As an early childhood educator, sharing books with children is what brings me the most joy. With more than 20 years of attending professional development conferences and reading articles on literacy research, I can effortlessly recite the documented importance of sharing stories with children. The academic benefits of reading supports cognitive development, increases vocabulary, builds phonemic awareness and phonics skills, helps develop longer attention spans and leads to greater reading success—all of which offer parents and educators motivation to read aloud. But truthfully, those are not the reasons why I chose to read to my own children or to the cherubs I have taught. My intention has always been more child-centered: that youngsters will take pleasure in listening to stories, a gift that will light a spark and ignite a love of reading.
My love of sharing books comes honestly, as my father was the quintessential storyteller. I have a few memories of my father reading to me, but possess vivid images of him reading to my younger siblings. I recall a picture, taken in his library, of him reclined in a chair with two small children precariously sitting on the well-worn arms, and two older siblings leaning over the back engrossed in a story. I could hear the nightly ritual from my bedroom: the scramble by my siblings to find a spot, and once settled, my father enthusiastically reading with altered voices as he took them to far-away or make-believe lands without ever leaving the house. While he would read any story requested by a child, some of his favorite stories to share were Dr. Seuss books, Aesop fables and thrilling adventures like Treasure Island, The Hobbit and Greek Myths, all read for the mere enjoyment of listening to a splendid tale.
While my father has bestowed untold gifts upon his children, his love of reading is the one that captures my heart. I did not always embrace his view of books and reading, but thankfully, with his never-ending encouragement, I grew to be a book lover. I remember frowning and bemoaning high school summer reading lists that included My Antonia by Willa Cather and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, only to hear my father say enthusiastically, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites! You will love it.” And for the most part, I did.
Years later, I became the parent sharing beloved stories with my own children. To this day, I have a collection of picture books that I cannot bear to part with because as I sift through the shelves, books like Goodnight Moon, The Very Busy Spider and Owen trigger fond memories of cherished stories, read over and over again to enrich language development and to expand their imaginations. The nightly snuggles, giggles, silliness, occasional tears and pure delight in books are what I remember, never recalling a vocabulary word taught or questions asked to check comprehension.
Reading aloud lasted for years even after my children could read on their own; it created a trust that I would make time for them and connected us to the stories we read together. Eclipsing all my memories was the wave of emotions we encountered as I read Where the Red Fern Grows. As dog lovers and owners, my children could empathetically connect with a young boy wanting, training and loving dogs. They rejoiced in Billy buying his hunting dogs, were excited as the dogs chased coons through moonlit nights, and became scared and distraught when Ruben landed on an ax. Although they had never experienced the loss of a dog, they were broken hearted when Billy’s dogs died. As the sorrowful words choked up in my throat, the tears streamed down our faces; together, we were saddened and changed by the power of written words.
I encourage parent/child travel through the magical world of books. Create memories by showing up and giving time to your child. Make it fun and exciting! Read in a tent made of sheets and pillows. Read on the porch during a storm. Turn off the lights and use a flashlight to see the pictures and the words. Pack a picnic lunch, ball and book and go to the park. As experts reduce learning experiences to only measurable goals, we, as a society, do a disservice to children who should experience the pure joy of reading. The truth is that listening to and sharing stories is enough because the organic benefits that accompany reading aloud are abundant. Reading aloud will open their eyes to different ideas, allow them to gain meaning on their own, broaden their imaginations, create an understanding of the world and humanity, and expose them to characters who may, or may not, possess admirable character traits like courage, integrity, resilience and kindness. What more can you ask from a single, enchanting activity? As I continue my journey with young children, my dedication to reading remains strong; my hope is that my students will become lifelong readers and learners and someday remember that Mrs. Snyder shared great stories with them.