We tend to reserve reading aloud for kids or others who can’t read on their own. But beloved children’s book author Kate DiCamillo thinks the practice offers a special opportunity for people to connect. She offers her humble opinion on the universal and age-defying magic of listening to a shared story.
It’s 1972, and I’m 8 years old and in second grade at Clermont Elementary in Clermont, Florida.
The classroom floors are wood, and there’s a ticking clock on the wall, and there’s a chalkboard, and there are mottoes to live by strung up above it. And the teacher, Ms. Boyette, is wearing cat eyeglasses with glinting rhinestones.
She’s reading aloud to us from “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” And we have just come to a part of the book where the main character tames a wild dog, a wild dog. And I’m literally on the edge of my seat. I’m listening, listening, caught up in the wonder of at all. I’m a kid who loves a story.
But also in that second grade classroom seated not too far away from me, there’s a class bully. Because I am so terrified of this boy, he doesn’t even seem real to me. He is, in my mind, less a boy and more a monster.
In any case, Ms. Boyette is reading. And I look over at this boy because he is someone I am very much in the habit of keeping an eye on. And I notice that he is listening too, that he is engaged by the story, that he, like me, is leaning forward in his seat and listening with his whole heart.
I stare at him, open-mouthed. I’m struck with a sudden knowledge that this boy that I’m so afraid of is in fact just like me. He’s a kid who likes a story.
The boy must feel my eyes on him, because he turns. He sees me seeing him, and something miraculous happens. He smiles at me. Really. And then another miracle. I, unafraid, smile back. We’re two kids smiling at each other.
Why have I never forgotten this small moment? Why, almost 50 years later, do I still recall every detail of it? I think it’s because that moment illustrates so beautifully the power of reading out loud.
Reading aloud ushers us into a third place, a safe room. It’s a room where everyone involved, the reader and the listener, can put down their defenses and lower their guard. We humans long not just for story, not just for the flow of language, but for the connection that comes when words are read aloud. That connection provides illumination. It lets us see each other.
When people talk about the importance of reading aloud, they almost always mean an adult reading to the child.
We forget about the surly adolescent and the confused young adult and the weary middle-aged and the lonely old.
We need it too. We all need that third place, that safe room that reading out loud provides. We all need that chance to see each other.