Reading with children: Identity, voices, and shared memories

Posted on October 31, 2017 at 6:00 am

by Gwendolyn Haley

I hear my grandfather’s voice when I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit. He did not read to me regularly. We lived very far away from him and only saw those grandparents once or twice a year. But when he read that story to me, it was magical. I have read the story with all three of my daughters. When I open the book and read “once upon a time, there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” I am immediately transported back to a single moment it time, snuggled in grandpa’s lap in his big overstuffed recliner, hearing his soft rumbly voice, smelling his unique scent, a combination of soap and pipe tobacco. I think this is why I’ve always found Mr. McGregor a sympathetic character, even if he did bake Peter’s father into a pie.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, character Kathleen Kelly, owner of the children’s bookstore) says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” I would add that a book that you share with a child can become a part of your family identity that you will share forever.

My mother read to me most often as a child, and of course her voice stays with me for so many favorite stories. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans is one we both can recite from memory. We loved Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary, which we read together when I was the same age as Ramona, and I totally identified with her. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to empty an entire tube of toothpaste? That’s also the year that I broke everything I touched—not on purpose but out of some exuberance of energy and imagination. I know my mom felt a keen sense of empathy for Ramona’s mother that year.

The last book we read together in its entirety was Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. We took turns reading and doing different voices. Mom was particularly-larly-larly good at mimicking the goose’s distinctive triple speaking pattern. And kind, wise, and fiercely devoted Charlotte will always sound like my mom to me. After we finished that book, I was reading independently. My poor mom would come to read that night’s chapter, only to have me tell her “Oh, I finished that one already.” That’s probably why I have hidden the books I read aloud to my girls—the shared books are “special” and now reading ahead is forbidden.

So now that I’m the mom, I get to share favorites with my daughters. Of course, two are much too old for me to read to them, although I notice that when I snuggle on the couch with the youngest, my two teens will wander into the room and listen. As I read the Ramona books out loud to our youngest daughter, my older daughters make eye contact and smile over shared memories. I wonder if it’s my voice they’ll hear someday when they pick up an old favorite—if it’s my loving embrace they’ll feel. I hope so.

“Good night, little girls
Thank the Lord you are well!
And now go to sleep!”
said Miss Clavel.
And she turned out the light—
and closed the door—
and that‘s all there Is—
there isn’t any more. “

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Who read to you as a child?

Gwendolyn Haley

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