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Wednesday, 06 December 2006 00:00

Christmas stories aloud

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The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Penguin - 6th edition, 2006. 432 pages

Of course, we cannot all read aloud with the same success as Charles Dickens, who brought not only Macready but entire audiences to outbursts of tears and laughter.

This great Victorian novelist approached his readings as an actor approaches the stage; he practiced his parts, he edited his texts, he wrote himself copious notes on what emotions should be displayed with the section he was reading.

Dickens also faced a different audience. Unfamiliar with radio, stereophonic sound, television or computers, his listeners knew better how to follow the spoken word. Technology had not yet begun to compete with personal performances.

Despite such competition today, however, we can and should read aloud in our homes, particularly if we have children in our family circle. Reading together sparks the imagination, gives rise to discussion, promotes literature, and brings us together. Reading aloud is necessarily a group activity, whereas watching television, with the possible exception of game shows and sports broadcasts, isolates us from the person sitting at our side.

Our present world, this circus of noise, bustle, fret, and fear, offers little support to such a quiet endeavor, yet reading aloud may allow a family to connect in a special way, especially during the holidays. To succeed, however, the family member desirous of such an activity must face the burdensome task of luring other family members from the glowing screens of the television and the computer.

For more tips on reading aloud and on how to compete with Play Station or reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos, find a copy of Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook. This book demonstrates the importance of reading aloud and ways to make it effective and entertaining.

The Christmas season in particular provides a grand opportunity to share a book with those we love. There comes a time when even the most avid shopper tires of the mall traffic, when the most inveterate television viewer must emerge from the dark den, blinking and snarling, as out of sorts as a bear after hibernation.

Christmas also offers a huge number of excellent, short books as read-alouds. There are the new books just out for the season, which may be found prominently displayed in local bookstores. Here, however, we will focus on a few holiday books that make for a wonderful shared reading.

For the younger set — but having an attraction for all ages — half a dozen classics come immediately to mind. Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas can still be read with great verve and amusement; the recent volume illustrated by Jan Brett should delight all ages. Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas with its wild language and noble message of giving remains a popular favorite. Many young people view the Christmas special every year, but how many have actually sought out the delights of the book itself?

Other fine books that make wonderful short read-alouds for Christmas include Gloria Houston’s The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story (illustrations by Barbara Cooney); Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine’s Christmas; Susan Wojiechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (pictures by P.J. Lynch); and Chris Van Allsburg’s dark and beautiful The Polar Express. Readers may chastise me for the books I’ve left out here — already I can hear the outcry from those who love Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!, another wonderful read-aloud book — but let me urge you not to waste time on what I haven’t recommended. Instead, go dig out your favorite tale of the season and read it aloud.

There are, of course, books for the entire family that may take more than an evening for completion. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol remains the favorite among Christmas aficionados. Though you may think you know the story through and through from watching the various movies, the book will delight you with its descriptions and its eccentricities. Henry Van Dyke’s The Story of the Fourth Wise Man also captures the mood of the season in terms of giving. This magus and pilgrim, this fourth wise man, always misses meeting Christ in person, but eventually discovers that he has already met him through acts of charity and love.

Finally, we may simply turn to the oldest Christmas story of them all. We open the book to Luke Chapter 2, where we read of Caesar Augustus, of Joseph and of Mary his espoused wife, who is great with child. They have arrived in Bethlehem to register for a census and, finding no room at the local inn (think of Western North Carolina during leaf season), the couple bunk down in a stable, where a baby is born to them. They wrap the baby in swaddling clothes and place him in a manger.

In the nearby hills are shepherds, tough men accustomed to a life outdoors. This night an angel appears to them, overcomes their fears, and encourages them to visit Bethlehem and the newborn baby. And suddenly, as the ancient text tells us, “there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Wonderful stories await us. So we set aside half an hour of an evening and call everyone together. Cider or hot chocolate may help mollify complaining spouses or recalcitrant teenagers. We pick a story that is short and entertaining, open the book, and begin. The cost of our venture is negligible, the possibility of reward immense.

All we have to do is try it.

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