On Tuesday, I was in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris at the splendid exhibition ‘Babar, Harry Potter et Cie: Livres d’enfants, hier et aujourd’hui’. In one corner a mother was reading to her two children from one of the books left out for sharing. It was Max et les Maximonstres (Where the Wild Things Are). Her intonation was as instantly recognisable as the words – is there really only one way to read that story? She paused where I would pause; her voice rose where mine would; took on a clipped, admonishing tone when Max is sent to bed without any supper, and slowed to trace the wonderful dance of monsters across the page.
A familiar story must always be told in exactly the same way, with the same tone of voice, expression, sound effects, intonation, and pace - children demand it. (Why is there no word for the recipient of reading aloud? Why is there no single word for 'reading aloud'? Does this paucity of the language demonstrate how little we value the activity?) Writing for small children, I always read the text aloud and try to herd the words, sheepdog-style, into the right shape for reading aloud. But it was quite astonishing to find Max read in exactly the same way when the words are different. What a fantastic translator to have accomplished that.
Stories read aloud remain as treasures hoarded in the memory. My Big Daughter is nearly 18, but we can still call up a book from a single phrase, with familiar intonation, that we shared many times years ago. It’s like calling up spirits from the vasty deep – and a frisson of the pleasure of the book can be relived in a moment. She will hate me revealing this, but she only gave up the nightly reading-aloud routine when GCSE revision kept her up later than me. By the end, we were reading Tolstoy, Boccaccio, Voltaire, Fitzgerald, Waugh… and then she took up those authors herself to discover more. We read the whole of LOTR (we did skip the bits in Elvish) and the whole Sherlock Holmes collection (except the one in which he dies, which she couldn’t bear) - those took 18 months each. I still occasionally read to her, especially if she is ill.
She hated GCSE English Literature passionately, which surely demonstrates the massive divide between the education system and creating readers, for she reads anything from picture books to Sartre. She can be reduced to howls of anguish by Small Daughter saying ‘The egg was young…’ (Egg Drop, Minnie Grey) or ‘Je déteste mon bec, je déteste le jaune…’ (Le Toucan Jaloux, Bénédicte Guettier). Surely this is what a reader is, rather than someone who can take a book apart but remain unmoved by it?
I wish I could see step into the future to see what type of readers the two French children from BnF will become. Surely, having been taken to the exhibition at all, they are in the best possible starting position? One of the saddest moments in Michael Rosen's programme Just Read was the little girl Lauren who said she was too big to be read to. No-one is too big to be read to - not even me.