My kids aren’t even teenagers yet, but we already have a generational divide about listening to the radio in the car. I can’t listen to the Top 40 junk that the PE teacher at school plays for them (whole weeks of the fall were lost to never ending loops of “Call Me Maybe” because of that evil, evil man), and they can’t listen to the comedians on Sirius’ Comedy Central channel dropping f-bombs every five seconds—the only person who is allowed to swear in the car is me, evidently.
Almost two years ago now, our local children’s librarian suggested books on tape (a somewhat anachronistic misnomer, for sure) to help develop The Girl’s emerging reading abilities. Since that fateful day, while I have heard the news maybe a dozen times, I’ve also heard Katy Perry less then half that much.
Most of the time I love listening to books on tape with the kids. Here are some suggestions for listening with your kids too:
Start with age appropriate books, or even books for younger readers
You want your kids to buy into listening to books instead of corporate pop, so pick stuff that they know and like first while they get into it. Because my kids are younger (the oldest had just turned five when we started), we started with picture books on tape. Make Way for Ducklings, Mabel the Cable Car, The Little House all were listened to over and over again for a few weeks, until even the kids were sick of them, and I was ready to be committed: Mabel the Cable Car’s background music is the soundtrack to my nightmares now. But they never got tired of listening to books in the car, which was the goal.
You get to revisit childhood favorites
All those books you loved as a kid are most likely now on CD for your listening pleasure. But memory is a fickle thing, especially when you are under four-feet tall. Now is your chance to actually hear the stories again and understand it this time. Or pick up on things that you never noticed because you were barely literate and ignorant of how literature works. The Chronicles of Narnia are even better than you remember; this time, however, you can actually see how the lion Aslan is a Christ figure for yourself, not just because the pony-tailed stoner in your dorm kept insisting on it. A trip back to your childhood is now just a library scanner beep away.
Unfortunately, sometimes the past should remain in the past
One of the books I got a few weeks ago was Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, a novel my sisters and I adored when we were in 4th grade. I didn’t remember, however, that the Holocaust was a major presence in the plot, as were allusions to sex, molestation, and masturbation. Obvioiusly, I didn’t understand any of those things when I read it as a kid, and neither did my kids. If I managed to turn out okay (aside from habit of talking about my vasectomy every few days), so will they, right? Still, we did skip ahead lots of times.
Don’t be afraid to turn off a book if you feel the themes are inappropriate for your kid(s)’s age(s). Worst case scenario, you tell them the disc is broken, which is not too much of a stretch for some library discs.
Stick to the classics
If a book has been beloved for over a hundred years, it probably won’t lead you astray. Plus, I love becoming acquainted with classics that I never read as a kid. We just finished The Secret Garden this morning, and I really enjoyed it. Similarly, Beverly Cleary, EL Konigsburg, Roald Dahl won’t do you wrong. The best children’s authors knew that the adults reading the books to the children need to be entertained too.
Beware books you aren’t familiar with
The flip side of #4 is that if you eventually want to try something new, you need to be aware that children’s literature has gotten pretty mature, especially for the preteen set. I randomly chose a novel for 8-10 year olds since my daughter reads a little above of her grade level. Bad idea. The story focused on a boy who is beaten by his drunk uncle so much that he runs away to the Civil War to find his brother, only to witness the Battle of Gettysburg. And this is a comedy! Some publishing executive decided that child abuse and the bloody scourging of slavery from our country are comedy gold for tweens! We didn’t even make it to the end of disc 1. So stick with the classics or find a librarian you trust to give you recommendations.
Stop the books regularly to discuss it
As an English teacher, I always tell my students (even the college ones) that reading is the hardest of all the basic skills since it takes years to learn how to do it well. For that reason, I love to pause the story to make sure the kids understand the plot, and also to touch on teachable moments in the book. Because my oldest just turned seven, we stay from the more complex issues that come up (like war and slavery as comedy), but we do discuss character’s behavior and motivation. “Is Jasper being a good friend? Is it right or wrong to help a classmate in need?. . . “ and so on. This helps build comprehension and your shared values as a family.
Be ready for some horrible narrators
Anyone who has been to the movies knows that appearing in a film doesn’t make one an actor. Similarly, a company hiring someone to read a book aloud for three or four weeks in a recording studio does not make for a gifted voice talent. I’ve lost track of all the books we’ve stopped not because there was anything wrong with the book but because the narrator’s voice or mannerisms drove The Bife or me crazy. Stockard Channing gives my wife the howling fantods. And I’m convinced that Molly Ringwald did so many drugs in the ‘80s that she gave herself brain damage: seriously, she sounds exactly like the 6th graders I used to teach who never grasped the purpose of punctuation.
Most narrators are fine, though
Except for Neil Patrick Harris who recorded Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins series. He is the essence of awesome that everyone will enjoy. He might even be able to cure any Ringwald-inflicted hearing damage.
Have your older kids follow along
The concept of following along in the book with the narrator just clicked for my 7-year-old. Not only does it further increase their comprehension and their reading skills, following along gives them something to do that doesn’t involve hitting her brother or complaining about the temperature. Sometimes it can be fun to turn down the volume unexpectedly and have your kid take over for a minute or two just to have them work on reading aloud and keep them on their toes.
Feel free to take a break
Don’t forget that you’re the adult, and you’re in charge. If you need to take a break from the purple prose describing the mice of Redwall (and who wouldn’t?), turn on some music or the news. After all, I still have satellite radio so that I can force the kids to listen to the music that was popular when I was in high school. And if you don’t do that occasionally, you shouldn’t be a parent.