Kate DiCamillo has written some of the most beloved children’s books of modern times, including “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.”
Now, as national ambassador for young people’s literature – a little-known but critically important government position, if you ask me – the Newbery-winning author is reminding teachers of the importance of reading aloud to children in the classroom.
My friend Beth of BooksAndWhatnot.com alerted me to DiCamillo’s most recent public service announcement, in which she shares the story of her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Boyette, who read aloud every day from “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”
DiCamillo came from a home filled with books, she said. Her parents read aloud to her often.
Even so, what she lived for in second grade was returning to the classroom after lunch and hearing the next chapter of “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”
“It’s a really powerful thing when everybody takes time to listen to a story and puts everything else down,” she said. “I will never, ever forget that experience.”
I have similar memories, stories that glisten not because I read them myself but because I sat quietly in a classroom, listened and felt them come alive. There was E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” in elementary school and S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” in junior high.
My ninth-grade English teacher read Langston Hughes poetry out loud:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
And a 10th-grade teacher read Robert Frost:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
It’s one thing to track words across a page, silently turning them around in your head. It’s quite another – as any fan of David Sedaris will tell you – to listen to someone read out loud, to hear dialogue come alive, to see expressions, to watch the faces of those around you as they laugh or grimace or gasp or cry. That’s literature as communal experience, and it is unmatched.
I had the pleasure recently of judging a Poetry Out Loud competition at a local high school, which illustrated again that spoken words are every bit as powerful for teens and adults as for youngsters parked on carpet squares.
Similarly, when someone in my book club marks a passage to read out loud, it fortifies my understanding and often boosts my appreciation of the book. I enjoy the collective, “Oh, yeah! I loved that part.”
My children remember listening over and over to an audio recording of “Eggs” by Jerry Spinelli, the story of 9-year-old David and sarcastic, bossy Primrose, who meet during an Easter egg hunt and forge an unusual but powerful friendship.
Just the other day during dinner, Hannah, 17, said “Eggs” still ranks among her favorite books. So do “Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook,” which her first-grade teacher’s son read aloud during one long, glorious, uninterrupted circle time, and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which her class read in middle school.
In coming months, several nationwide events will once again promote reading – and reading aloud.
March 2 is Read Across America Day, a program by the National Education Association that coincides with the birthday of Dr. Seuss. And April 12 is D.E.A.R. Day – Drop Everything And Read – a nationwide celebration of author Beverly Cleary’s birthday during which people of all ages are encouraged to take a break and crack open a book.
I hope these events, like DiCamillo’s recent announcement, might prompt teachers and parents of older students to rediscover the joy of reading out loud.
Need some ideas? ReadAloudAmerica.org offers suggestions for all ages and grade levels. The ninth- through 12th-grade list, for instance, includes Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” How cool would it be to spend the last weeks of winter enjoying a book as a family?
Or check out the list marked “ageless,” which includes Margery Williams’ “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” and Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who” – little-kid books with important messages.
The possibilities are limitless. And the memories? Lifelong.