Last night my daughter and I set sail again with Lucky Jack Aubrey, wily captain in His Majesty’s Navy, harasser of Napoleon on the high seas. Now, wounded during Britain’s war of 1812 with the United States, he’s a prisoner aboard the USS Constitution, provoking a reader loyalty crisis. “Usually I cheer for Jack,” says my daughter, “but no way am I going to root against the Americans.”
In our year or two of reading Patrick O’Brian’s books, we’ve circled the globe with Aubrey and his surgeon friend Stephen Maturin. Last summer we took a few weeks of shore leave, with Jane Austen as guide, to eavesdrop on the delightful Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters in the English countryside.
All parents tinker with our own secret recipes for trying to raise children into kind, thoughtful, courageous young men and women. Here’s one of my favorite ingredients: Get your kids to read for pleasure. By both reading to them—for absolutely as long as you can swing it—and by sending a steady stream of enticing books their way, we help them to develop both empathy and imagination. Genius that he was, Jesus reeled off story after story for his listeners. No wonder the crowds would never leave him alone.
I’m not pushing pious narratives, the kind that rightly make kids roll their eyes. A good book gives them a new understanding of the world they inhabit. The lessons will take care of themselves. Curious George floods the house of the mysterious Man with the Yellow Hat; Peter Rabbit flouts his mother’s orders and nearly ends up as an entree. Unpleasant consequences ensue, but at last both arrive home to find forgiveness. Sound familiar? If your child is into comic books, note that Batman alone embodies enough themes to host his own theology conference one day.
Imagine throwing a party and inviting all the characters your children have met over the years. Some of our guests: the U.S. presidents, everyone on the Titanic, the kids from Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time, and Harry Potter and his mates. My husband would wave over the tobacco-squirting guys from the baseball stories he has read to our kids, and the family from Mildred D. Taylor’s riveting Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Yes, there are some villains and knaves among them (as in real life), but what a great group of people to grow up with.
Reading aloud to kids must be one of the greatest pleasures of parenting. Not only does it boost kids academically, but you and your children get to immerse yourselves in a common story, with all its suspense, humor, and attendant questions. (Like, what does it mean that Dumbledore was not perfect after all?) Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook (Penguin; trelease-on-reading.com) is a goldmine of advice and book suggestions. “When we teach a child to love something like reading,” writes Trelease, a Catholic, in an e-mail, “we give that child yet another avenue to travel on toward a higher purpose. With books we’re able to crawl into another soul’s skin and walk their walk, feel their guilt, explore their destiny, mourn their loss—all of the emotions in the human spectrum. Metaphorically speaking, one could say that books can be training wheels in our emotional lives, helping a young person stay upright.” And, he hastens to add, they’re free at the library and require neither batteries nor an Internet connection.
Lucky Jack Aubrey is languishing in a hospital on Beacon Hill, pointing his telescope out the window at the British ships blockading Boston harbor. Will he make his escape? Wouldn’t you like to know.
—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past three years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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