I Love it When You Read to Me*

Small ReadersAs I post this, it’s World Book Day. It’s a time to celebrate the joy of books and reading and (at least for me) particularly, a day to share that joy with children. All of the research I know anything about suggests strongly that children who grow up in a print-rich environment are more likely to become lifelong readers themselves. And that makes sense.

Of course, I’m sure I don’t have to convince you of the value of reading with children and pre-teens. You probably do that already if you have children and/or grandchildren. And I’ll bet you remember what it was like to be introduced to reading when you were young.

There are of course many timeless books out there, and lots of them are mysteries. I’ll just mention Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as one example. This story of a supposed family curse and the way Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve a puzzling set of mysteries and murder has been immensely popular with readers for more than a hundred years. There’s one major challenge with such books, though: they sometimes contain language that young readers find very difficult. There’s nothing wrong with children being a bit challenged when they read. In fact, research suggests that reading something that makes you think actually improves reading skills. But that said, some passages of those great novels we’ve loved can be demanding. Here’s just one example from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘…several people had seen a creature upon the moor which corresponds with this Baskerville demon, and which could not possibly be any animal known to science. They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral. I have cross-examined these men, one of them a hard-headed countryman, one a farrier, and one a moorland farmer, who all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition…’ 

Even a motivated young reader might not know several of these words, and that can be discouraging.

Some publishers have addressed this issue by rewriting some of the classics in easier and more modern language, so that young readers can more easily immerse themselves in the story. Here, for example, is the same passage with more updated and simplified language (This is from Oxford University Press’ Oxford Bookworm series):

‘Several people have seen an animal on the moor that looks like an enormous hound. They all agree that it was a huge creature, which shone with a strange light like a ghost. I have questioned these’ people carefully. They are all sensible people. They all tell the same story. Although they have only seen the creature far away, it is exactly like the hell-hound of the Baskerville story.’ 

As you can see, the message is virtually the same (although we could debate about whether it really is the same!), but the language is simplified.

There are other publishers who’ve adapted this story (and others) as graphic novels, again with the goal of introducing young readers to Conan Doyle’s work without the barrier of difficult or outdated language. There’s even one publisher, Hicklebee’s, which has adapted some of this novel as a picture book with one or two words on each page, to help the youngest readers learn how words correspond with sounds. One page, for instance, says Gates, and includes a simple illustration of an old gate. The next page has the word Screech. You can well imagine how appealing this adaptation was for me when I was looking for a book to read with the youngest reader in my family…

There are many other examples of books, such as this one, that have been adapted with different, more contemporary language, or with easier synonyms. Some people argue that any time one changes the language of a story, one also changes the message. And there’s truth to that. There are subtle shades of meaning that really can be lost if words are changed. That’s why, for instance, translation can be a challenge.

Others argue though that the whole point of adaptations for young readers is introducing them to the joy of books. Stories that are written in clear, simple language are more likely to attract young readers, who will then develop reading fluency and (more importantly) interest in reading.

What do you think about adapting classics such as The Hound of the Baskervilles for young readers? If you have children or grandchildren, do you read adapted stories with them? Do they read them?

One final point is in order here, I think. We can debate about adapting books. There’s a lot of rich ‘food for thought’ there. But one thing seems certain. The more we read to and with children, the more likely they are to become lifelong readers themselves. And in case you were wondering, those benefits start pretty much from birth. So even parents of the very youngest infants are helping their newborns ‘hook into’ reading when they read aloud. What’s more, reading together gives young people a reading role model, and that’s extremely valuable. And reading together helps cement family bonds. But I probably don’t have to convince you of that.

So today, I invite you to share your love of reading with young readers. There are lots of ways to do that, even if you don’t have children or grandchildren. I’d love to hear your ‘reading together’ stories.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Book of Love.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle

27 responses to “I Love it When You Read to Me*

  1. I’ve always loved reading aloud – in fact, when I was a child, I must have bored my mother to tears because I wanted to read out loud to her, rather than have her reading to me (once I was able to read). And not just at bedtime.
    I’ve really enjoyed bedtime reading with my children – although they didn’t quite understand my passion for Swallows and Amazons – or reading in French together when we first moved to France and they weren’t that good with the language yet. But, sadly, now they want to read on their own, and I really miss those days…

    • Marina Sofia – There really is something special about reading with children, isn’t there? I’m convinced that those times help to form the clue that keeps families together, and I’ll bet your sons will remember those times fondly. And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll find copies of Swallows and Amazon and read it with their children.
      I love the mental image of you reading aloud to your mother. I can just imagine it…

  2. My nieces have read several classics in abridged form, but they know they are the kids version (sic) and I think look forward to graduating 🙂 I used to read Roald Dahl to them, a huge love of theirs for ages.

