For two years, we lived as a family of six in a renovated barn while we built our house. Available living space was somewhat under 1200 square feet, with a chunk of that devoted to the Norwegian Artist’s office — at the time he was a telecommuting commercial illustrator. At night, we all slept together in the loft — four kids aged 2-10 in bunk beds; the Norwegian and I on a full-sized mattress set precariously atop a wooden bed frame that frequently buckled during the night, but only if one of us turned over.
Rain pelted merrily — and noisily — on the tin roof, and when the wind blew (which it did, violently, for the two winters we were there), the moaning was almost human. A wood stove kept us warm, and yes, we did have electric lights.
While it all sounds cozy and warm and comfy, it had its opposite moments, but 15 years later as I look back the primary thing I remember was our nightly story reading. Once it was dark, everyone bundled into their appropriate bed, I adjusted the ticky tacky light over our non-existent headboard, and I read aloud to the kids and the Norwegian. Appropriately, we enjoyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and while we were crowded and tired from working all day and building on our house in the evenings and the barn was messy and our bath tub was a big green plastic Christmas ornament storage box, we were grateful that insulation kept the wind from blowing snow onto our ceiling.
After the Little House series, we traveled to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and after that, we tackled Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is arguably not little kid fare, something that became obvious in the next to the last chapter when the seven-year-old asked, “Who is Mr. Darcy?” (That seven-year-old is now 22 and a confirmed Austenite; not only does she know who Mr. Darcy is and wishes she could meet a 21st century equivalent, she quotes extensively from Jane’s writings. She also knows that Jane’s last name is spelled with an “e” and not and “i.”)
Reading aloud is a timeless activity that is well worth exploring with your own family, especially, but not exclusively, if you homeschool. As a society, we get really tense about the whole concept of reading, focusing on Success by Six and pushing our children to perform by that age or less, convinced that the reason people read less and not as well these days is because they didn’t learn to do so early enough.
None of my kids learned to read until they were 7; one was 8 — as adults, all four of them read extensively, all the time, and wildly different things: The Son and Heir is the walking encyclopedia replete with information about penguins in Southern Australia and the warfare plans of the Battle of Hastings; Eldest Supreme, who can’t get enough of Elizabethan and Edwardian royal history, consults her brother when she, for some reason, needs to know the mating practices of Monarch butterflies.
But they all read — and they all remember, with fondness, the many many evenings that we explored the world of books together as a family. The beauty of reading to your children is that you can introduce them to really good literature that is beyond their own ability to tackle right now: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, despite its clear prose, is beyond the reading ability of the average 6-year-old, but well within his or her listening capacity. When you, as an adult, read to a child, you free him from the world of Green Eggs and Ham (which is a great book, by the way) and let him enter the wonderful, magical world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.
Even Beatrix Potter, associated as a children’s writer, is better with an adult in charge: “They implored him to exert himself,” is a line my four-year-old granddaughter can repeat, in tandem with me, from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. She doesn’t know what she’s saying, but she sure has fun saying it.
If you want your child to read, then read aloud to him. Show her the wonderful world of books, allow him to create images in his mind to match the words, explore brave new worlds together. I assure you that the memories you build will be fine, strong, beautiful, enduring ones.
Yes, we lived in a barn. This experience is one of the reasons that the
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