As a young and often sickly boy in Buenos Aires, Alberto Manguel was often read to by his nurse.
“Most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words,” he wrote in his A History of Reading, “and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually travelling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse.”
Reading to children before they can read inculcates in them the joy of reading. Reading to them once they can read makes them ever better readers. As I’ve discovered in my research, children can hear and understand at a higher level than they can read for themselves. Thus you can entice them into more and more interesting worlds, as their own reading rushes to catch up.
But there is another role that reading to children can play in their lives. It can help them heal from grief.
I learned this in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Roger Rosenblatt, whom many of us know for his wonderful essays in Time magazine. Two years ago his 38-year-old daughter, a wife and mother, died suddenly from a heart condition. Roger and his wife have since moved in with their son-in-law to help raise their three young grandchildren. Jessie is 8, Sammy is 6, and James is 3.
Roger recounts his family’s story of healing in his new book, Making Toast.
Edison shines a light
“One of the important things one learns about dealing with grief is that the more talk you do the better, but you don’t want to force it,” Roger told me. Instead, you wait for the moment to present itself.
In Roger’s case, one such moment occurred when he was reading a book about Thomas Edison to Sammy.
“I didn’t know this, but I learned that Edison’s wife died at 37, a year younger than our own daughter when she died, and he was also left with three small children,” Roger relayed.
Roger had read ahead in the book slightly, to this part of the story. Now he hesitated. Should he read it to his young grandson?
“I decided yes, I absolutely will read this,” Roger said. “This is the way we begin to live with something that is impossible. You realize you’re part of the world.”
Taking them away to themselves
For children in grief, Roger said, “I can think of no better experience than wide reading in the things that give them comfort and make them interested.”
Ultimately, reading takes them to a place that every child should know intimately. As Roger said, “The whole intention is to encourage children to see reading and books as parts of their own imagination.” Reading becomes a part of who they are, not merely something that they do.
I wanted to know more about how Roger reads to his grandchildren, and he was happy to share. For starters, he doesn’t rush the reading. If he can’t finish the story before bedtime, that’s okay.
Sammy, the 6-year-old, is keen on stories about cars and boats and sharks and penguins. He’s also, as Roger described, “a very dreamy child.” When reading to Sammy, Roger makes sure he gives him some breathing room—time to think about what he’s just heard and what it means; time to dream about it.
For James, the youngest, Roger and his wife will point to pictures and connect them to their words. Jessie, the oldest, sometimes turns the tables, she being the reader and Roger the one read to. Even here, though, Roger instills that dream time.
“Jessie reads very well, she reads dramatically, and every once in a while I’ll interrupt her so she doesn’t get lost in her own momentum,” Roger said. What does she think this character looks like? What color is the character’s hair? The questions help his granddaughter use books to fuel her imagination—to experience the book and connect with it as something more than a source of information.
The sound of silence
What becomes essential to the way Roger reads aloud are the pauses between paragraphs and chapters, and after a page has revealed an important discovery. “Reading is not an isolating experience but an embracing experience,” Roger said. By pausing, he’s helping his grandchildren to feel that great hug.
But how, I asked him, does he know when to pause? Especially because he and the older two are lying down when he reads to them; he can’t see their faces.
“I just feel it,” he said, “in the silence.”
When reading to children, one of the important things is knowing when to say nothing.
How about you, dear reader? Have you ever read aloud with children as a way to help them heal? I’d love to hear about your experience. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).