Right in DC Podcasts

Meghan Cox Gurdon: Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction

My guest on RIGHT IN DC is Meghan Cox Gurdon, whom I know from a women’s writing group in Washington that meets once a month to talk with different authors, share tips about writing and the love of reading. I’m so excited to welcome her to this podcast today because she has just written a new book called,The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. Meghan has been the Wall Street Journal’s children’s book reviewer since 2005. Her work has appeared widely, in publications such as the Washington Examiner, the Daily Telegraph, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and National Review. She lives very close to the ‘belly of the beast’, Washington, DC, in Bethesda, Maryland, is married and has five children.

In our discussion, we talk about:

  • Why it is a powerful thing to read aloud
  • How she came to this idea
  • The challenge and distraction of technology
  • How to go about selecting titles to read to your family
  • The story of her experiment of having a TV/tech-oriented family read aloud books for three months and what happened
  • How a child’s vocabulary increases by having books read aloud
  • How looking at pictures in a book affects the brain
  • How to start reading aloud in your family
  • The benefits of reading aloud
  • How books help people connect to each other

MORE

WEBSITE: https://www.meghancoxgurdon.com/
TWITTER: https://twitter.com/meghangurdon/
BOOK: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062562819/
ARTICLES BY GURDON REFERENCED IN PODCAST:
“The Great Gift of Reading Aloud” (https://theinnovativeparent.io/2016/11/15/wsj-on-the-great-gift-of-reading-aloud/)
“Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” http://www.michelepolak.com/322fall11/Weekly_Schedule_files/Gurdon.pdf

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TRANSCRIPT

Gayle Trotter

Today, I’m so excited to welcome as our guest Meghan Cox Gurdon. Meghan and I know each other from a women’s writing group, where we met once a month to talk with different authors and share tips about writing and a love of reading. I’m so excited to welcome her to this podcast today, because she has just written a new book called, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction.

Meghan, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Meghan Cox Gurdon

I am so happy to be with you.

GT

I just want to tell you a little bit about Meghan’s background. She is a book critic. You might have read some of her pieces in the Wall Street Journal. She’s been the Wall Street Journal’s children’s book reviewer since 2005. She’s written in many other publications, including the Washington Examiner, the Daily Telegraph, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and National Review.

She lives very close to the belly of the beast, Washington D.C. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland. She’s married, and she has five children. I’m not sure what makes her the best expert about this topic, the fact that she has five children and has lived the very premise of her book, or that she’s a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal.

Thank you so much, Meghan, for joining us.

MCG

I’m delighted and it’s a kind of slightly surreal and absolutely wonderful thing to hear when self-described in such warm terms.

GT

I just think it’s really fabulous because being part of this women’s writing group, that you and I have been part of for a long time, we know a lot of people in the Washington area who write about very different topics. Mary Eberstadt was the founder of the Kirkpatrick Society, the writing group that I’m talking about, and she’s written very different things. things about faith, things about birth control. We have other writers in the group who have written about religious persecution in the Middle East. We have writers who have written about more scientific data-type things.

I just love that the topic of your book is about reading aloud with your family. It seems like in this age when people are trying to figure out what to write about, there is an infinite number of topics, but you chose a topic that not only is near and dear to your heart, but in sharing this with other families you’re really opening up a world to them that maybe they haven’t considered before. Is that true?

MCG

Absolutely. It’s been very important in my life as a mother and having a family, reading aloud has been the one sort of daily nonnegotiable, especially when my children were younger, of course, it was easier for me to impose my own requirements on them. It turned out not to be difficult at all because we’re still reading aloud.

I have two children left at home. The other three have gone off to university, and in fact, the eldest is now married.

GT

Congratulations.

MCG

Thank you. Reading together is just this phenomenally nourishing, bonding intellectually-liberating experience. Part of my desire to evangelize it is just to share the goodness that I have experienced personally, as you say.

I’ll tell you something else, Gayle. A couple years ago I was feeling kind of troubled. It was one of those middle-of-the-night moments, and I think this is often where the news will strike us. I was feeling very gloomy about the direction of the culture. There were couple things that had caused this. One was that a very, very dark book had won a prestigious Carnegie medal, and it’s a book for children that is just about as bleak and desperate and dystopian as you could possibly imagine, just dreadful.

GT

I think I read your review. You wrote a review of that book, right?

MCG

No, I skipped this one. I almost don’t want to say it. It’s called The Bunker Diary. It’s a very, very dark book. There I am lying in bed, feeling gloomy up that this was the kind of book that was being celebrated, with a medal, that would then get it into possibly schools. I’ m just thinking, why are we doing this to children? Why is this what we’re holding out for them?

Those nocturnal-gloom moments, they let a lot of things come to mind. I also was thinking about the way that technology was starting to intrude in a really serious way. In my children’s lives and the lives of their friends and my own ability to pay attention to people when I was with them. There was this slight feeling of things kind of crumbling. I thought, “What is the opposite of that?” What is the opposite of this darkness that I’m thinking about? Bam into my head came this reading aloud that we’ve done. I thought, “That’s the thing. That is the thing.” It’s like almost the antidote to these other sources of gloom.

