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Reading to your kids is time well spent

Reading to your kids is time well spent

Oral storytelling yields emotional, cognitive, and social benefits

World Magazine, February 2022


Meghan Cox Gurdon Illustration by Jonathan Bruns

Reading to your kids is time well spent
Meghan Cox Gurdon is a children’s book critic for The Wall Street Journal and a former foreign reporter. She is a wife, mother of five, and recently, a grandmother. Gurdon’s 2019 book The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction presents compelling evidence for the emotional, cognitive, and social benefits of oral storytelling.

On a recent Friday afternoon, we met virtually and discussed how the book’s message is perhaps more relevant now coming out of pandemic lockdowns and amid heated debate over the content in contemporary children’s books. Here is our conversation, edited and shortened.

You were raised an only child in a broken home. Your parents stopped reading aloud to you once you could read independently. What prompted you to read aloud to your kids? I was at a dinner party one night with my husband, who was then my fiancé. We had our drinks, and the hostess, my friend Lisa, excused herself. I thought she was going to stir something in the kitchen. She never came back. We asked her husband where she went. He replied, “Oh, she’s just reading to the boys.” This was my Pauline moment. I thought, If I ever have children, that is what I’m going to do. When we did get married and had a baby, I was drawing on this complete reservoir of ignorance. The one thing I knew I could do was read to this baby. It taught me how to be a mother.

You stuck with it for the next 25 years, reading to your children nightly? To borrow from C.S. Lewis’ phrase, I was surprised by the joy of having a family. I liked reading aloud in the evening because it was a kind of anchor to the day. It held it together. It was a destination we were all moving toward before bed. The joy of it is … whenever you can get to it, your children love it. I also read to them in the bath. You can do it anywhere, in the car while you’re stuck in traffic, on the subway, over breakfast. Fathers can read, or aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

In The Enchanted Hour, you explore the science behind reading aloud. What surprised you? I had to fend off feelings of regret and sorrow over the things I hadn’t known. I never thought about how quickly their brains were growing. I do think that reading aloud was the best thing I have done as a mother. It made me grateful that this was our technique. When I go back in my mind, I wish I had read them more poetry and nonfiction. I wanted them to have a kind of cultural acquaintance. It was an opportunity to introduce them to types of literature and to more sophisticated texts that they wouldn’t read on their own. I was conscious in that sense.

I do think that reading aloud was the best thing I have done as a mother.

In the tech era, screens increasingly separate family members under the same roof. You argue reading aloud shouldn’t stop when kids become teenagers. It’s incredibly hard. The truth is, it’s up to us as individuals and as parents to carve out some part of life that is not online. I wrote the book and didn’t know the pandemic was coming. One of the central and still-important arguments of The Enchanted Hour is that reading aloud cannot solve the problem of our tech addictions, but it can and does mitigate the ill effects. Teenagers may not want to sit with you necessarily, but they’re still willing to let you read. You can stand at the kitchen bar while they’re eating their porridge and read to them. Not all of them will take it after a certain point.

What about audio books? Audiobooks have gotten much better. When you’re listening, you’re participating in this millennia old human tradition of oral storytelling. You are sharing a story, and it is forming this wonderful triangle where you’re all inside it together. You have that in common. You can pause it and talk about it. It’s wonderful for car journeys. You’re trapped in the car together.

Did you ever see yourself becoming a read-aloud evangelist? I’m honored to be an evangelist for this cause. It develops people’s interior lives. It brings beauty into the minds of children and their parents. It goes the other way too. My mom has been in bad health, so I’ve been reading to her. She wanted me to read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. The last time she heard them was when her mother read them to her. I read them to my children.

