Listen!

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I somehow missed the newsflash that a World Read Aloud Day takes place on the first Wednesday of every March. I like the idea of that.

My mom read out loud to us all the time as kids: from picture books on through to adult books. Our venue of choice was my parents’ king-sized bed, which for a long time fit all four kids plus my mom. When I read to my own kids I cross my fingers that I can somehow channel her: she is a great reader. (Another less cherished but also beloved voice of my childhood was Bill Cosby’s. My memory would have it that we listened to his stand up sketches every Saturday morning on the car radio, en route to swim lessons at the Y: Noah: Right!, Driving in San Francisco, etc.)

These days my family listens to recorded audio books too. Among our all-time favorites are E.B. White reading Charlotte’s Web, and David Hyde Pierce reading The Phantom Tollbooth. Adult audiobooks and podcasts often buoy me through some of the more tedious parts of my days too: driving distances, or folding laundry, or doing boring exercises.

What is it about hearing a story read aloud, well? In an interview with J. B. Powell of The Rumpus, T.C. Boyle says “I don’t call it reading, I call it performance. Of course, I have many enemies and they all think I’m being highfalutin calling it performance, but the word “reading” has a connotation of something academic with the lights on and you’re going to get a lecture. I’m looking to blow my audiences away by giving a fine, dramatic performance and reminding them of why they love stories.”

Even lap reading with younger kids, isn’t it about the same thing? Drawing a listener in — mind, body and everything else — to some other world and reality? The best readers really do perform with their voices — and sometimes more — rather than simply read. And the best books give them a great framework for doing that.

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As a silent-reader and as a listener I have this horrible habit of deferring gratification and not finishing novels when I really, really love them. (Would that I could cultivate the same behavior around good chocolate — or even not so good chocolate.) I’m halfway through listening to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto right now, and my delay tactic for it has been to search out interviews with great storytellers and writers to listen to instead. Terry Gross’s final interview with Maurice Sendak in 2011, “On Life, Death and Children’s Lit“, makes me weep every time I listen to it. The segment NPR/Fresh Air ran after Sendak died is great too, “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak“. I listened to the 2011 interview again the other night, and in it Sendak says about a favorite line in his book, Bumble-ardy, “And when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me — which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean.”

Last week I also came across another author interview that was completely new to me. Minnesota Public Radio seems to have special access to Kate DiCamillo since she is a twin cities local. In September 2013, right after Flora and Ulysses was nominated for the National Book Award, Cathy Wurzer interviewed DiCamillo on stage in front of a theater audience for a whopping hour and ten minutes. The interview touches on all the important stuff: libraries, reading out loud, moms, death. As importantly, it is peppered with DiCamillo’s wild, boundless and beautiful laugh (and occasional snort).

In describing Flora’s — the human protagonist’s — experience of giving mouth-to-mouth to Ulysses, a squirrel, DiCamillo writes “It tasted funny. If forced to describe it she would say that it tasted exactly like squirrel: fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty.” Wurzer segues from chuckling about the line, and the book’s humor, with an observation that the book also, “…has themes of loss, abandonment, death — kind of heavy stuff.” She asks, “What do you keep in mind when considering these themes for kids?” DiCamillo answers, “Its surprising to me that they’re in there, but they’re in everything that I do.” Then, quoting writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas, she continues: “‘You write behind your own back’, and so all that stuff is happening and I don’t know that that’s going in there but [what] I do know, to get around to the ‘what’s it doing in a children’s book’ question, is that children are human beings, and so they’re going to experience all those things, and its nice to have a book that admits that all those things are true — in addition to squirrels tasting funny.”

DiCamillo converges with Sendak both in her belief that children oughtn’t be overly protected or condescended to and, also, in this idea that in the process of writing “Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean”, “you write behind your own back”, ” we leave ourselves clues.” I return to this phenomenon, in wonder, again and again and again. The emergence of seedlings in my garden or the geometries of snowflakes as they reveal themselves under a magnifying glass have the same effect: somehow they are always new and amazing. Of course, to recognize those moments in writing — to be able to see what we’ve wrought, to recognize the power there, and to teach ourselves things that we didn’t know we already knew — demands that we have eyes and ears open, and that we are looking and listening with our whole selves. Like kids listening to a great reader reading a great book.

2 comments

  1. Anna, what a lovely post. My mom read to us until the moment we pointed out that she was skipping lines! But I do still read to my kids who are quite capable of reading to themselves and we love a good audio book. We have an EB White recording too. His voice makes you feel like you are sitting in a cozy lap. Have you heard Mr. Chicky’s Funny Money? It’s hilarious. I will look for The Phantom Tollbooth and for the interviews you mention. I have also taken to listening to Selected Shorts as I drive in small circles from home to school to soccer to violin to home. The almost make my car feel cozy.

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