    • Oh, Roald Dahl’s work is great, Sergio. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a classic, and Dahl wrote some good crime stories too. And I’d imagine with a bibliophile uncle, your nieces will be ready for the ‘real’ classics in no time. 🙂

  3. I must admit simplified language versions of classics for kids make my skin crawl! I’d rather they read books specifically written in language they understand and ‘grow’ into the more difficult books when they’re ready. But that’s because I think the language of books is the crucial bit – stories can be got in any form – movies, TV etc – but language comes into its own in books.

    When we were kids – four of us – it was still the done thing for the whole family including parents to congregate in one room of an evening, so any time one of us came across a word we didn’t understand we just said ‘What’s a farrier?’ and someone told us, or our parents helped us to look it up in the dictionary. That way we all learned. I think reading has perhaps become a more solitary pursuit over the years. But e-readers with built-in dictionaries are probably great for kids – even I love the ability to find the meaning of a word with a single tap…

    • FictionFan – I like that feature of e-readers too. More than once I’ve been glad to look up a name, a word, a date, etc. to get a better understanding of what I’m reading. And I’m sure you’re right that it’s easier for kids to learn words too.
      You make an interesting point about reading being more solitary these days than it was. I don’t have the data but I see why you make your point. I think family gathering together like that is more unusual than it was, and I’d suppose that includes reading together. I wonder what that says about us as a society. But perhaps that’s the stuff of another post…
      You’re by no means the only one who thinks that the language of books (including classics) should be left as is. As you say, language is the heart of a story. When words are changed, the story changes. Authors often choose their words for a reason, and that message can very easily get changed if words do. It’s difficult because there are also those who say that kids will be more interested in the classics if they can understand them more easily. But then, as you say, does that really make it the same story?

  4. Col

    I did enjoy reading to my children when they were younger, I think it helped relax me as well! I sent myself to sleep more than once

    • Col – You’ve got a good point, actually. Reading with children really is relaxing, and I think it helps build family bonds, too. And that’s conducive to peace as well.

  5. I don’t believe that the books should be simplified for younger readers, there are plenty of other books that they can read while they build their vocabulary and often the messages in these books are intended for older readers. People forget that reading isn’t just about understanding the words at a basic level it also requires some understanding of the world around us, that only comes with age. I hate with a passion reading ages because this just relates to the words themselves. This is from a young reader who read ‘above their age’ but now realises that these stories had a lot more to offer than my narrow existence could comprehend at that time.

    • Cleo – You bring up a really important point. Usually reading levels are based on length of word and sentence (and sometimes, perceived difficulty of the word, i.e. it’s not a common word). But that doesn’t really capture the nuances of understanding and levels of understanding that are needed to read certain things. I can think of plenty of books that have ‘easy’ words and simple paragraph structure, but are not appropriate for young children.
      And you’re not alone in your belief that children may not be ready for the messages that a book has, even if they can understand the words. It’s definitely something to keep in mind as we work with children to choose books.

  6. My husband and I both read aloud to my son, and I agree it is very important. He was a late reader but always … even before he was one years old, would page carefully through books. He grew up into an avid reader and can read two or three times as many books a week as I do.

    I do not agree with adapting books for younger readers, there are plenty of other ways to pull children into reading.

    • Tracy – It’s interesting the consensus among those of you kind enough to comment on this post; you all seem to agree that adaptations of the classics aren’t a good idea. People see this issue in different ways, and it’s not without complexity. But I find it fascinating that so many of you would rather not have those classics adapted. You do make a point too that there are many ways to invite children to love reading.
      One of them is, as you say, reading to/with them. You make such a good point that even if a child doesn’t seem to be an avid reader early in life, reading together is important. You never know the impact it’ll have later.

  7. Kathy D.

    iI love to read children’s books to young readers, and help them get interested in reading. I loved reading to my younger sister, and now to neighbors’ children.
    When that’s not possible, I do buy the young ones around me books for
    holidays, and they like them. One four-year-old memorizes the words, as he can’t yet read.
    It’s not only fun for us, but they learn, and they also learn that books are always with them. They need never be bored at home nor on a vacaion. There is always something to do on a rainy/snowy day. And if one is
    mad at a best friend, take out a book and read it.

    • Kathy – I think it’s great that you have (and take!) opportunities to read to the children. The more that young people are exposed to books and reading and the joy of immersing oneself in a story, the more likely they are to be lifelong readers. And you’re right; books are always there, in so many ways…

  8. Good topic, Margot. I also am on the side of not simplifying. I don’t think it matters if a child doesn’t understand every word as long as they are gripped by the story. It’s good to be stretched. And there are so many children and YA books out there anyway.

