Clifford turned 50 this fall, and if you are a parent or child of the last half-century, you know exactly who Clifford is. Clifford the Big Red Dog was the runt of the litter. A girl named Emily Elizabeth adopted him and loved him so much that he just kept growing, until he was bigger than a house. Clifford has gotten himself into many scrapes over his dog years, but he has always been able to resolve his predicaments by doing the right thing.
My younger siblings loved their Clifford books, as did my own children, and now my little nephews, ages 2 and 4, have their own love affair with Clifford. But Clifford is only the beginning. The world of children's literature is rich and varied, because as the classics endure, new reading treasures are added all the time by emerging authors and illustrators. Clifford is but one of many characters who come to life in the minds of children through reading.
Thanks to my nephews, I have rediscovered the intimacy and the art of reading aloud to children. When my 2-year-old nephew plopped into my lap recently with a well-loved copy of "Are You My Mother?", I was amazed to find that the characters' voices I used to use when reading to my own children, voices I hadn't even thought about in many years, came back automatically. I had almost forgotten that reading together is an act of love. I also quickly remembered that reading aloud to a child rarely stops at one book: one story creates a thirst for more, and then more, and still more.
There is hardly a better way to spend time with children. Studies show that children who have been copiously read to before they go to school are better prepared for the task of learning to read by themselves. Reading books aloud familiarizes a child with how a book works: ever try to skip a page when reading a favorite book? The act of reading teaches such things as the direction of the pages and the fact that the words are separate from the illustrations. Reading aloud also encourages conversations with children about what is happening in the pictures on the page, thus developing their oral language skills. Quality story time in a comfortable chair breeds a positive attitude towards books, which adds to what educators call a "literacy environment" in the home.
The act of reading aloud is as beneficial as being read to: One of my daughters, who struggled with reading in school and was a late bloomer (like Leo in the story "Leo the Late Bloomer"), recently told me that babysitting her little cousin and having to read aloud to her finally gave her confidence in her ability to do so, a confidence she never quite mastered when she was in school. My daughter has discovered that reading aloud connects the brain to the voice, a realization that would benefit all of us at times.
Writers have long known that reading their work aloud is an excellent tool to assess the comprehensibility and natural flow of the words on the page. If a piece of writing reads well aloud, if it doesn't cause the tongue to twist or the mind to stumble, it's probably well written.
I imagine that my children's children will read using devices like a Kindle or an iPad or a smart phone. I rather hope that books are still around when the children of the future are young enough to be read to, so that they can feel the paper pages turn as their curiosity heightens, and they can touch the different sizes, shapes, and textures of children's books. I picture them turning pages on a flat little screen with the flick of a tiny finger, and the image doesn't seem quite right to me, but they will surely have many experiences that my old-fashioned brain cannot even imagine. Maybe books will be as quaint as the Victrola.
Still, I am saving a box of my favorite children's books for any children who may ever ask me to read them a story. There are a few Clifford books among them.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com