Reading to your kids is time well spent
Oral storytelling yields emotional, cognitive, and social benefits
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.
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.
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?