One of the rather obvious things that happens when you acquire a well-earned reputation as a reader is that you are asked to read to others. This happened to me rather recently when I was visiting some friends who had invited me over to their place, as it often does, when little ones want the talkative person in their midst who can read books quickly to read something to them. And so I do, and as is often the way these things go, I think about the books I read to them, and probably get as much meaning out of it as the children themselves.
It is commonly thought that children’s books are beneath the attention of adults, but that is definitely not the case. The more one is skilled at reading, the more meaning one can get out of works. It is the case for me personally that I cannot read even the most basic children’s book without thinking of the nature of children’s books in general and that is the heavy didactic approach that people take when writing books to children. This is often intense enough of a focus that sometimes learning becomes more than just context/subtext but part of the actual text of the book, as happened in both of the books that I was asked to read in my recent visit. This struck me as interesting, because who was supposed to learn and what they were learning was interesting in both cases.
I was asked to read two books, as I mentioned, and both of them were striking in their approach. The first book was a fairly recent book that featured one small children teaching a still smaller child that may have been younger than two years (she was not very vocal yet) about how to respond to the threat of child molesters by screaming out and by avoiding secretive places. This is by no means bad advice, but having one small child teach another, in a rather child appropriate way, how to be a less attractive target for abusers was a rather striking topic to be asked to read about. The other book, older than I am as it was published in the 1970’s, was interesting in a different way, with a boy having an interest in having a doll that is viewed initially by the boy’s older brother, neighbor, and father (no mention is made of the mother, strangely enough) as being unmanly, but is framed by a beloved grandmother as being preparation for being a loving and nurturing father.
What is it that a child gets out of books like this? I know that when I read such books I am led to ponder about rather serious and dark subjects relating to masculinity and the care and protection of children as well as the difficulty that children have in communicating themselves to others and the dangers that children face from those who do not have their best interests at heart. It is harder to know what it is that a child is getting at when requesting a book. Does the child find it funny that a boy would like a doll to nurture as if taking care of a child? I have certainly known boys with a tender and nurturing nature towards little people that continues long after it becomes a subject of curiosity and suspicion among others, after all. Did the book about learning how to scream and avoid secret places with untrustworthy people strike interest because it encouraged a child to scream, something they might enjoy doing anyway? It is hard to know what elements of a work are appealing to different people who bring different perspectives and experiences and approaches to a given text.
What does someone want to communicate when they ask to be read to? Are they interested in hearing how a favorite book sounds coming from a skilled reader? Is it the excitement and drama of someone reading to them that is appealing? Is there something about the content that they are trying to secure in their mind, be it as simple as some superficial detail or something deeper about the book and its subject matter, perhaps the need to protect oneself or the desire to communicate something to uncomprehending people around? Is there something the reading from someone else provides that reading it for oneself does not provide in terms of understanding the tone that a given text has, or an understanding of the reader? How many layers are in play when one gets a request to read something to someone?