My motives for starting our family's tradition of reading in the car were purely selfish: I could not bear the thought of listening to "A Sesame Street Christmas" for another 10 hours. My children had latched onto this cassette on our previous summer's road trip, and Oscar the Grouch's rendition of "I Hate Christmas" ran through my mind for days afterward.
As I began to gather toys and trinkets to entertain my three young children on our next 500-mile car trip, I came across a book I had purchased but never opened, Jim Trelease's "The Read Aloud Handbook." Before long, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, engrossed in his book and assertion that reading aloud doesn't need to end with picture books and that very young children will listen to chapter books.
This could be the answer to my problem, I thought. Dubious but desperate, I tucked a paperback copy of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" into my trip entertainment bag. Mr. Trelease calls Dahl's classic his favorite read-aloud book. We had barely cleared the city limits when whining set in. I opened the paperback and began to read aloud the tale of the orphaned boy who escapes his wicked aunts by hiding inside a giant peach.
My 2-year-old, 5-year-old, and 7-year-old squirmed and wrestled in their seats, but soon they settled into the rhythm of the words and began to listen.
My extended family lives 489 miles away, and our favorite vacation spot is about 700 miles from our home. We soon learned that the simple pleasure of listening to a well-written book makes the long miles pass more quickly.
For my family, selecting a book to read aloud is now as important a part of preparing for a road trip as packing the cooler. We read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" while traveling through Missouri and Iowa on the way to a family reunion. Some of us were glad to be traveling in an air-conditioned car and others wished for the adventure of traveling by covered wagon surrounded by tallgrass prairie.
While engrossed in Gary Paulsen's "Canyon," the story of a troubled teenage boy who discovers an ancient Indian skull on a camping trip, we became lost in the New Mexico desert. And we weren't so quick to brush away spider webs after reading about the unlikely friendship of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider in E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web."
Sometimes the books we read became highlights of the trip. I read Wilson Rawls's "Summer of the Monkeys" as we spent two days driving to the beach. We arrived just behind the power crews restoring electricity after a tropical storm. The rain lingered most of the week, and the beach was covered with oily tar washed up by the storm.
When we returned home, I asked my son what he liked about the trip. He answered without hesitation, "The book you read in the car."
Reading chapter books in the car is like quizzing a child on spelling words while she soaks in the bathtub. The audience is captive. They can't wander off or flip on the television as they would at home. Instead, they listen and gaze out the car windows until their imaginations take over. They see Harry Potter's magical world without special effects. They look at action figures differently after listening to "The Indian in the Cupboard" by Lynne Reid Banks, the story of a feisty toy Indian that comes to life.
A fringe benefit? At young ages they learned what every reader knows: The book is always better than the movie.
Road trips still offer challenges, even though my children now are teenagers. My son flings an arm across the imaginary line that defines my daughter's space. One teen likes to whistle, the other two dislike the sound of whistling. By the end of a trip, our car is like a moving bird feeder, filled with crumbs and sticky messes.
But we continue to read as we roll across the country. And I'm beginning to see that reading aloud has done more than help pass the time. For at least a little while, we are not isolated in our own electronic worlds. We laughed together at a gawky boy's antics in Robert McCloskey's "Homer Price." We knew Sterling North's pet raccoon belonged to the wild in "Rascal." But we still cried at the end.
And maybe we've started something that will pass on to the next generation.
I followed my son's car last fall as he drove to college to begin his freshman year. When it was time to say goodbye, he handed me a tape and asked, "Will you return this to the library for me?"
He had been listening to "James and the Giant Peach," the book that started our tradition years ago.