According to "Kids and Family Reading Report", the new survey from
children’s publisher Scholastic, 83% of children aged 6 to 17 said that they
"loved" or "liked" being read aloud to at bedtime. The report also reveals that
although only 37% of 6-8 year olds are read to, falling to 1 in 5 for children
aged 9-11, 31% of the children whose parents no longer read aloud to them
wanted them to carry on.
Speaking for myself, I stopped reading to our children about 15 years ago, by
which time our son and daughter were around 12 and 10 respectively. But for
the whole of their lives hitherto, originally alternating each night between bath
and reading duties, my wife and I trudged through the gamut of bedtime
stories, from the classics to some of the worst books I’ve ever come across.
To be honest, as new parents we started reading because we thought that that
was what we should do. From my own early childhood I can only remember
my own father reading the London Evening Standard’s "Billy the Bee" and
"Modesty Blaise" comic strips to me, so maybe I had a mission to
overcompensate. Either way, after we got beyond the bedtime song stage, we
entered in earnest on our regime of nightly reading, bizarrely enough after our
son, aged around 2, insisted each night on being shown the visitors’ guide to
Whipsnade Zoo where we’d recently spent a day that memorably featured him
being terrified into inconsolable screams by the grunt of an Indian rhino, post-
This was, perhaps, a strange gateway to literacy, but thereafter the demand
was as much from him as from our sense of parental duty. Sometimes, to be
sure, things got out of hand. There was a pop-up book about a white mouse
called Maisie he loved so much he pleaded, one night, that he be allowed to
have it with him in his cot. By the next morning, inevitably, the book was torn
to pieces, an early lesson in how we’re fated to kill the thing we love.
His sister, 20 months younger, was soon along for the ride too. Mostly at this
stage we still inhabited the realm of picture books. This was the way I
discovered the oeuvre of truly great artists and illustrators like Shirley Hughes
and Tony Ross, who’d emerged, unbeknownst to me, since my own
childhood. Thus the bedtime sessions became a joy for all of us. Though
naturally there were some complete stinkers in the ever growing mix. This
wasn’t a problem if we’d borrowed the book from the library - after a week,
with luck, you’d never have to see or open the bloody thing ever again - but
other books arrived as gifts, presumably to be treasured forever. Thus my
several failed attempts to throw away a thin volume about a mentally defective
pig called Pog, whose adventures consisted of him hiding behind his hands to
become invisible or standing in a hole. Each time the wails of dismay forced
me to repent and retrieve the book from the bin. Our daughter thought was
hilariously funny; although in retrospect I think she found my loathing for the
book even funnier: that’s how the bonds of family life and love, in all their
mesmeric contrariness, are created.
Over the coming years we got through the lot, with one or two omission. My
wife, having once worked for British Rail, wouldn’t tolerate Thomas the Tank
Engine because of its technological obscurantism and reinforcement of the
patriarchy. I simply can’t stand Enid Blyton, and neither of us rated Roald
Dahl, though we caved in and read him to our children because mostly we
were catholic in our collective taste: so we did Paddington, George
MacDonald, all of Narnia except for "The Last Battle" (for once I read ahead
and drew the line at C S Lewis’s "they’ve all been dead the whole time" cop-
out at the end). And we loved and reread forgotten classics from my wife’s
childhood library, like Enid Bagnold’s "Alice and Thomas and Jane".
If this all sounds rather precious, at the same time we had no compunction at
recruiting the telly as a friendly nanny, poisoning our children’s minds from
an early age with breath- takingly violent Bugs Bunny cartoons on top of hours
and hours of utter trash. But the books, crucially, were the ritual. After over a
decade, by which time our children were also hooked on computer games,
we reached the crescendo when I took a year to read them the whole of
"The Lord of the Rings".
I’d never previously read the thing myself, and couldn’t be bothered to read
ahead, so often had do some instantaneous editing to skip the lengthier verse
genealogies of, for instance, the Elf Kings of Elindor. I also, to amuse myself
more than our children, adopted different accents for each of the races of
Middle Earth: so the hobbits were Mummerset, the elves Welsh, the dwarves
Birmingham while the orcs spoke in thick Afrikaans through my own utterly
childish giggling. Even so, when Gandalf gets scoffed by the Balrath our son,
now 10, burst into tears.
After that, we moved on to T H White’s Arthurian books, but halfway through
the second volume it all sort of just petered out. By now they were reading
Harry Potter themselves, and also entering an age suited to solitary vice.
Remember, 300 years ago - the blink of an eye in the history of human literacy
- decent people were horrified by the emergence of The Novel, written to be
read, not aloud, but in your head alongside all that other uncontrollable,
unknowable, internal filth.
And I’ve no idea whether those ten years reading aloud did our children good
or ill, as neither of us were rigorous enough to use our son or daughter as an
unread-to control. But I do know that both of them, now in their mid-20s, fall
about laughing whenever they do a South African accent.