Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Centre at Cambridge University.
I don’t remember why it happened, but about a week ago, I ended up sitting on the carpet in my living room while my roommate read to me sections as she browsed the last chapter of a critical text on touch. Now, this has nothing to do with what I think I’m researching, and beyond a mild fascination in everything, I have no basis for wanting to learn about this. However, it did not change the fact that I was on the carpet with a blanket, hugging my knees, and listening, enraptured. There is something that remains absolutely pleasurable – no matter how old we get – in being read to.
I was very lucky; I had a patient mom who filled my early world with books (though I think half the urge to have me reading early was so I would stop pestering her with requests for her to read to me). I remember reading Dr. Seuss books to friends, or to my younger sister who couldn’t get away from me, and Disney picture books to captive audiences of stuffed toys (but we skipped the scary parts of The Fox and the Hound and Bambi, the bears didn’t like those). There was such joy in being able to share the books that I was learning to love with other people, to read them with the voices I thought characters should have, to point out favorite bits of illustration. Reading to other people when young lends one a sense of power, confidence, and pride.
It wasn’t until that I was in fifth grade – so about ten years old – that I learned to appreciate being read to again. My teacher, Mr. Muzer, emphasized using his classroom to build a community where students felt nurtured and cared for. As part of this, he made a point of reading his favorite books to us, chapter by chapter, right before the end of the school day a few days a week. We were in general a rowdy class, but every time the well-worn chapter books came out – usually so faded and with bindings so cracked we couldn’t see the covers – we sat at our desks, curled up on backpacks or coats, the spellbound into silence. He read us The Green Book by Jill Patton Walsh, The Enchanted Mountain by Eliza Orne White, and, every once in a while, a short story by O. Henry. He was our teacher, not our parent, but it was an act that communicated to us just how cared for we were. In an education community that pushed us to grow constantly, ever more quickly and independently, at the end of the school day he cherished our childhoods.
The experience stuck with me. Years later, I found myself the one in charge of educating children, and bringing favorite picture books with me to camp in case of a rainy day. Even on a sunny day, sitting with campers in the shade of a big tree where they can feel the grass and the wind, smell the bark, hear the birds and bugs, and reading The Lorax. This wasn’t just with the five year olds, but also with the high schoolers who participated in the counselor-in-training program, and all ages in between; I’d watch good kids with big dreams and heady futures facing them melt away and relax for half an hour. When I lived with extended family for a couple months, I read all of the Roald Dahl books to my younger cousins, and passages from The Wind in the Willows. Every character had his or her own voice – down to each giant and every witch. I have no idea how much they will remember this when they get older, but it was an amazing way to bond with family much younger than I, who I had not been able to spend much time with previously.
Sharing books, the experience of reading to someone else or being read to, sticks with us. We know there is a community building and service aspect; there are plenty of programs that have volunteers read with the chronically ill or with the elderly. But it makes me wonder what we could change about the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we live, if we shared books a little more – not just discussing them, but taking the time to read to each other. I for one, plan to spend a little more time stealing soft chairs in cozy places and reading with others to see me through this degree.
What are your favorite memories of being read to, or reading to others? What made it memorable? Was it the book? The person? The experience? If I gave you a room to read to, what would you choose?