Storytime isn’t just for young children, says literary critic Meghan Cox Gurdon
Meghan Cox Gurdon is reading aloud to her daughter Phoebe. The book is Dominic, William Steig’s tale of a benevolent, wandering dog, and a family favourite. But this is no cosy bedtime vignette with a yawning, pyjama-clad toddler perched on a parent’s knee: Phoebe is 17 years old and she is drinking coffee and eating breakfast as she listens, before heading out to school. Like her siblings – Molly, 24, Paris, 22, Violet, 18, and Flora, 13 – she has grown up being read to, and it’s something that hasn’t stopped just because she’s hit adolescence.
Cox Gurdon is a reading-aloud tub-thumper. She is a children’s literature reviewer for the Wall Street Journal and has just published her own book, The Enchanted Hour, which makes the case for reading to loved ones of all ages.
“Like a lot of people, I always had the general idea that it was something meaningful and lovely and deeply cosy,” she says. “But then I did it with my children and it felt like something real. It was the gift of time and of a voice. It was unlike anything else in life.”
The idea that the experience of being read to should be limited to toddlers is, she says, a terrible waste. “Yes, those times with very young children are heavenly, but telling stories is a source of pleasure that has been available to human beings of all ages since before the printed word. The fact it has dwindled into something for children does not mean it needs to stay there.”
Cox Gurdon senses the tide is turning, that we are ready to hear our stories out loud again – witness the huge success of audiobooks and podcasts – and hopes that the power of reading to teenagers and older people will now be more widely acknowledged.
Certainly the teen years can be a turbulent time, when a port in a storm – a familiar book, read by a familiar voice, perhaps – might be very welcome. “There is so much flux and transition during those years,” she says. “As a teenager it is difficult to find those portals back to childhood that you sometimes want, and there is a wonderful return that older children can have just by being exposed to the books of their younger childhood.”
Cox Gurdon’s three oldest children live away from home, but they still opt into evening reading sessions when they are back. A book sometimes comes out at the dinner table, or the older ones pop in on the younger ones while they are being read to. Molly, the oldest, says she has come full circle: “My husband and I are trying to read aloud together as a way of reconnecting when we’ve spent the day working apart.”
For Cox Gurdon, the benefits go deep with teenagers – reading aloud can provide both adults and teens with a welcome means of communication, without the nagging, negativity and silences that often creep into that dynamic.
“Possibly, Phoebe likes me reading to her at breakfast because it means we don’t have to have a conversation,” she says. “It is a wonderful way of being together without having that pressure or being asked lots of questions.”
Phoebe shares her mother’s enthusiasm: “What gets me out of bed is knowing that mom is preparing breakfast and coffee, and will read to me. It’s relaxing, it bonds us and it is nostalgic for both of us. It’s really nice.”
Flora does sometimes ask to park the book. “I sometimes get it out and she might ask: ‘Tonight, can we just chat?’ It is this reserved time together. It might be when it’s easiest to open up. If the slot is filled with a conversation, that’s great.”
Idyllic as this sounds, real-life familial relations in the Cox Gurdon household are not always harmonious. “I don’t want to present myself as some sort of paragon,” she says. “There are times when it’s hard, you are tired or hungover, or everyone has lost it.”
And so, if they don’t want to do it, fair enough, she says. “Teenagers are going through that process of pulling away, and you don’t want to be cloying.”
Perhaps the most important reason for carrying on reading, she says, is that it establishes a regular time to switch off from devices and be with our families instead. “It is an extraordinary distillation of the good things that we want in our lives. We need human connectedness. Many of us want richness of story and culture and language, something that is deeper than Twitter.”
Since taking up the cause of reading aloud, Cox Gurdon has been thrilled by the number of people telling her they have benefited. “One woman felt that it was the saviour of her relationship with her teenage daughter. She had forgotten it was something you could do together – it is one of those beautiful things you can kind of forget about.”
Where, then, should a parent start – or, more likely, start again? Cox Gurdon doesn’t like being prescriptive – although, she says: “I choose books that they wouldn’t pick for themselves. For instance, I never read Harry Potter to them. They were all huge fans and there was no need for me to join that. That was theirs.” But she’s clear on her favourite: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “There is a lot going on, sentence to sentence. It is quite sophisticated language, with lots of personalities, and that is more fun to read aloud. It’s exciting, there is action,” she says. It has been read often. “I do prefer reading classics to older kids, because there seems invariably so much more going on in the writing, with the language, than in many contemporary books.”
She recalls one of Treasure Island’s many outings: “I was sitting on the sofa, Molly next to me, Violet and Phoebe on my lap and Paris along the back of the sofa, right behind my head. My husband was lying on the floor and I was reading to them. That was one of those moments that is like a reservoir for the harder times. I can always draw on that memory.”