Once upon a time there was a little girl. The girl liked fairy tales, but Snow White was her favourite. Every evening before going to bed she asked her dad to read it aloud for her. After some time, even though the daughter was still fascinated by the story about the princess and the dwarves, the dad became a bit bored, so he recorded the reading on a tape. It was before the era of audiobooks. But the next evening, as always, the daughter came to her daddy with the book in her hand.
“Oh dear, but you know how to turn on the tape recorder, don’t you?” Dad was confused.
“Yes I know, but I can’t sit on its lap,” she answered.
For thousands of years of civilisation, words written on paper was the main carrier of human knowledge. Not only facts but also fantasies or expressions about the way authors perceived reality (called, respectively, science, fiction and poetry). In the era of TV and internet this has changed. People don’t need memory or imagination anymore. Google remembers, Youtube depicts. But a book read to children can still be a great way of creating bonds between generations. Not only through the awesome thing of sitting on the lap. We can exchange a lot with our children. As their thinking hasn’t been routinized and schematized yet, they can show us the amazing power of their curiosity, creativity and thinking out of the box. From our part, we can share our knowledge, experience and understanding, as books quite often need explanation, and sometimes consolation. The answer to the question, why the hell did the Queen want Snow White to be killed, cannot be Googled easily. And Google will not help with the sorrow of the Little Prince’s departure in any way.
But not every parent feels self-assured when it comes to emotions. For them, I would propose crime stories about Sherlock Holmes, re-written for children by Mark Williams.
Holmes and Watson are on the train. The great detective observes his watch for a moment and says:
Fifty-three and a half miles an hour. That is our current speed.” I stared at Holmes. “How can you possibly know that?” I asked. Holmes pointed to the telegraph poles that followed the railway. “If you know that each pole is sixty yards apart then the calculation is quite simple,” he said. I thought to myself, Only if you have a brain like Sherlock Holmes. Who else would know that each telegraph pole is sixty yards apart?
Well, people of our era also wouldn't know - Wikipedia would know. (And what is this telegraph thing anyway?) But our kids wouldn't bother calculating such things in their head - they have calculators on their smartphones. Or rather they wouldn't bother calculating at all, instead turning on GPS and letting it find the current speed. Returning to Holmes, whose adventures are based back in the 19th century, the reading parent would be able to explain to the child why food bought one day had to be eaten by the next day at the latest, why people needed candles, why knowing someone's name wouldn't help you find this person on Facebook. If the reading child already knows that it’s taken some time for humans to develop electricity, fridges and computers, it’s always good to have mum or dad around.
And let's hope, once convinced to use their imagination to see (in their mind’s eyes) such a great thinker as Sherlock in action, kids will find it attractive to use their brains, instead of mobile devices, to look for answers about reality.
There is nothing whatsoever I can deduce from this old hat. Except that the man is quite clever, and not so long ago earned a good wage. And that lately has fallen on hard times and has taken to drinking to take his mind off his problems, which may be why his wife no longer loves him as much as she once did.”
I stared in astonishment at Holmes. “You can tell all that from an old hat?”
“That is what we must find out, my dear Watson. What a delightful little problem to present itself on this otherwise boring Christmas week.
As the great Neil Gaiman expressed even more radically than I:
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.