Monday, December 1, 2008

On "reading to" and "reading together"

I've been thinking a lot about a recent conversation regarding Sam McBratney's collection One Voice, Please: Favorite Read-Aloud Stories.

While the general feeling about the anthology was overwhelmingly positive, a few people around the table had concerns. McBratney provides no source texts for the stories, merely explains that he spent several years "collecting stories that have been told down the ages" with no mention of where he read (or, more likely, heard) them. Granted, these are intended as read-aloud stories (probably bedtime stories), not intended as research for a doctoral thesis, but it is appropriate to give some indication of source. Even a little thing like "My maternal grandmother Flossie used to tell this story while she made her famous lasagna" would be nice -- these stories have been "told down the ages," right? Let's hear a little about the folks who told them.

Another problem is the generic setting in time and place; few cultural markers identify the stories as belonging to any particular group of people. This simultaneously makes the tales feel more universal and less personal. Strangely, some distiguishing characteristics remain, but with little context for them, their inclusion can confuse things. "Lost While Fishing," featuring the "Wise Men of Gotham," made me think of Bruce Wayne fishing with Comissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent (pre-acid burn, of course).

My reaction to One Voice, Please is emotional, not critical. Despite the impressive collection of stories, and the elegant way in which they are told, I've had a sort of "urgh!" feeling about the collection since we received it because of the title. "One voice"? Aren't these "favorite read-aloud stories"? To me, a crucial part of re-reading favorite stories aloud is the chance for "listeners" to also be "readers," even if they aren't technically reading yet. How many two- or three-year-olds can recite Goodnight Moon, or Click Clack Moo, or any favorite picture book along with mom, dad, grandma, or babysitter every time it's read to them?

There are other opportunities for multiple voices in read-aloud sessions, too. Many parents read to their young children in the store, and lots of these read-alouds are dialogues. Whether the parent directs the child to details in the artwork to share the meaning of the story more fully, or the child coaches the parent on the appropriate tenor of a troll voice, or the child asks the inevitable "And then what happens?," there's more than just "one voice." And, personally, I like it that way.

But maybe I'm completely overanalyzing the collection's title and McBratney's explanation for it, which is actually a fairly throw-away comment in the author's note. What do you think -- should reading aloud be an adult-voice-only kinda deal, or does it allow for child participation as well? What have your own read-aloud experiences (as reader or listener) been like?

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