Bringing Harold Home: The Transformative Magic of Reading Aloud by Kara LaReau
In elementary school, during our weekly visit to the library, our librarian, Mrs. Vaughan, would read to us. (Yes, I still remember her name, even after forty-four years.) The first book I heard and saw her read was Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. I remember this because the experience changed me, and I’m pretty sure it affected just about everyone in my kindergarten class.
I’d started kindergarten a year early, when I was four, but I’d been reading on my own since I was three. I don’t know how it happened, since my mom wasn’t much of a reader, and while my father loved books, he didn’t spend much time sharing them with me. But I loved books, too, from an early age. I loved stories in general. Though until the moment that Mrs. Vaughan started reading Harold, books were things I’d mostly heard in my own head.
She didn’t just read the book; Mrs. Vaughan performed it. It came to life. When she finished and closed the book, it was as if we’d all witnessed a miracle. So when she put it back on the shelf and invited us all to pick our own books to check out that week, everyone made a beeline for Harold. I don’t remember who ended up getting the book to check out that first time, only that it wasn’t me. I do remember that for the rest of the year, I was very intent on finding my seat in the library before anyone else, because I wanted the chair closest to where Harold was shelved, so I could be the one to check out that magical copy. (I was not the only one who’d devised that strategy, so it was always a race to determine who would bring Harold home.)
I felt the same magic again in fourth grade; my teacher, Mrs. McPadden, would read out loud to us every day, and she had a real talent for it. Through her, I discovered Blubber and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume; How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson; and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. As you can tell by her book choices, Mrs. McPadden had a bit of a subversive streak. I still remember her performance of Blubber, and how she reveled in the moment when Jill and Tracy relieve themselves on Mr. Machinist’s trees, or the moment when poor Linda is forced to eat the chocolate-covered ant. Mrs. McPadden came alive when she read to us, and as a result, the stories came alive.
I have my own child now, and I’ve been reading to him since he was born, almost seven years ago. He started reading on his own at three years old, too; he’s at the point now where he’s starting to read books to me, and I have to say, he’s a natural. Here are a few of our all-time-fave read alouds:
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson
Monster Trucks by Anika Denise, illustrated by Nate Wragg
ROT, the Cutest in the World by Ben Clanton
The Narwhal and Jelly series by Ben Clanton
The Elephant and Piggy series, The Pigeon books, and The Knuffle Bunny books by Mo Willems
The Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Circle, Triangle, and Square by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Hot City by Barbara Joosse, ill by R. Gregory Christie
Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
The Little Blue Truck books by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
The Scrambled States of America books by Laurie Keller
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
BOB not BOB by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
The Circus Ship by Chris van Dusen
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson
While all of these titles are unique, they share certain ideal read-aloud traits: engaging characters; playful rhythms, rhyming, and repetition; distinctive voices; quiet and loud moments; and dramatic pauses and page turns. And of course, the relationship between the text and the art further heightens the experience.
But just as important as the book itself is the reader performing it. They must be willing to employ all of these elements to their fullest potential to perform that read-aloud alchemy, as the book changes into something alive, altering the sensibility of everyone in its audience. And I mean everyone. Because if you can really go for it and commit to performing a book and not just reading it, you’re not just sharing its story. For those few moments, you are the story.
I’ve always tried to make my own work fun to share, perhaps none more so than my latest picture book, Baby Clown, illustrated by the brilliant Matthew Cordell. This is a story about clown parents who have a baby who won’t stop crying, which is the very last thing they need as circus entertainers. (It’s inspired by my own experience with my child, who had colic for his first three months.) It’s brimming with all my favorite read-aloud ingredients, and it’s also ideal for audience participation. I’ve found that when I invite others to join in whenever Baby Clown cries, the results are hugely satisfying for everyone involved — especially these days, when we can all use a bit of primal scream therapy!
Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to entertain and connect. I hope you enjoy sharing Baby Clown with your favorite audience, and that it brings some joy — and even some read-aloud magic — during these uncertain times, and beyond.
Kara LaReau is the author of many picture books for young children, including Ugly Fish and Otto: The Boy Who Loved Cars, both illustrated by Scott Magoon. She is also the author of the Infamous Ratsos books, a first chapter book series all illustrated by Matt Myers. The newest in the series The Infamous Ratsos Camp Out is coming soon. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.