So, the elderly and ailing need what reading aloud has to offer, too? It pains me to reflect that loneliness was already a cultural phenomenon before the pandemic locked millions of people into solitary confinement. However grievous the toll was before, it’s worse now. I can see the cost of isolation on my own mother’s health and happiness. I think a lot of us have those stories now. When we read aloud to people starved for touch and for culture, we are using our most human assets to replenish them. Time, attention, physical presence, and the voice become gifts, as do language and poetry. It is one of the most healing and regenerative things we can do. My goodness, our culture needs it.

How do you find books worth reading aloud? In my own experience, we mostly read older books. We had a couple of unpleasant surprises when we read more contemporary books … disappointing story twists and shocking moments of political indoctrination. We tend to read things that have been tested by time and lasted. When it comes to the column, I always look for good writing and beautiful art. There’s this trend in picture books right now to have very few words. That’s less satisfactory as a read-aloud.

You took heat for a 2011 Wall Street Journal column pointing out the lurid content in young adult (YA) books. What about now? I don’t know that I can take credit for this, but afterwards I did notice a sharp drop-off in the flow of really lurid books and in particular those depicting cutting and other kinds of self-harm. Maybe my WSJ piece was a signal to the industry that it had gone too far, but maybe it was just that the trend had run its course. YA literature is a trendy business. Today there’s a huge amount of social-justice, gender-bending ideological catechesis in YA books. Sometimes I find it outraging, but mostly I find it boring and unimaginative. I have to hope that at some level, teenagers will eventually think so too. That said, there are wonderful new YA books to be found—and I try to find them!

Any recent young adult books you enjoyed? Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad Is Untrue, Pony by R.J. Palacio, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, Gary Paulsen’s posthumous Northwind. Ruta Sepetys is doing terrific work with historical fiction.

You argue reading aloud at home is a form of resistance against current trends? One of the regrettable things about this current moment is there are teachers, administrators, and people in the book industry who see themselves as presenting children with the correct, enlightened viewpoint. They see parents as possessing retrograde ideas. Parents, teachers, and administrators should have the shared mission of exposing children to what is true and beautiful. Reading aloud at home is a way of defending literature itself. Stories propel themselves from generation to generation because they’re full of goodness. We receive them and pass them on because we received something good. When we read books at home that our children won’t get anywhere else, we’re perpetuating those stories.

When schools and libraries purge literary classics, what do kids miss? You rob children of an understanding of their own past by denying them books that talk about it. In the Little House on the Prairie books, for example, there are things that will offend, by modern standards. People were not living as though the future would judge them. They were just getting on with it, as we do now. The Little House books are a fantastic historical document. There is this rich, messy human story of a settlement out West. At the same time, I think the reader is left in no doubt that it was a very complex situation. The painfulness of it was evident even at the time. If you deny children access to classic literature, you’re denying them an experience that generations of people before you have enjoyed. They’re not classics because some old white men with long beards designated them as classics. They are classics because they are well-loved books with universal messages and universal human points of contact.

If you deny children access to classic literature, you’re denying them an experience that generations of people before you have enjoyed.What are some positive things you see coming from the book industry? Picture books are going through a kind of golden age. The illustrations are remarkable—exquisite artistry and a stunning range of styles. Bookmaking is also more sophisticated now: Elegant designs, binding, paper, and typeface make many children’s books feel like treasures. The aesthetics have never been better. Modern children are spoiled for beauty.

How did you get your start critiquing children’s books for The Wall Street Journal? I was asked to review The English Roses [by Madonna] in 2003. It was fun to talk about a book, its author, and the cultural moment in a playful way.

What was it like to go from foreign reporting to reviewing children’s books? The shift was not disruptive because I had stopped foreign reporting after my second child arrived. I didn’t start critiquing children’s books until baby number five was on her way.

A lot of the skills that you need to report in the field are surprisingly useful when it comes to reviewing books. Each book is, in a way, a foreign country. It has its own landscape, language, and cultural norms. So coming in with eyes open, looking for ways that a book is similar to things you already know and different from things you know is useful in seeing what a book is in itself.

