2007.01.07 The bedtime reading ritual

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I read the other day that one in 10 parents dreads hearing the words, “Please read to me before I go to sleep.”

The study found that many parents “struggle to understand the bedtime stories they read to their children.” What? Are they reading “Introduction to Astrophysics”?

Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

Maybe they’re choosing the wrong books.

The study also found that a quarter of the parents surveyed skipped passages or made up words to get to the end of the sentence. I can see where you wouldn’t want your six-year-old to urge you on, saying, “Now just sound it out. What does the first letter say?”

The study was carried out in the United Kingdom and it appears that evening reading is going well over there. It was listed as preferable to playing in the park or watching television.

It was certainly my preference when our kids were growing up, but then again, we didn’t have a TV to compete against. The nightly reading saga was big entertainment. Just think how exciting it must be now during the Harry Potter era.

In two days this week, I heard two different radio interviewers talk with actor Jim Dale, now famous as the voice on the recorded version of the Harry Potter books.

Dale is very good. He does distinct voices for each of the main characters. In book five, he said, there were 134 characters that author J.K. Rowling wanted put to voice. Sixty of those voices were eliminated in book six, but more than 60 new ones were introduced.

Dale kept track of characters with a tape recorder so he would remember a voice when it again entered the story.

I was certainly no professional like Jim Dale, but I did try out some voices now and then. Maybe a little falsetto for female characters, but it wasn’t really popular and I was sometimes asked to stop.

Even more likely, I would get called for making a character say something inappropriate.

“Is the moon really made of green cheese?” Laura asked Ma.

“No, you little nincompoop,” she said. “Looks are deceiving. Sheesh!”

I think it was probably during the third time through the Little House series that I started to get a little loose with the process. I was just as intrigued as the kids were the first time through.

With careful finger work, it was possible to turn two pages at once and blend right into the story line despite the loss of details. Sometimes you got caught, sometimes you didn’t.

But that was never done with the Little House books. They were the sacred text of night-time reading. You don’t mess with Laura Ingalls Wilder, except, perhaps on the third time through, but by then it was tough not to play it straight because the kids already knew the story.

I still remember the power of those tales, like the time we read “The Long Winter” during the heat of July.

The window fan was running, it was probably 80° in the bedroom, but when I finished reading about the trials and tribulations of an exceptional winter in the little town of De Smet in the Dakota Territories, I half expected to look out the window and see snow on the ground. I really got drawn into those tales.

As many of you know, there’s excellent children’s literature that makes good reading for adults. “Julie of the Wolves.” “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” “Caddie Woodlawn.” “The Indian in the Cupboard.” “Danny, the Champion of the World.” I could take any of those out of the bookcase and read them tomorrow.

Well, not tomorrow. For me, tomorrow is Monday, a busy newspaper day, followed by Tuesday, a bigger newspaper day.

I was always excused from reading to the kids on Mondays because I was at work. I’d catch up on tired Tuesdays, but that would lead to another problem.

Suddenly the voice would go silent. I’d be in that relaxed state of mind and just doze off. An elbow from Ben or a “Dad, wake up!” from Rozee would get me going again.

I’ve read that one out of 10 weekly newspaper editors fears these words on a Tuesday night: “Please read to me before you fall to sleep.”

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