    • Thanks, Christine. You’re quite right that there is a lot of good youth/YA fiction out there. And there’s definitely something important to be said for reading things that are challenging. As you say, it ‘stretches’ the reader. For exactly those kinds of reasons, there are plenty of people out there who feel exactly as you do about not simplifying classics.

  9. My immediate reaction is ‘no’ to simplification – but then I wonder if we should be more tolerant of it. If it brings people in to read… and then there’s the old question if you should take out eg racist epithets that were normal at the time (the Huck Finn question, you might call it). Going back to a recent topic of yours: if a book was being translated into another language, it could be silently simplified so that French or German young people could enjoy Holmes or Shakespeare easily. Is that so terrible?

    • Moira – The question of what, if anything, should be simplified isn’t really that easy when you think about it, is it? On the one hand, there are so many good reasons to leave the classics as they are. And children can ‘stretch’ and learn those new words, etc.. On the other hand, what about the issue of epithets (I’m thinking of the original title of Agatha Crhsitie’s And Then There Were None, for instance)? And yes, indeed, what about translations? Aren’t some things simplified at times? And it’s an interesting question what might happen if Shakespeare were translated in a simplified way so that German or Italian or French or… young readers could enjoy the work. Perhaps it’s one of those issues that defies a one-size-fits-all sort of answer.

  10. I have an abridged, moderately simplified, illustrated “Robinson Crusoe” that I read at least ten times growing up. Having since read the unabridged original I’m very thankful that a young-readers version was available, because oy.

    On another note, one of the few artifacts I still have from collegiate language studies is “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in French. 🙂

    • ChaCha1 – That’s the thing. There are some books that young readers would probably find difficult to read in their original form. For some young people, those abridged, simplified forms give them the chance to enjoy a story and later, come back to in its original form. That’s one of the arguments that people make who like simplified stories to be available.
      I think it’s great that you have a French version of Hound of the Baskervilles. I’ll admit to not having read it in French; I wonder how close it is to the original.

  11. Kathy D.

    Well, I may differ on the question of eliminating racist and misogynistic epithets. I was turned off as a teenager when I read a known book about an Irish family, which used racist words — and I was so turned off. And then I read a noted British author who wrote descriptions of Jews and immigrants that turned me off.
    Although many people like the original Huckleberry Finn, many people here oppose its use of racist words — especially for young people of color. A noted author here wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times and mentioned that she was driving a 14-year-old African-American with her, and she said she was encouraging him to read — and that if he read/heard a book with 121 racist epithets in it, it would turn him off from reading.
    Other African-American academics were opposed to putting those words back in the book as it would cause harm to self-esteem and self-confidence to teens from African-American and other people of color communities.
    So, there is a lot to think about it and it’s not an open and shut case.
    I remember years ago reading a news story about a book being discussed in the South which had racist terms in it. The sole Black child was put out in the hallway while the class discussed it. Huh? How did that child feel?
    And a teacher wrote a letter to a major NY newspaper about this issue, and said that many teachers don’t know how to teach these books properly, where they discuss these terms correctly, criticize these terms and include all students in a constructive discussion.
    So, this is not a simple issue, and I think all communities and ages of people need to has this out, especially those impacted the most.
    And also referring to Christie’s infamous book title, it was the publisher who changed the title decades ago, recognizing how inflammatory and insulting it was to much of the U.S. population.

    • Kathy – You bring up some of the most important questions that arise when we talk about changing stories. Many GA/classic novels have those terms and expressions that we would consider offensive today. And you have a very well-taken point: a child being made to leave the room during the discussion of a book is not inclusive. The question of how we should deal with racist/sexist/-ist language is not an easy one, as you show here. On the one hand, children arguable benefit rom being a bit challenged by new words, etc. On the other, some classics do have those ‘-isms’ in them. Is that right? As you say, this is most definitely not an ‘open-and-shut-case.’

  12. Kathy D.

    Correction: fourth line from bottom “has” should be “hash.”

  13. Kathy D.

    P.S. To show how this is done correctly, PBS ran a TV show with 13-year-olds in a classroom, a multinational group, discussing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They were so insightful, deep-thinking and knowledgeable about the book’s setting in location and time period. I learned a lot from them!
    The teacher had done a great job and the children benefitted and had their own opinions and contributions to the discussion.

  14. Kathy D.

    This is author Lorrie Moore’s NY Times Op-Ed about putting certain words back into Huckleberry Finn, especially if youth of color are going to read them and why that is not a good idea. A lot of food for thought in this.

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