Reading Aloud to Young Listeners

When I found myself reading aloud to twelve hungry-eyed elementary students, I suddenly realized why I had written a children’s book.

Well, “suddenly” is perhaps incorrect, since parents had already been sending me pictures of their kids reading my children’s book. That’s pretty fulfilling. But here, now, in this moment, as I looked into those attentive little faces, I knew they needed a story worth telling. And so I told one.

As a writer, it is very easy to feel isolated by your craft.

Writing takes time and solitude, and often requires saying no to social engagements or keeping late hours in order to seize the evasive Muse. I felt this in spades when writing my historical fiction novel, The Exile, and my period drama stageplay, Between the Lines. Even though seeing my play performed was, to-date, one of the most terrifying and rewarding experiences of my life, I still felt somewhat disconnected with the audience. Yes, they were hearing and watching the actors speak the words I wrote. But I was sitting buried in a corner of the audience where I couldn’t see their faces. I couldn’t witness their responses in real time. And aside from that, these were adults.

So what’s so special about reading aloud to kids?

A year or even six months ago, I wouldn’t have had a great answer to that. But after sharing The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock with several classrooms of young listeners, I can tell you there is nothing like it in all the world.

First of all, the energy and eagerness that children bring to “storytime” is an unparalleled reminder of how crucial stories are to our relational development.

Stories are one of the primary mediums through which children bond with their parents, grandparents, and teachers. There’s a reason for that. Not only is storytelling an inherently human activity, but reading aloud to someone is an inherently bridge-building activity. It connects the reader and the listener through the moments of laughter, suspense, and satisfaction that the story provides.

The little titters of laughter and gasps of surprise as I turned each page told me they were not only paying attention—they were enjoying themselves! As someone who is not overconfident in her child skills, I almost couldn’t believe it. With no nieces, nephews, or kids of my own, I’m not used to making kids laugh. I’m really not that used to kids at all. So when I realized that this book had brought joy to even just a dozen little people, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

But even more special is the knowledge that a book can make a lasting impact on a child’s mind and heart.

Kids are like sponges. The book’s morals, values, themes, and messages— the kids soak it up. Of course, there has to be reinforcement in order for these ideas to take root, but every story has the chance to expose a child to an important aspect of life for the first time. Or to reinforce something important they’ve already learned another way. Stories are incredibly dynamic forces: they have the power to introduce, cultivate, cement, challenge, or discredit entire worldviews.

My favorite moment during the reading was when we reached the part in the story where Melvin the missing sock ends up alone in the laundry pile because his match has been turned into a dusting rag. Here I paused:

“Do you think Melvin can be folded up again without his match?”

The forlorn faces and soft whimpers said it all.

“No,” said a little blond boy. “He looks lonely.”

And he was right—Melvin was indeed lonely.

The fact that these children had become emotionally invested in a sock over the past ten minutes told me they were already learning one of the most vital human skills: empathy.

Fortunately for Melvin (and his fans!), his master finds him again and restores him to the drawer with his match—ending the story on a note of redemption. Will second-graders catch the allegorical value of the book? Probably not—unless their parents explain it to them. But if the story becomes a staple in their childhood reading, as some parents have said it has, these kids will come to appreciate and engage with the themes on a deeper level as they grow up.  

A good children’s book gives its young readers something to digest at their current age… and something to chew on for years to come.

And that is what I hope The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock does for many, many little ones.

What is one of your favorite ways to bond with kids?

Do you have fond memories of someone reading aloud to you as a child?

Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?

Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!

8 Comments on “Reading Aloud to Young Listeners

  1. It’s not coincidence that the traditions of every culture we know begin in myth—narrative, storytelling. It’s not coincidence that for many of us myths, legends, stories are among our most treasured books. Plato and those who followed him did us a *great* disservice in refusing to admit the poets and the rhapsodes to his ‘ideal’ city—all in the name of ‘rationality,’ which he took to be our (only) nature. Philosophers have a lot to answer for. ‘Rational’ in their sense, we’re not. Story-telling… now we’re getting somewhere.

    • Thank you for sharing this perspective! I think the mere fact that so many anecdotes and personal stories fuel political movements these days is a testament to how perhaps society’s “brain” has changed. At least in American culture, it seems the most compelling form of “evidence” that can support a particular cause is a story that invokes 2/3 pathos and 1/3 ethos. The logos, or rational substance of many arguments, is often quite lacking. As you say, we are not wholly rational creatures, nor are we wholly emotional or ethical. I think the best stories are the ones that merge these components into a trinity of sorts, where all rely on and complement one another.

  2. That’s so cool!
    And wait, your play?
    How is it that you get to accomplish all these things? Do you have community support?
    I’m glad you had a good time with the kids.
    I think reading to kids is a crucial thing. Unfortunately, now more than ever, I feel like kids are less interested in books than technology. Which is why you need to start early – kudos to you!
    Yes, I was read to as a child and it was something I recall with fondness. It’s easier to imagine the story, characters, and setting when you’re not looking at the words yourself. The words just drift into your ear and then come out through your eyes.

    • My alma mater provided a lot of venues for exercising creativity– directing staged readings of student plays was one of them!

      As for kids and reading, I have to agree with you. Absorbing the words as you hear them (especially if the person reading uses engaging inflection) opens up the imagination! On the other hand, it is alarming how many parents I see place their iphone in front of their children just to keep them occupied at restaurants, in stores, and really any social setting where the kids aren’t the center of attention. What happened to kids bringing a book?

  3. Being read to as a young child–particularly by an expressive, lively reader–is a life-affirming experience. First, the child is forming a bond with the person reading, whether a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or friend. Secondly, the choice of material to read transmits to the child a value set or important idea. It can be told humorously, poignantly, as nonsense, and in each case, a sense is being communicated, some sort of lesson learned.

    I have no doubt that being read to lead to my love of reading as a form of entertainment, escape, and acquiring of knowledge that remains foremost among the tools that have served me well in life. There’s also no question that the early familiarity with fables, allegories, fairy tales, and rhyming books guaranteed my love of writing, performing, interpreting through speech, and … arguing! Writing is, as our host remarks, an occupation that demands solitude and self-discipline. Further, writers must channel their passion and convictions, sometimes casting aside doubt, always in submission to the reader. One enthusiastic reader is a blessing; twelve are a dozen times a blessing, and the more readers who embrace one’s work, the deeper the humility, gratitude, and, for me at least, wonder that I do indeed have something to say.

    • Yes, this is wonderful insight! Especially about how the person reading aloud to children has the power to shape the meaning of the story based on how they present it. This is similar to how different combinations of actors can create vastly different versions of the same stageplay– it’s not just the words in the script that give meaning, but with what demeanor those words are spoken.

  4. Precisely, though I am of the mind that the better written a play is, the less latitude the actors have. Of course, one might argue the opposite: the more oblique the play, the freer one can be with interpretation. Whether one or the other would be more successful would be for audiences to judge.

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