“Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom, but reading is still the path.” – Carl Sagan
Today – February 24 – is World Read Aloud Day, a day that commemorates the value of literacy and sharing story with children. Many children’s book authors are even taking to Skype to share their stories around the world.
Some of my most precious parenting memories include read-alouds with my child. Hours upon hours of story. Even after my son could easily read, we continued many years of sharing stories. Challenging books that made us think as well as feel. Stories filled with friendship and of worlds both here and beyond our own.
Kate DiCamillo, award-winning author and the 2014-2015 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature writes:
“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.”
Stories are indeed LIGHT. In a world where there exist stark dichotomies of lightness and darkness, wealth and poverty, fairness and unfairness, there is a desperate need for the power of story. Through story, children may discover their first safe paths to understanding their world as well as themselves. Through stories about delight as well as loss, illness and superpowers, loneliness and love, and the challenges of race and gender identity, children find kinship with others. Sometimes even those books designated a “banned books” offer much to children seeking answers for questions already on their minds.
What child cannot feel the magic in the words of Christopher Robin in A.A. Milne’s book House at Pooh Corner, when he says to Winnie the Pooh,
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
And what better way to speak to children than through the words of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series, who says,
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
From the sponsors of World Read Aloud Day it states:
“World Read Aloud Day motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words and creates a community of readers taking action to show the world that the right to literacy belongs to all people.”
Literacy and reading do belong to ALL people. But in the U.S. alone, 44 million parents cannot read well enough to read a book to their child. And literacy isn’t the only issue. Not all people have the benefit of access to books. Here in the U.S., almost a quarter of all children live in poverty – that’s 16 million children. Many poor communities lack libraries. 61% of low-incomes homes with children do not own a children’s book.
Reach-Out-and-Read and First Book are but two organizations actively working to get books into the hands of children. Many doctor’s offices already provide free books with every appointment. Libraries, where they are available, offer regular children’s read-alouds.
If print books are not always accessible, finding ways to reach children through online books is another possibility. Reading Rainbow has been at the forefront of this literacy endeavor. Many free online Youtube videos are also available, sometimes with authors reading aloud their own stories. There are also several websites, including Storyline Online and the Indianapolis Public Library, which offer many free online video read-alouds.
But we also need to address the electronic divide where 30-50% of low-income families with children ages 0-18 years lack high-speed internet access in their homes. More and more schools require the use of the internet in their assignments, making it difficult for many children to ever compete on a level playing field, let alone participate in the enormous joy of books.
It must also be noted that reading aloud to children may not be as widespread as one would hope. In a previous blog I cited studies showing that only 13% of parents read nightly to their children, and a third of parents may be more motivated by guilt than by a love for reading aloud.
One bright light in all this is that many cultures both here and around the world still practice oral storytelling traditions. This is another beautiful way to share, entertain, and bring communities together through the power of story.
Stories certainly may not solve all the troubles of the world, but stories can offer hope, commonality, education, and inspiration. That can be just the motivating spark a child needs in life. Stories can also cultivate wonder. Just as the grasshopper said to James in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach,
“My dear young fellow,” the Old-Green-Grasshopper said gently, “there are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.”
Celebrate World Read Aloud Day today…but not just today. Make World Read Aloud a daily event. Share your books. Share your time. Share your own family stories. Provide children with tools to help them discover the stories that they will someday share with their own families. Provide them a world, as Carl Sagan said, with a path towards freedom.
To help you begin, listen to the incomparable Eric Carle as he reads his classic picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
And then listen to a narration by John Kelin of the beloved Maurice Sendak’s memorable Where The Wild Things Are.