Author interview: Jim Trelease champions reading aloud to children

AT a time when more and more educators decry illiteracy in America, author Jim Trelease remains a staunch advocate of reading aloud as a way to stimulate children's interest in books. In the six years since Mr. Trelease self-published his 30-page pamphlet of recommended read-alouds, he has spoken to innumerable librarians, teachers, and parents. His book, ``The Read-Aloud Handbook'' (Penguin, $6.95), is in its second edition by a commercial publisher. Amazingly, the first edition was on the New York Times best-seller list for 19 weeks.

Trelease's unassuming, almost professorial presence belies his intense commitment to reading and literacy among children.

``What you really want is learning that lasts . . . a lifetime,'' he said in a recent interview with the Monitor. ``If you learn to love reading -- and it lasts a lifetime -- that is the most important thing the kid is ever going to learn in that classroom.

``What we make children love and desire is a whole lot more important than what we make them learn in the classroom. Because if a kid wants to learn, [if] he wants to read, [if] he wants to find out the answers, then he can teach himself.''

Trelease points to the many poignant stories included in his handbook of children whose lives have been changed because a parent or teacher has read to them.

``I think you read aloud to children for all the same reasons that you talk to children,'' he says. ``To inspire them, to guide them, motivate them, to stir their curiosity. Those are things that you can do talking to kids, but you can't whet a child's appetite to want to read by talking. You've got to read aloud to that child . . . ''

One example Trelease cites is that of a sixth-grade teacher assigned to a class of remedial students. As part of her curriculum, she began reading aloud. The students were insulted -- they could read themselves and did not want her reading to them. But she persisted. Soon the class was reminding her not to forget to read aloud.

The biggest breakthrough came later. One of the slowest readers in the class checked out the book the teacher was reading to the class and finished it himself. He came to school the next day and told the class how it ended. The teacher didn't care that the student gave away the ending. What mattered to her was that that book had been the key to open that boy's mind.

Trelease insists that with the steep competition from television, time for reading is often crowded out of children's lives. Those children who are read to by a parent or teacher are given an experience that will remain with them throughout their lifetime. Regular reading aloud, according to Trelease, will strengthen a child's reading, writing, and speaking skills, enriching the overall primary education process and laying the foundation for improved literacy skills.

Trelease, a former cartoonist for the Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, became an avid advocate of reading aloud when his daughter was a young child.

``I started to choose books that I was as much interested in as she was because of my art background,'' he says with a smile. ``I was picking Mercer Mayer books and Maurice Sendak books and Edward Ardizzone books because I loved the way they drew.'' Trelease was soon reading such books as ``Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel'' and ``The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' for the very first time.

He began buttonholing neighbors and relatives, asking them if they had read certain books to their children. If they hadn't, he would tell them, ``Well, you've got to read it!'' He would continue to pester them until the book had been read.

The second edition of his handbook has been updated with the many children's books published since 1982, while deleting those no longer in print (nearly 20 percent). Trelease also updated the reading and education statistics.

``There are some new trends in publishing and in the academic world that need to be noted -- some very hopeful signs,'' he says. ``And then there are some not-so-hopeful signs.''

One of the more important changes he notes is an increase in parental involvement in child-rearing. ``These are the people who were members of the first television generation. . . . `My Three Sons' replaced `The Three Bears' at night. And `I Dream of Jeannie' replaced `Aladdin and His Lamp.'

``Now they are looking at their own children and thinking, `There was something missing in my childhood, and I don't want it to happen to my kid.' ''

Another improvement Trelease notes is the number of publishers now producing affordable paperbacks, which encourages parents to build a home library. ``A couple of years ago [publishers] weren't thinking in those terms. [Today] lots of them are bringing books out simultaneously in hard cover and paperback. Paperback for the parent market, hard cover for the library market.''

Trelease remains concerned about educators who are uninformed about children's literature. Recently, he asked 13 elementary teachers, ``How many of you have ever read `Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day'? '' -- one of the most humorous children's books on the market.

``One out of 13 had read it. Now at first, I was a little embarrassed for the 12 who had not read it. But that embarrassment turned to indignation when I got to thinking about the thousands of children who had come through that school who had never been treated to Alexander.''

Trelease says one remedy is to require a children's literature course in teaching curriculums. Although many universities offer such courses, it is not necessary for teacher certification in all states.

Trelease also criticizes elementary schools for a lack of silent reading time. ``Most of the schools in the United States do not have sustained silent reading [SSR], and yet all of the studies done on it indicate that there is a powerful connection -- a significant connection -- between SSR and reading development and the improvement of reading.''

One of his more poignant examples of a need for free reading is the story of Jimmy, a sixth-grade student from a troubled home. Trelease had read to Jimmy's class from ``Where the Sidewalk Ends,'' by well-known children's author Shel Silverstein.

``The teacher told me that when I left . . . Jimmy came back into the room. He said, `That book that Mr. Trelease talked about, can I borrow that?' He wanted to read it every day. I made sure that he got a copy of his own.''

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