March 4, 2014

Reading the Old to the Young

        Tomorrow is World Read Aloud Day, and it’s a good reminder of the vital importance of reading aloud to children to help them develop literacy.  I’m on about this stuff all the time, so today I wanted to focus on one particular benefit of reading aloud to children that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before: it’s one of the best ways to introduce them to the older classics with more complex language.  Stereotypically it’s assumed that children won’t read stuff with archaic language or long complex sentence structures.  Such books will confuse and bore them, and they’ll give up and go look for something with sentences that go “Boom!  Zap!”  This may indeed be true if no one ever teaches children that they can handle older books - that they can understand them, that their language has its own joys, and that they can find incredible stories in their pages.  And the best way to teach them is to show them.  Read these books aloud and children will become familiar with the patterns and vocabulary of past ages of books, they’ll hear the stories and enjoy them, and in the future when they encounter similar writing styles, they won’t be thrown off by it, or assume that it’s old and therefore boring.  Here’s a list of older fantasy books worth reading aloud to children.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald - Full of Victorian syntax, vocabulary, and occasionally sentimentality, MacDonald’s books are also full of evocative descriptions of magical moments, and of rousing adventure.  This one features a sweet young princess, her magical “grandmother,” a brave young miner, and an underground kingdom of evil goblins plotting conquest.  It also features ideals of virtue, trust, honesty, courage, and Trying to Be Good, which give the story more depth.  Those may make it tougher for children to read by themselves, but if you read aloud to them, what they’ll really notice is the danger, mystery, adventure, and triumphant ending.

The Reluctant Dragon, by Kenneth Grahame - This is one of those stories appropriate for young  kids but tough for them to read by themselves, in part because of its sheer hearty Britishness.  (Maybe an impediment only to US children, of course.)  This “mismatch” of gentle content and sophisticated language makes it perfect for reading aloud.  It’s also a play off the legend of St George, so it’s good to have a grown-up introducing it and able to explain some background if necessary.  But once they have an adult reading to them to help them over any difficulties, what child could be anything but delighted by the mild-mannered poetic dragon and the spunky, independent boy who befriends him?  (The Wind in the Willows, also by Grahame, is another good candidate for introduction by read-aloud.  There are, of course, many great older classics that aren’t fantasy, but that’s not what this blog is about.)

Some books I’ve mentioned in other places, but which fit into this category include
Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll - When kids aren’t confident readers, made-up or deliberately misspelled words can really throw them.  It’s helpful to have a grown-up reading the nonsense words aloud so that kids can hear that they’re not supposed to know this word already - and if they’re still confused, there’s someone right there to ask.  But on the whole, kids adore absurdity.
Dream-of-Jade, by Lloyd Alexander (not particularly old, but written in deliberately formal, high-falutin’ style.)

        And that brings me to another category that works well both for introducing children to more old-fashioned language and for reading aloud.  Short stories make excellent bite-sized (or perhaps I should say bedtime-sized) treats to share.  Here are some excellent ones that kids might not be inclined to read on their own, but which will reward reading together.

Arabian Nights - There are lots of versions of these stories, from unexpurgated collections that are not at all appropriate for children, to modern versions that kids can no doubt pick up easily enough themselves.  The version we read, however, from the “Illustrated Junior Library” (illustrated by Goodenow, but with no credited author), had a lot of fun with very formal, flowery language.  The deliberately archaic language really contributed to the feel of princes and princesses in exotic lands, which was a major feature of the stories both in their original and in their appeal to English speakers.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (or older collections of fairy tales from Grimm or around the world) - I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Andersen’s tales on the whole, but if you do want your kids to know and love them, it’s probably a good idea to read them aloud.  In all the Victorian fairy and folk tale collections there’s enough old-fashioned language, and enough general weirdness, that it’s helpful for kids to hear them read aloud.  And of course the bonus is that you can then discuss them together.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling - These are meant to be read aloud in any case, with their obvious delight in the sounds and rhythms of language.  But this may be the place for one other note about older books.  Wonderful though they are, many of them do include elements of racism, sexism, and other problematic issues.  Reading aloud allows the adult the opportunity to edit and/or stop and discuss as necessary.  This, too, is a great learning experience for kids and adults alike.

Winnie the Pooh stories, by A.A. Milne

        There is one thing to keep in mind, though, if you want to introduce children to the pleasures of older books:  you have to enjoy the older books yourself!  You have to be able to read those long, convoluted sentences.  You have to know that archaic vocabulary.  You have to read fluently and enthusiastically, so that the children aren’t hearing “difficult,” or “awkward,” or “boring.”  They’re simply hearing “great story.”

[Pictures: Three illustrations by Arthur Hughes from The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, 1872 (Image from Once on a Tyme);
This is the picture of the Djinn making the beginnings of the Magic that brought the Humph to the Camel.” woodcut by Rudyard Kipling from Just So Stories, 1902 (Image from Dan Short).]

4 comments:

  1. Hooray for reading aloud "older books". Let me add "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" by Rudyard Kipling to the list, even if it may not quite be fantasy. My grandchildren loved this and I've read it to them more times than I can count.

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  2. There are so many!
    And in addition to the joy of story, many of them are pretty educational about different historical periods, too. When we read "Swiss Family Robinson" (fantasy too, in its own way, with animals from every continent lumped together indiscriminately!) P and T were pretty appalled by the casual cruelty that came out of the Lords of Creation attitude of the family. But at the same time they also enjoyed the creativity and hard work our heroes applied to making do. It's so important to expose kids to different ways of seeing the world, as well as different ways of writing about it.

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  3. These are all wonderful recommendations, Anne. We have great memories of reading most of these to our daughters. I would like to suggest that an excellent reteller of both the Arabian Nights stories and those by Hans Christian Andersen is Naomi Lewis, who wrote in a literary but readable style. While most bookstores won't be carrying her books (Can the fairy-tale sections shrink any further?), they're readily available from online booksellers and from libraries.

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  4. Thanks for the tip, Janice. I'll be sure to check her out.

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