by Karen Boniface
April 3, 2020
Reading aloud should not end with childhood. It is not something to grow out of. It is something to keep growing into.
As teens come of age in a culture filled with chaos and confusion, books provide the perfect safe place to wrestle with questions about identity, purpose, relationships, and values. Stories draw us into the lives and worlds of characters we come to care about, sparking communication between parents and teens about important issues that concern them. Through sharing stories, parents can help guide teens to maturity, wisdom, and virtue.
Reading aloud, we learn to listen. To talk. To respect another’s thoughts and feelings.
In the movie I Remember Mama, a 1948 dramatization of Kathryn Forbes’s novel Mama’s Bank Account, an impoverished lodger—Jonathan Hyde—reads Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities aloud for Mama’s family. Hyde transports them to a world of sublime imagination. It’s one of my all-time favorite scenes.
The soundtrack ceases. The camera pans to the stricken faces of his listeners as a transformed alcoholic willingly lays down his life. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s refined, sonorous voice perfectly expresses the tenor of the sacrificer’s parting words, the final lines of the book:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
The family’s hearts are stirred by such supreme self-sacrifice. They are forever changed by such nobility.
When Hyde suddenly departs, he thanks Mama for her hospitality and leaves her a check in full payment for room and board. He also, much to the excitement of the children, leaves the classics he’s read aloud—A Tale of Two Cities among them. Later it’s proven that the sorely needed check is bad. While her sister vilifies Hyde as a crook, Mama recognizes the payment that Hyde did leave—the treasure of his books. She validates his dignity, much as the conclusion of Dickens’s novel exalts the sacrificer to heroic status:
“No,” Mama declares, “No. He owes us nothing.”
Without regret, she tosses the check into the fire.
Gladys Hunt in Honey for a Teen’s Heart writes about the importance of reading together well-selected books of this caliber: families can “grow close to each other by sharing what touches our hearts, what causes our mind to grow big with wonder, what injustices anger us, what questions the plot of a story insists upon asking.” She continues that “reading together provides opportunities for the discussions every family needs. Books are about someone else; that means we can look objectively at the characters’ choices and actions and discuss them. In addition, books delight, quicken the imagination, widen our world, and live in our hearts. Reading is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
Not only the reading itself but also the shared processing of a text is a necessity. Pause and ponder the significance of what you’re reading. Discuss questions like these . . .
- What do we know about the author?
- What is the author’s purpose for writing?
- How is the author’s view of the world revealed in the book?
- Why is this view valid or flawed?
- What is the author’s message?
- Is it true?
- How does the author develop that theme?
- What values does the story promote or diminish? Explain whether you agree.
- To what extent is the main character admirable? Identify the chief character traits.
- Do moral restraints and boundaries govern the characters? What are the consequences of breaking societal “rules”?
- With what character do you most connect? Explain.
- Are the characters believable and their actions consistent?
- How do the characters evolve throughout the story? What triggers their change?
- What is the main character’s problem or conflict, and how is it solved or dealt with?
- Who narrates the story? How reliable is that point of view?
- Response to Author’s Craft:
- What was your emotional reaction to a character, scene, chapter, or the whole book? How has the author achieved this response in you?
- What did you notice in the book that is true, good, or beautiful? How does the author reveal it?
- What do you appreciate about the language and style of the author’s expression?
- Did certain parts of the book cause you discomfort? Did this tension lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
- What do you like or dislike about the book?
And the best follow-up question to any of the questions above is What do you think about this? If teens can begin to reason critically about a literary microcosm, they will be better equipped to discern wisdom from falsehood in their own world.
Don’t let your teens isolate from the family as bookworms, and don’t “assign” reading tasks just to keep them busy and productive. I encourage you instead to open up the lines of communication by reading aloud and discussing books together.
If you want your teens to learn more in-depth about thinking through books, enroll them in a free class like “How to be a critical reader” from Open University
Of the scores of books we highly recommend besides A Tale of Two Cities, we’ve detailed a few below. For more information or help, contact us.