Your family’s favorite read-aloud books? Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown; Piper by Emma Chichester Clark; Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Long Winter and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis; Dracula by Bram Stoker; My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. We all loved Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. My youngest daughter adored repeated readings of Gillian Cross’ retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, illustrated by Neil Packer.

You recently became a grandma? I’ve built up a fabulous library. I’d forgotten how babies are these little puddings at the beginning. You’re reading to them, and they’re not paying attention, but it’s a good discipline, you know?


Mary JacksonMary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.

@mbjackson77

https://wng.org/articles/reading-to-your-kids-is-time-well-spent-1645423312

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Why You Should Re-Read Paradise Lost

Milton’s Paradise Lost is rarely read today. But this epic poem, at over 350 years old, remains a work of unparalleled imaginative genius that shapes English literature even now.

In more than 10,000 lines of blank verse, it tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden. Its dozen sections are an ambitious attempt to comprehend the loss of paradise – from the perspectives of the fallen angel Satan and of man, fallen from grace. Even to readers in a secular age, the poem is a powerful meditation on rebellion, longing and the desire for redemption.

Despite being born into prosperity, Milton’s worldview was forged by personal and political struggle. A committed republican, he rose to public prominence in the ferment of England’s bloody civil war: two months after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Milton became a diplomat for the new republic, with the title of Secretary for Foreign Tongues. (He wrote poetry in English, Greek, Latin and Italian, prose in Dutch, German, French and Spanish, and read Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac).

Milton gained a reputation in Europe for his erudition and rhetorical prowess in defence of England’s radical new regime; at home he came to be regarded as a prolific advocate for the Commonwealth cause. But his deteriorating eyesight limited his diplomatic travels. By 1654, Milton was completely blind. For the final 20 years of his life, he would dictate his poetry, letters and polemical tracts to a series of amanuenses – his daughters, friends and fellow poets.

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Milton is shown dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters in this engraving after a painting by Michael Munkacsy. Credit: Alamy.

In Paradise Lost, Milton draws on the classical Greek tradition to conjure the spirits of blind prophets. He invokes Homer, author of the first great epics in Western literature, and Tiresias, the oracle of Thebes who sees in his mind’s eye what the physical eye cannot. As the philosopher Descartes wrote during Milton’s lifetime, “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye”. William Blake, the most brilliant interpreter of Milton, later wrote of how “the Eye of Imagination” saw beyond the narrow confines of “Single vision”, creating works that outlasted “mortal vegetated Eyes”.

Clever Devil

When Milton began Paradise Lost in 1658, he was in mourning. It was a year of public and private grief, marked by the deaths of his second wife, memorialised in his beautiful Sonnet 23, and of England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, which precipitated the gradual disintegration of the republic. Paradise Lost is an attempt to make sense of a fallen world: to “justify the ways of God to men”, and no doubt to Milton himself.

Milton’s religious lexicon – which sought to explain a ‘fallen’ world – itself has fallen from use

But these biographical aspects should not downplay the centrality of theology to the poem. As the critic Christopher Ricks wrote of Paradise Lost, “Art for art’s sake? Art for God’s sake”. One reason why Milton is read less now is that his religious lexicon – which sought to explain a ‘fallen’ world – itself has fallen from use. Milton the Puritan spent his life engaged in theological disputation on subjects as diverse as toleration, divorce and salvation.

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John Martin’s 1825 painting depicts Pandemonium, the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. Credit: Alamy.

The poem begins with Satan, the “Traitor Angel”, cast into hell after rebelling against his creator, God. Refusing to submit to what he calls “the Tyranny of Heaven”, Satan seeks revenge by tempting into sin God’s precious creation: man. Milton gives a vivid account of “Man’s First Disobedience” before offering a guide to salvation.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven – Milton

Ricks notes that Paradise Lost is “a fierce argument about God’s justice” and that Milton’s God has been deemed inflexible and cruel. By contrast, Satan has a dark charisma (“he pleased the ear”) and a revolutionary demand for self-determination. His speech is peppered with the language of democratic governance (“free choice”, “full consent”, “the popular vote”) – and he famously declares, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”. Satan rejects God’s “splendid vassalage”, seeking to live:

Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile Pomp.

