated underdog and was absolutely thrilled, through a serendipitous "recycled" gift exchange at a work Christmas party, to receive a copy of that book. I am currently reading it aloud to my own granddaughters who respond in much the way I did to this classic tale of abuse and rescue.
Winnie the Pooh
At home with my younger brother and parents I recall my Dad reading aloud from the Winnie-the-Pooh books2 to the flicker of a coal oil lamp. My Dad did such a wonderful job of imitating poor sad Eeyore (complete with lots of braying) that of all the characters-- and there is no small sum-- my heart was most drawn to that little down-in-the-dumps donkey. I was disappointed that he didn't have a bigger part, just a few bits of choleric relief. Rather disturbingly, I would say that my father and I probably shared Eeyore as a totem in those dim misty farmhouse days. I like to think that in his 50s Eeyore discovered some joy in his life.
If you are curious about what character from Winnie-the-Pooh you are, you can find out by taking this test.
The Mill on the Floss
After we finished the Winnie-the-Pooh books I remember my father cracking open "Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot and reading aloud from this.
My mother sobbed throughout (my strongest recollection of the book) and given that it was on my reading list in my first year as an English major at University, I think that we small children were merely present because of the close quarters in which we lived.
I certainly don't think the experience of listening to a reading that we didn't have any understanding of did us any harm. In fact, throughout our school years teachers commented on our advanced vocabularies.
Were You Read To By A Parent, Grandparent or Other "Parent" Figure?
3 Tips For Reading Aloud
There are piles of tips online for making your reading aloud experience a happy, joyful time together. These are the 3 that I want to suggest to folks who haven't tried this yet but want to get started or re-started:
- If possible, establish reading aloud as a routine right from the get-go. Commit to that time.
- Read anywhere, but somewhere "without screens" in sight would be helpful to cement the commitment to a special, recurring time together with no technical distractions.
- While reading is the base, cuddling, cheering, time-out for questions, and other interactions, will aid learning, and more important, build the precious relationships among you, your child(ren), and books... forever!
**Above Tips are from a mix of sources online and from my own experience as someone read-to and someone who read to / reads to children and grandkids.
Search on the Web and include Youtube and other video communities for a variety of excellent demonstrations and tips. The following video featuring actor John Lithgow is a short but valuable look at how simple but rich the experience of reading aloud can be!
Books I Was Read From
- Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders. The story of the dog cruelly mutilated by its owner was introduced to Saunders when she visited Meadford, Ontario in 1892. She set the story in a fictional location in Maine but in Meadford there is a monument to this dog's (and book's) memory. This Canadian classic was published as a commemorative 100th Anniversary edition in 1992 by The Ginger Press, Incorporated, 848 Second Ave. E., Owen Sound, Ontario http://gingerpress.com/
- Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne This series of illustrated stories was written by Milne to read to his son, Christopher Robin. The books featured Christopher Robin and his toys, animated, and most notably his stuffed bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, a stuffed donkey named Eeyore, and various other stuffed animals. The books my father read to me were from the pre-Disney movie and associated book-lets. Winnie-the-Pooh continues to be a popular reading choice and is widely available online and in stores.
- The Mill on the Floss is the third major novel by the English author George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). Eliot developed a method of psychological analysis in her novels that has stood as a model for modern novels. You can read this engaging story through various free ebooks available at the Gutenberg Project online.