|Virgil’s Latin epic recounts the legendary story of Aeneas, Trojan prince and son of the goddess Venus. His travels take him to Italy, where he founds the Roman civilization. Written in twelve “books,” or chapters, the poem heralds the superiority of the Pax Romana. You can read a prose translation—there are some excellent ones—but you’ll miss the beauty and power of the heroic verse if you do.|
|The first narrative poem in Old English, Beowulf is named for its ancient Scandinavian hero, whose battle with the monster Grendel saves the Danes from its twelve-year plague. In the tradition of classical epics, the poem is concerned with human values and moral choices. This translation makes Beowulf fun and accessible. It needs to be read aloud, as all good poetry should.|
|Set in the tumultuous post-Napoleonic era, Dumas’s spell-binding historical romance follows the swashbuckling adventures of a sailor falsely accused of treason. This abridged version eliminates discursive portions of the book that bore modern sensibilities, making reading more enjoyable.|
|Based on the life of a 17th century French dramatist, Cyrano is a classic romantic play. A true Renaissance man, Cyrano has only one shortcoming. He can fight, fence, duel, sing, and write poetry, but he lacks self-confidence because of a single unbecoming feature—his large nose. Too conflicted to woo the woman he loves, he agrees against his own self-interest to court her as another man’s proxy.|
|Widely regarded as one of the funniest and most tragic books ever written, Don Quixote chronicles the adventures of the self-created knight-errant Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, as they travel through sixteenth-century Spain. You haven't experienced Don Quixote in English until you've read this masterful translation. This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more. (Amazon)|
|Edmund Spenser ranks just below Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton in the pantheon of great writers. In The Faerie Queene, starring Redcross Knight he spins an epic tale of adventure, love, noble deeds, and faith. Despite all his acknowledged greatness, almost no one reads Spenser anymore. Roy Maynard takes the first book of The Faerie Queene and makes Spenser accessible again, not by dumbing it down, but by deftly modernizing the spelling, and including notes in the margins explaining the obscurities in clever asides, and cuing the reader towards the right response. (quoted from Amazon)|
|Banished from England for seeking to marry against his father's wishes, Ivanhoe joins Richard the Lion Heart on a crusade in the Holy Land. On his return, . . . he soon finds himself playing a more dangerous game as he is drawn into a bitter power struggle between the noble King Richard and his evil and scheming brother John. . . Ivanhoe is set in a highly romanticized medieval world of tournaments and sieges, chivalry and adventure where dispossessed Saxons are pitted against their Norman overlords, and where the historical and fictional seamlessly merge. (quoted from Amazon)|
love & compassion
|Serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean is eventually released and struggles to build a new life, but the relentless Inspector Javert is determined to put him back in jail, forcing Jean to go into hiding, where he becomes the champion of the sick, injured, and poor, in a powerful new translation of Hugo's masterful French novel.|
|good vs. evil|
|In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-Earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell by chance into the hands of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and he is destined now to begin a perilous journey to destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom.|
|In this Shakespearean comedy, a Jewish moneylender butts heads with an Italian merchant, who despises him. When a turn of events forces the merchant to borrow funds from his enemy, he tragically finds himself unable to repay the loan. His life, therefore, stands in jeopardy. Will there be justice for the Jew or mercy for the merchant?|
|At the end of the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his men set sail for home. Their journey is fraught with difficulties, however, for the gods are against Odysseus. Storms, monsters, a witch, and temptation waylay him in his journey. He must use all his courage, strength, and cleverness to make his way back to his family. When he arrives, his struggles are still not over.|
|good vs. evil|
poverty & homelessness
|Dickens spares no sentiment in his unromantic portrayal of the sordid lives of criminals and the desperate and dismal lives of orphans in mid-19th Century London. After escaping the apprenticeship into which he has been sold, the orphan Oliver falls into the hands of a the “Artful Dodger,” member of a gang of pickpockets exploited by the elderly child enslaver Fagin. Dickens wrote other novels of social commentary as well.|
|cost of commitment|
limitations of human perspective
fear vs. faith
|This famous story of man's progress through life in search of salvation remains one of the most entertaining allegories of faith ever written. Pilgrim experiences trials and temptations in his harrowing journey to the Celestial City. Along a road filled with monsters and spiritual terrors, Christian confronts tempting characters like Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, and the demons of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But he is also joined by Hopeful and Faithful. Universally known for its simplicity, vigor, and beauty of language, this widely-read 17th-century classic rates next to the Bible in importance.|
|A family with five girls and no titled wealth in 19th Century England had but one major goal—to find husbands for their daughters. Customarily, money married money. Major turbulence erupts when a haughty aristocrat is attracted to a self-respecting but poor gentleman’s daughter. Jane Austen’s minimalist novel of manners critiques the society of her day with great wit and insight into character.|
|The first American classic, written in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is a psychological study in the effects of sin. Hawthorne does not narrate adultery but rather its aftermath. How it affects the couple, their illegitimate child, and the wronged husband. The woman is forced to wear on her bodice a badge of shame, the scarlet A, but the letter evolves in its symbolism, as do the characters evolve as they deal with inner conflict.|