Nonconformist, anti-establishment writers such as Percy Shelley found a kindred spirit in this depiction of Satan (“Milton’s Devil as a moral being is… far superior to his God”, he wrote). Famously, William Blake, who contested the very idea of the Fall, remarked that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.

Milton was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it – William Blake

Like Cromwell, Milton believed his mission was to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. While he loathed the concept of the ‘divine right of kings’, Milton was willing to submit himself to God in the belief, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, that “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”.

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William Blake, who called Milton ‘a true Poet’, produced several sets of illustrations for Paradise Lost in the early 19th Century. Credit: Alamy.

Although discussion of Paradise Lost often is dominated by political and theological arguments, the poem also contains a tender celebration of love. In Milton’s version, Eve surrenders to temptation in part to be closer to Adam, “the more to draw his love”. She wishes for the freedom to err (“What is faith, love, virtue unassayed?”). When she does succumb, Adam chooses to join her: “to lose thee were to lose myself”, he says:

How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.

Canon Fodder

When Paradise Lost was published in London in 1667, Milton had fallen out of favour. Just months before the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in May 1660, he had published a pamphlet denouncing kingship. Now Milton was scorned, his writings were burned, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London – only narrowly escaping execution after the intercession of a fellow poet, Andrew Marvell.

Yet Paradise Lost gained immediate acclaim even among royalists. The poet laureate John Dryden reworked Milton’s epic, casting Cromwell – a regicide with dictatorial tendencies – in the role of Satan. Samuel Johnson ranked Paradise Lost among the highest “productions of the human mind”.

Milton’s style was suggestive and free from what he called ‘the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’

Romantic writers celebrated Milton both for his stance against censorship (“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”, Milton wrote in the pamphlet Areopagitica), and for his innovative poetic form, which was suggestive, allusive and free from what he called “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming”. Paradise Lost inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Wordsworth began his famous sonnet London, 1802 with a plea: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee”.

But not all critics were so favourable. The 20th Century brought us the ‘Milton Controversy’, during which his legacy was fiercely contested. His detractors included poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound (who wrote that “Milton is the worst sort of poison”), while support came from both devout Christians (like CS Lewis) and atheists (including William Empson, for whom “The reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”). Malcolm X read Paradise Lost in prison, sympathising with Satan, while AE Housman quipped that “malt does more than Milton can / To reconcile God’s ways to man”.

No one, not even Shakespeare, surpasses Milton in his command of the sound, the music, the weight and taste and texture of English words – Philip Pullman

In recent years, Paradise Lost has found new admirers. Milton is “our greatest public poet”, says author Philip Pullman, whose acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials was inspired by the poem (and takes its title from Book II, line 916). Pullman loves Milton’s audacity – his declaration that he will create “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme” – and his musicality: “No one, not even Shakespeare, surpasses Milton in his command of the sound, the music, the weight and taste and texture of English words”. Pullman has declared: “I am of the Devil’s party and know it”.

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Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials takes its name from Paradise Lost; the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, was turned into a movie in 2007. Credit: Alamy.

Milton’s enemies regarded his blindness as divine retribution, but his condition enhanced his acute musical sensibility. Pullman is enchanted by the poem’s “incantatory quality”, and implores readers to experience it aurally: “Rolling swells and peels of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies… that very form casts a spell”. Paradise Lost makes an excellent audio book.

It is said that Milton had fevered dreams during the writing of Paradise Lost and would wake with whole passages formulated in his mind. The first time I read the poem, I did so in a single sitting, overnight – like Jacob wrestling with the Angel until morning. Each re-reading brings intoxication, exhilaration and exhaustion, and vindicates Milton’s observation: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

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