Making readers and reading out loud

Many of you know I am a book addict – only mildly out of control. They are my friends, my teachers, consolers and heartstring-pullers. I simply can’t live without them. Far before we witnessed the full strength of our kids’ personalities, I’d come to terms with the likelihood that all of our kids may not cling so tightly to the written word. So imagine my glee that books obsess everyone here but Dave! (He listens to them – a substitution I begrudgingly accept.)

That glee pales in comparison to the awe I feel when watching them learn to read themselves. Tess is working out phonics and spelling in two languages, like it’s no big deal. And Remy isn’t far behind her. They’re simultaneously learning French and English in written form. I’m a planner, and did a lot of research before making our household bilingual. Still, until now most of our work was verbal, not visual. When Tess started reading, she started in French. But she’s not one to accept a partial success, and dammit! She wanted to read those English books too. So here we are, explaining “Th” in English and accents in French and how accents and h’s change things. For additional fun, they’ve also reached learning key names on the piano too – so three similar but not identical alphabet systems. Kids are amazing.

I love books now, but obsessed about them when I was younger. I’m impatient to share these literary treasures with the kids! Dave’s fondest childhood memory is of listening to his mom read them fabulous books by the hour. So at night this year, he often tucks in the Littles and I read a few chapters to the Bigs. We first wrapped up Charlotte’s Web, which led to some interesting conversations about death and taking care of our friends. And they were eager to dive into the next one. For my 40th, I asked friends and family to share their favorite books with me. My mom brought me the most beautifully illustrated copy of The Secret Garden I’ve ever seen, a favorite of hers and mine. We’re halfway through, and it’s been eye-opening for a number of reasons.

First off, the protagonist starts out as an awful child whose been neglected and unloved by her parents until they suddenly die and she’s shipped off to live with strangers. She’s nasty to everyone and hasn’t been treated kindly. It’s starkly written as I read it as an adult, and that’s without taking into account the additional complexities of reading something like that to my adopted children. All they’ve experienced from their many families thus far is love; it shocked me to introduce such a contrast knowing that their family relationships will feel more complicated as they age. That said, I suspect kids love the black and white extremes of “good” and “bad” behavior in the old books, even when it’s the parents being awful. And they’re intrigued by Mary’s changes and how she speaks of them herself.

Speaking of black and white, I found myself adjusting some language that’s quite outdated. Not all of it – we’re pretty big into using inappropriate language or references as a teaching opportunity – but the way Mary speaks about Indians and Indian culture is pretty horrifying. Just picture me, fried, at the very end of a long day, stumbling across a passage where Mary mentions she used to slap her Ayah when she didn’t do what little Mary wanted or if Mary was in a bad mood. Then another scene where Mary is furious because someone thought she might have been a “native” before she arrived. She lost all control in anger. I would’ve killed for a few days to mull over how to handle that before having to dive in.

Instead, I put the book down. To set the scene and era, we started with a conversation about how the characters use candles as a light sources and fireplaces for heat. Then I explained xenophobia in very basic terms, that before the days of broader travel experience, English people in particular and those from developed and exploring nations looked down on foreigners as being less educated, unclean, and less equal because they were different. We even addressed that this was particularly an issue for brown and black people, who looked different in communities where everyone looked the same. (Yes, this issue is still rampant. No, we didn’t get into that at bedtime.)

The kids couldn’t imagine a place where everyone was white or everyone was black. Remy actually said, “how weird!” Both of our kids’ teachers and many of their friends are originally from other countries. Their horror at someone treating these people poorly because they’re not the same reassured me that the message was getting across. People, I felt downright heroic pulling salient points together with that little brainpower left.

Here’s the thing. I love the classics in particular, and many of the classics include language and ideas that horrify me now. We can ban the books from our house, or we can find ways to love the stories and address the archaic ideas woven into their pages. I can’t purify literature any more than I can protect my kids from racism today. Pretending either doesn’t exist won’t help them in the long run. So I gloss over an awful sentence here or there, or take a break to discuss the historical context of a terrible expression. I keep it age appropriate, but know that Tess will soon be catching my edits.

And I know this isn’t a new problem. In grade school, I decided to read all of Dickens’ works. (I know! Not normal.) And if you haven’t gone through any of his books in a while, you’d be surprised at some of the terms and concepts tucked between those covers. I caught on quite quickly that calling someone a bastard was a great was of pissing someone off. And these were books from the school library, so it didn’t occur to me that they might include language I wouldn’t be allowed to use. Delighted to have a new weapon, I called my brother a bastard in front of my dad. To his credit, dad took a deep breath and calmly asked where I’d heard that word. (I doubt Dickens would have been his first guess.) Then he asked if I knew what it meant. I didn’t. He explained that I was not welcome to use it again under any circumstances and made me apologize, but that was that – no screaming or punishments, as I suspect he could clearly see I had no idea what I was saying.

The reason I remember this so clearly? I didn’t anticipate getting in trouble, and I had no idea what the word meant. It showed me the power of words, and for someone who wanted to be an adult so badly, it made me feel like a child in the most shameful way. That drove me to look words up and look deeper at the pages I was exploring, because clearly books held more information and power than I had given them credit for.

I can’t listen to books – I need to see the pages. So I love reading to the kids, and am delighted to continue this tradition for another chapter of Oplingers. I wince thinking about the awkward or painful moments that may arise, but seeing the kids’ excitement when we finally met Dickon makes it worthwhile. Who knows what we’ll stumble into next? We’re creating stories about stories for the next generation.