Nearly every night, I read aloud to my boys. For Evan, my seven-year-old, I have lately been reading The Hobbit. Two nights ago, no sooner had I begun than Evan interrupted, saying, “It’s funny how they spell ‘Smaug.’”
“Oh?” I asked. “How would you spell it?”
“Good,” I said. “That is how you would normally spell it.” But privately, I thought how wonderful it was that Tolkien chose this other, more evocative spelling. It also occurred to me that without Evan’s commentary, I might not have even noticed.
What we choose to read to our children has ramifications almost beyond counting. Certainly, a shared reading experience is pivotal to the in-home dynamics and shared knowledge of any family, but insofar as one tackles a diet of writing that qualifies as “fantastic,” reading aloud is also crucial to the development and enculturation of an entire new generation of fantasy readers. Given a world that grows ever more hectic, and therefore has less and less time for “pleasure” reading, this is no small thing.
I am fortunate to have two children, both boys, and I can see the results of my reading choices –– the goblin fruit, as it were, of my labor –– as if I had scrawled on their souls with indelible ink. Corey, my older boy, now reads nothing but fantasy fiction, at least not by choice. (He has also, to my dismay, discovered comics, and for this, too, I blame myself.)
At eleven, he has blazed a trail through the Eragon books, The Golden Compass trilogy, a good many early-seventies Target-published Doctor Who novelizations, and as many Redwall books as he can dig from the library’s stacks.
His latest addiction is John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series (an outing that seems to this jaded reader to be both highly derivative and downright endless).
Evan, at seven, tackles less ambitious fantasias: Calvin & Hobbes, in which children are always poorly behaved but possess sufficient imagination to light up the sky, and The Box Car Children, in which children are always perfectly behaved but have no more imagination than Wonder Bread.
More instructive is what Evan wants his parents to read to him: Lloyd Alexander (all of it) and, from me, The Hobbit. Evan heard the first chapters of The Hobbit read aloud to big brother Corey over a year ago, on a camping trip. To my surprise, those overheard snippets seared themselves into his memory.
So in the end, it was not my choice to begin The Hobbit, a surprisingly tough book for a seven-year-old (especially after Mirkwood, as Tolkien moves the book swiftly from comic adventure into a meditation on war, greed and generosity). The decision was entirely Evan’s.
Some of the words are foreign to him, of course. Occasionally, I pause for explanation. At other moments, I soldier on, confident that the storytelling is strong enough to impart its own meaning. (Do you, gentle reader, do the same for your young ones?)
Either way, Evan has certainly followed the tale. Sometimes he picks up on things I had not caught. For example, as Bilbo sat pondering the hidden door of the Lonely Mountain, Evan suddenly said, “Daddy, did you notice that Bilbo doesn’t think so much about his hobbit hole any more? He thought about it a lot at first, but not so much after the goblins.”
I hadn’t noticed that. I’m actually not sure it’s true. But it’s a keen observation, nonetheless, and one that had nothing to with the passage I was then reading. Umberto Eco is right: we read (and receive reading) on a plethora of levels, all in concert.
How did I settle on The Hobbit in the first place, for Corey? For one reason: it was a part of my childhood, a part that I wished to share: to impart.
Isn’t that always the explanation for why we put certain works in the path of our children? To relive the best of what we ourselves cut our teeth on?
On a more self-absorbed level, by providing stories I already know and love, I am able to reacquaint myself with texts that are, in some cases, so dusty within the vaults of memory that I no longer carry much more than impressions. An image here, a plot point there. A snippet of conversation; a hint of how or where I was way back when.
I might even argue that reading a known work aloud amounts to a specific kind of time-travel –– one blessedly free of Morlocks, too, unless I choose to crack that particular cover.
The years fall away. I am once again twelve, lying half beneath the covers and glued to the pages of, say, The Phoenix and the Carpet.
Here’s a smattering of what I have dragged back into the light for the sake of my kids (and, selfishly, myself): Rinkitink In Oz, Five Children and It, The Sword in the Stone, Awkward Magic, Pirates Of the Deep Green Sea (unjustly forgotten!), The Martian Chronicles, Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery (but not the just-too-creepy classic, “The Upper Berth”), “The Reluctant Dragon,” The Silver Crown, The Pool of Fire (and the rest of John Christopher’s excellent Tripods Trilogy), A Wrinkle in Time, The Story of Doctor Doolittle, The House With a Clock In Its Walls, “Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons,” The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice Through the Looking-Glass, plus any number of fairy tales, both Grimm and otherwise.
On the list for Corey next, since he hasn’t stumbled onto them on his own: The Adventures of Robin Hood. The poor kid has no clue who Friar Tuck is, much less Midge the Miller’s Son. Appalling. Or, in the syntax of that inveterate fantasist, Beatrix Potter, “I am affronted!”
The categories that I will not read aloud amount to four: books I deem too mature in their treatment of sex or too gruesome in their take on human relations (read: war, rape, etc.); books I found sort of dull on my own (read: the Tarzan series); books that might give my kids actual nightmares (see “The Upper Berth,” above); and books I believe they must experience for themselves.
With this last dictum in mind, I have not read to Corey (much less Evan) Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Tolkien’s The Lord Of the Rings or the remainder of The Once and Future King.
A fifth category reared its head when revisiting the now-dated Martian Chronicles, a sub-set that I might loosely describe as titles that are downright embarrassing in their treatment of non-white characters or, sometimes, women.
E. Nesbit makes some blunders, certainly, but the prime offender is H. Rider Haggard, who reveled in the qualities of “the noble savage” while taking great delight in slaughtering by the hundred any African who didn’t have the sense to befriend Allan Quatermain and company.
And what to make of She, in which an entire land of “primitives” winds up worshipping Ayesha (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”), the only white woman for two thousand miles?
I would do nothing to prevent my children from reading these works –– Haggard wrote cracking good adventure yarns, that much is sure –– but need I be the one to introduce them? No.
In any event, and all too soon, Corey will no longer want me to read aloud. After that, the best I’ll be able to manage will be suggestions, recommendations and vague hopes. He’ll find his own list of winners, of course; some might even be congruent with mine. Time will tell.
Until then, I can revel in The Hobbit, and in Evan’s cheerful, sometimes bracing reactions. We’re near the end, now. The dwarves have barricaded themselves into the mountain and are being downright rude to Bard. I asked Evan after this sequence if he thought there would be a war. His response? “I hope so. Because war means action and action means awesomeness!”
‘Til next time.
Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet University Press), as well as the play Acts Of God (Playscripts, Inc.). Besides additional blogging for Black Gate, recent short fiction appears in the Feb. 2011 issue of Realms Of Fantasy, and a brand new tale is set to appear in the Dec. 2011 issue of Black Static. His website is www.markrigney.net.