The pleading started when my children were about eleven. “Can we have a story tonight? Just one chapter? Oh, go on, pleeease?”
However much I begged, it was pretty clear that they were growing out of one of the most pleasurable habits we had acquired: the bedtime story. They wanted to read their own books in bed, and I should have been rejoicing. Instead, I was secretly bereft, for reading aloud to my children had become a thing I looked forward to every day.
We parents have all been told of the myriad benefits to our children of being read to — an early introduction to stories is a bedrock of literacy. Yeah, yeah, we get it. But what of the benefits to parents?
Well, for a start, it’s a chance to introduce your children to the stories you liked when you were their age. In our case, it involved a lot of Enid Blyton, starting with Shadow the Sheepdog, then moving through several books in the Secret Seven series, and finally — our all-time favorite — The Magic Faraway Tree.
Also, it’s a great chance to show off to a very appreciative audience. Funny voices, dramatic pauses — the script is yours to do with as you please, but you have to keep your wits. “That’s not how he speaks!” you’ll be told if you forget which voice you used a few nights ago.
Best of all, though, it’s twenty minutes every night when you are transported back into the world where children’s imaginations are set free. Magic, goblins, unicorns, knights in armor, and hilarious boarding-school jokes — they are all there and it’s wonderful to rediscover them and to catch stuff you missed the first time around.
And to think — it nearly passed me by.
When I was very little, being read to was a treat: My father would occasionally read to me and my siblings from A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. With four children, my mother doubtless felt relief that we all learned to read before we started school and was happy to just let us be. So when my twins grew out of picture books, there were a couple of years in which the bedtime routine included songs and the unforgettable “pajama dance” (you had to be there…), but no reading aloud. I had not yet become a writer of children’s books myself, or I might have started sooner. Then, by chance, I caught the children’s author Michael Rosen talking on TV about the joys — and advantages — of this daily routine, and I decided to give it a go. Happily, I’ve kept a list of what we read together in the subsequent years.
Second to Enid Blyton on our reading list was Astrid Lindgren (probably inevitable as my wife is Swedish). Pippi Longstocking is great, but the kids’ favorite was Karlson on the Roof and its sequels. They were far less bothered than I was by Karlson’s mean, selfish boastfulness. For some reason, I gave him a Liverpool accent. Only the other day, my daughter (now 14) heard a Liverpudlian on the radio and told me, “He sounds just like Karlson!”
As they got older, we ventured into the classics. A heavily abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities was popular. Treasure Island, though, was a disaster — a total shipwreck that nearly put them off completely. Unless you’re familiar with eighteenth-century British nautical slang and can come up with quick answers when asked, “Daddy, what’s a spinnaker/bowsprit/fo’c’sle?” I recommend giving it very wide berth.
So, my tip for happy readings is to stick to stuff that’s reasonably contemporary. At the risk of sounding immodest, may I suggest Time Traveling With a Hamster? Some parents have already told me that they have read it aloud with their children and loved it. At least there are plenty of cliffhangers to leave them wanting more the following night…
And now? Now my children are reading “proper” books for school, plus all the usual teen dystopias. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever again get to use the special voice I had for evil pixies. It was really good.