Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Carolee: For Reading Out Loud!

Last night my seventeen-year-old son read the last chapter of THE GREAT GATSBY out loud to me as we sat together on the living room sofa. The night before, we watched the movie, and the night before that, I read a chapter to him. We’ve been going back and forth like that with F. Scott Fitzgerald for the past two weeks.

Before GATSBY we tackled IN COLD BLOOD, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY among others. It all started with Steinbeck and freshman honors English. One night Jon was sitting on the couch holding a book, looking perplexed, and saying, “I just don’t get it.” He was referring to OF MICE AND MEN, one of my all time favorites. I asked him if he’d like for me to read it with him. He said yes.

And that was the beginning of a great mother-son reading adventure.

We’ve had some good laughs. I’ll never forget the summer we tackled THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Though I love Steinbeck, even I was bored, and I couldn’t believe there was an entire chapter dedicated to a turtle crossing the road. We still joke about that one. We ended up ditching the book about half way through the summer and listening to the story on CD while driving to Colorado.

When Jon was in preschool, I would gather him up with his older sister, and we’d sit on her bed reading picture books. She’d be totally engrossed in the story despite the fact that her brother was bouncing up and down on the mattress, using it as a trampoline. He’s always been much fonder of extreme sports than reading. He plays soccer, snowboards down black diamonds, and skateboards through the concrete drainage ditch in the middle of the park. When he was younger, he destroyed two bicycles by jumping them off of ramps he and his friends built out in the field behind our house. He has never enjoyed sedentary activities like reading, even with an author-mother scouring the bookstores for something… anything… that contained enough action and excitement to keep his attention. I never criticized books like CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, whatever the literary shortcomings, because at least he was reading.

When Jon was in middle school, he got interested in a few series. I would rush off to the bookstore to buy him the latest installment, only to be told that he’d gotten tired of that author last week. I even tried writing adventure books, but lost heart when he would read a few pages of a manuscript and get bored. I went so far as to add a hurricane in the first ten pages of one story, but he was unimpressed.

His older sister has read all of my manuscripts. At twenty she is one of my best critics and has learned to spot plot holes from a mile away. But it’s dangerous to make comparisons between your children, and even more dangerous to have expectations, so when my first novel, COMFORT, was published, I didn’t push Jon to read it. After all, it was a character driven novel about a teenage boy who overcame his dysfunctional family situation through poetry. Jon did read it though, because his classmates were talking about it, and he even surprised me by saying, “Hey Mom, this is pretty good.” It was then that I realized I had underestimated him. The books that really grasped his attention weren’t adventure stories at all, but stories about the human condition. He talked about the ending to OF MICE AND MEN for a long time, and was perplexed by the senseless violence of IN COLD BLOOD.

In my job as a speech-language pathologist in the public schools, I work with many struggling readers, and I often recommend to parents that they read aloud with their teens in the same way that parents typically read aloud with younger children—taking turns and talking about what is going on in the text. I have been surprised by how many of these parents have said they thought this would be “cheating”—as if kids should be left to flounder on their own with no one to guide them through the precarious land of metaphor, symbolism, inference, and motif.

Educational psychology suggests we lend a helping hand. The famous Russian Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, believed that the optimal zone for learning was the distance between what young people can do independently and their potential with adult (or advanced peer) guidance. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development. Though my son has no learning disability, and is, in fact, an honor student taking advanced classes, there is a difference between what he can comprehend on his own and what he can comprehend when we discuss what he is reading. So many important lessons are still just beyond his reach when he tries to grasp them on his own.

Even if that wasn’t the case, there is something very magical about sitting shoulder to shoulder, hunched over Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, with the son who towers six inches above me, the son who will be leaving for college soon, the son who is almost, but not quite a man.

In our hectic lives, between my work and his social engagements, sports commitments, and girlfriends, it is difficult to find time for quiet moments. By sharing books we’ve had opportunities to talk about the things I’ve wanted him to understand about life and human nature, but wasn’t always sure how to bring up in casual conversation—what it means to be a true friend, the boredom of self-indulgence, the pain of betrayal, pride and prejudice, and what you value at the end.

A few months ago I was talking to my editor on the phone about rewrites for my upcoming novel, TAKE ME THERE (Simon Pulse, July 2010). Jon overheard the conversation and asked me the story line. I told him it’s about a boy, on the run from the law and an L.A. gang, looking for his estranged father who is in prison somewhere in Texas. He smiled and said, “Wow Mom, that sounds like something I’d like to read.”

There is no greater compliment than this, and it helps me to remember why I write stories about boys.


  1. I hope that one day I can hope someone say that to me too! Grats and looking forward to when TAKE ME THERE is released!!!

  2. Gorgeous. What a lovely idea.

    I'm a teacher and do lots of read alouds at work, but my favorite relaxing activity is actually when my husband and i read to each other every night. It deepens the reading experience and creates lots of inside jokes as well.

    Have you read East of Eden together? My fave steinbeck. I read all whopping 800 pages to my grandma when she had shingles when I was 17.

    You sound like a wonderful mother and a terrific author.

  3. Actually, East of Eden is on the reading list for this spring.

  4. I have tears in my eyes reading this. My baby boy turns seven this weekend, and just tonight, for the very first time we "acted out" a picture book together. One of Mo Willems (genius!)--he played Elephant and I played Piggie and each word he manages to read is like a bit of magic because I still see him as this little guy in my arms.

    This is a beautiful, brilliant post and I'm going to keep it and re-read it and definitely continue reading with him throughout his years.
    You're such a good mom. Thank you!

  5. Wonderful post - thanks! I love sharing books with my boys. :)

  6. Thanks for all of your kind words. They grow up fast. Hold them close.

  7. My, academically gited, thirteen year old is my first and toughest critiquer. Last year I entered a romance contest. One chapter about when the two people met and fell in love...the first momment. I didn't win, but my teen thought it was an awesome chapter for a YA, so I'm working on it now. Funnily, music by Rhianna and Flo Rida bring me great inspiration.

  8. I played Piggie and each word he manages to read is like a bit of magic because I still see him as this little guy in my arms.

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