JIM SHULTZ: The joy of reading to children

Jim Shultz

As you read this, I am on my way to DeSales Catholic School to read aloud to my granddaughter Bella’s pre-kindergarten class. There are few joys in life as grand as reading aloud to a room full of 4-year-olds. Last week we had a rousing reading of Curious George. I even had a yellow hat to wear, a gift from my recent Kenan Center book event. So I literally was The Man in the Yellow Hat.

I have been reading aloud to young children like this for a very long time and in very different places. I began doing this three decades ago in San Francisco, when my oldest children were small. They went to a public elementary school that was wildly diverse, mixing together little ones who lived in housing projects, little ones who lived in upscale Victorians and immigrant children recently arrived from Central America, and our raucous readings of Dr. Seuss and others united them. This is the age when children have yet to pick up all the divisions between people that the adult world likes to impose.

When we lived in Bolivia I read aloud weekly to two very different groups of children. One was my youngest daughter’s class in the international school she attended. Every time I came, our readings were interrupted by the school principal making loud announcements over the small speaker hung high on the wall. One morning I pulled a chair over to the speaker, climbed up and peered in. I then confirmed the children’s suspicions that there really was a tiny Miss Paola hiding in the speaker, something they continued to believe for some time.

The other children I read to attended a small and primitive day care program in our rural neighborhood. For a long time the program operated in one of the teacher’s houses, surrounded by her chickens and stray cats. I knew that the books I brought and read were most likely the only ones these children ever saw, but they were nonetheless enthralled by the tales of an elephant with giant ears who was the only one who could hear the voices of tiny people.

As I shuttled back and forth between these two groups of children, all of them just 3, 4 and 5 years old, I could see how the gap between their futures was already being cemented by the stark differences in circumstance between them. It was the world itself in microcosm.

It is hard to pick the absolute best experience I have had as a reader in this way. There was the time I was invited to speak before a giant California State PTA convention and with two enormous Jumbotrons beside me, we had 5,000 people read aloud from Horton Hears a Who: “A person is a person no matter how small!” Another time, in Bolivia, I read Green Eggs and Ham to a class of third-graders, in various foreign accents, while standing on a desk. I tried to invent a rough translation of the book into Spanish, “Juan Ramon y Sus Huevos Verdes Con Jamon.”

But my favorite is still when my youngest daughter’s fifth-grade class put on a school-wide performance of Captain Underpants. We had spent the better part of second, third and fourth grade together reading the entire series. When the principal (the same one who lurked in a tiny speaker box on the wall) invited me to read aloud at a school-wide assembly, I asked her if we could do a play instead. She had no idea at all what she was getting into. When one of my daughter’s classmates bravely ran across the stage wearing only a pair of his father’s boxers and a billowing cape, the entire school lost it.

There is a secret to reading aloud to a group of children and keeping them engaged. It’s this: Try not to be a grown-up. Nothing captures the attention of 4-year-olds like an adult not acting like one. Happily, this is not a big stretch for me. When I read Caps for Sale, we all become the monkeys in the trees shaking our fists and stomping our legs. When we read Everyone Makes Poop, I ask them all if everyone in their family makes poop. Preschoolers love this. And when we read Green Eggs and Ham, we all yell together that we would not eat them in a boat, or with a goat, or in a house or with a mouse. I also like to come accompanied by my colorful Ernie puppet, even though he sometimes makes fun of my very large feet. Puppet humor, what are you going to do?

One of the things that we should want most for all our children, and grandchildren, is for them to fall in love with books. For 30 years I have tried to do my part, in rhyme, in costume, in ridiculous accents and voices. And I am grateful that DeSales has given me a chance to do that again here in Lockport with my granddaughter — even if it means I might talk about poop.

Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.

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