I grew up in a house of sadness, flavored with sudden, angry outbursts, then dramatic scenes of remorse. Comfort came from reading aloud as my mother and I shared "Mary Poppins," "Winnie-the-Pooh" and "The Wind in the Willows."
How could I raise my own children without having a clue about what good parenting looked like? Remembering my mother's reading aloud, I thought with books as my compass, I could navigate this strange life course. Books serve as mood changers, sources of comfort and fonts of pleasure.
I started with books I loved. Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" had a crooning quality that lulled my restless toddler son to sleep -- or maybe calmed me enough to let him relax in my arms.
We went through several copies of Dorothy Kunhardt's "Pat the Bunny." I'd spread my children's toddler arms wide to show bunny was "so big," and soon they waited, poised for the movement.
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I sought new titles. My son would sit in my lap naming and noisemaking with bright objects in board books as his prompts. His favorite was lifting flaps to reveal surprises in Eric Hill's "Where's Spot?" And the search for the errant puppy was new every time.
Characters and words joined our family. "Let's risk it," my son squeaked, as he'd heard on an audio version of William Steig's "Dr. DeSoto," the story of a mouse dentist who pulls the sore tooth of a fox. Every possible chance he'd repeat this line. At 2 my daughter showed signs of the anti-stereotyping adult she'd become by chanting Byron Barton's "Machines at Work."
One day I heard insane laughter and found my husband and children reading aloud Ruth Park's "When the Wind Changed," the story of a boy warned not to make faces or the wind might change and his face remain in a horrid state.
I remember my husband's read-aloud tears with John Gardiner's "Stone Fox" when Searchlight, the beloved dog of Little Willie, saves the ranch of his young owner, dying as he brings him across the finish line in a close sled race. E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" became more beloved when the ending moved him to tears. Laughter and tears are spectacular coming from a read-aloud dad who was never read to much as a child.
Author Jody Fickes Shapiro advised me once: "Bring your camera to book signings. And you can take pictures of your children with the authors. Your children own a book in a new way if you glue the photo inside the book."
So I took my 4-year-old son to a James Marshall signing. My son threw the most stunning tantrum, hurling himself on the floor screaming, "I hate books! I hate books!"
Marshall noticed that my son carried a "book" he'd written at school and asked for a special reading. I snapped a picture of my son with Marshall's arm around him as he read and signed his famous story of friendship, "George and Martha."
Reading aloud with my children changed my opinions of books. I'd been put off by thick Brian Jacques books, but after reading aloud "Redwall," I looked forward to each novel of small mice fighting cruel weasels and stoats. The chapters were short and each ended with a cliffhanger.
My favorite memories came from sharing books that my mother once shared with me. I was disappointed when A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh got the thumbs down. But I pulled it out again when my daughter was 10, and she understood how style and story meet as we read the end passage of "In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water." During a flood, Piglet is stranded on a tree limb with Owl who "told him a very long story about an aunt who had once laid a seagull's egg by mistake and the story went on and on rather like this sentence" which continues for half a page without punctuation until the intrusive narrator-writer tells us "And that is really the end of the story, and as I am very tired after that last sentence, I think I shall stop there."
We read the passage several times, then interrupted her brother's homework to read it to him. We read it aloud to my husband, then one last time by ourselves. By then it was bedtime and she cozied down and I kissed her good night with a furnace of warm feelings; those remembered, the ones that were current, and the hope of books we would share in the future.