I pitched an article to the Wall Street Journal, and that wound up becoming an article that was published in, I want to say, July of 2015, the article was called the “Great Gift of Reading Aloud” In it, I basically talk about this topic and the way that technology had come in, say, halfway through my own experience of raising my kids and how it was changing things and disfiguring things. All of this is a lengthy back story to say about this idea of sharing it, that what was incredible about that article was not how it was written, it was how it was received. It went viral. Tens of thousands of people were sharing it.

The thing about it, Gayle, was in this fractured society, in this nonpartisan world we’re in, the reaction to it was completely positive. People were thirsting for it. They were hungry for it. They were eager to share it. I thought this is something. I’ve touched a little, not a nerve exactly, but I found a place that people really need. They want more. They want to be nourished in this way. People who grew up with reading aloud, remembered how great it was. People who’ve done it once or twice recall how great it was. People who haven’t done it, though, “Wait, that’s something I want to do.” Also generationally, you see older grandparents and things, looking at the way that their grandchildren are being raised and thinking there is not enough human contact there. They need more books. They need more time with their parents. This spoke to their anxieties as well.

All of this is an incredibly long-winded way — you see why I needed a whole book to justify my thoughts — I’m saying that I think that it’s the subject of great importance to me, personally, but I also think there’s huge resonance in the country because we’re all of us grappling with technology in this new world. Many of us have great attachment to the beauty of written English and the beauty of characterization and scenes and things that we get through literature. We can bring the one to bear to help us, to fortify us, against the other.

GT

It’s a life preserver.

MCG

It’s an antidote. It’s a broad-spectrum antibiotic. We haven’t even yet talked about any of the science and the history of it either, but reading aloud, really, truly, Gayle, it is the cure to what ails us. As someone said to me, the technology genie is not going back in the bottle. You can trick the genie. Actually in the old stories, the genie does get tricked sometimes back in the bottle, if only for a little while. My message to people is this isn’t about renouncing your technology because God knows we all use it. It’s about turning off your phone, picking up a book and reading out loud to the people you love.

GT

Technology is great, that’s how were having this discussion right now. We’re not in the same room. We are talking to each other in different locations. Thomas, our producer is in Michigan, you and I are in the D.C., area. Obviously, I don’t want to smear the Amish, but I know they use some technology, but I think that’s something that a lot of parents struggle with because putting the genie back in the bottle, that’s not going to happen in the modern world and the idea that we can somehow eradicate it from our lives is just not realistic.

I, like you, on a personal level had the same experience with my children. My older children were born before the dawn of the iPhone and my husband and I really wanted to make sure the kids were really good readers, so we didn’t have a television, and we spent a tremendous amount of time reading with them. Then the oldest child got an iPhone, I think when she was in sixth grade, that’s when it was sort of new technology and then you realize it’s the camel’s nose under the tent.

MCG

Absolutely. Almost exactly what happened with us. We also didn’t have TV. Then it didn’t matter that you had a TV because you had a screen, and “I have to do my homework on the screen.” If they’re in the room anything can happen, and it does.

GT

That was such a challenge, and I felt like it was it was very difficult to deal with and then the schools all required everything be done online. Then with the phones, even if you put restrictions on them, all their friends have phones. I think we went from a very pro-reading household to one that really had a tectonic shift in favor of video and in favor of technology and just hunched shoulders because you’re staring at a computer or device so much.

In reading your book, I was thinking about this in relation to my childhood. My dad didn’t read me a lot of books, but he told me a lot of stories. He is very creative and he would just make up stories all the time.

MCG

Fantastic.

GT

I’m just curious, in reading your book, it’s fascinating, and you talk about the type of garbage literature that’s celebrated right now by some of these awards and committees. How did you go about, with your own children, selecting what you wanted to read? You go into it in the book, but I’m curious if you could share with us a little bit about how you selected the titles that you would read to them at night, and how did that come across?

MCG

I’ve heard from people who have read the book and they’ve said, “I wish I could go back and do things again. I wish I could do it differently.” I have to say, “So do I.” Because, of course in life, I didn’t set out, I am going to read aloud — I did in fact set out thinking I am going to read aloud to my children every night. I did have that one single burning idea. I knew nothing else about becoming a mother. As my father will joke, I was an only child from a broken home. I didn’t have a lot of experience of being around little children. I had no idea what to do, really, when I brought home my first daughter except this one thing. I thought, “I am going to read to her.”  Those early days of reading were very formative, not just for her, for my eldest, but for me, sitting with her and reading. We were living in Japan at the time when she was born, not a lot of English language bookstores there. I don’t know that I had any children’s books in the house when I was expecting her and then I was sent a parcel of books by a dear friend in the States, amongst which were of the classics, Good Night Moon and Good Night Gorilla. So my early time reading I selected from my tiny library of Good Night Moon and Good Night Gorilla. I also had a book of fairy tales, which was, in fact, the very first thing I read to my infant daughter when I brought her home from the hospital with my husband.

All of which is a way of saying that our devotion was 100% and intense, the selectivity was by necessity, fairly narrow, in the early years. What we wound up doing is, let’s see how did we choose them? With pictures books, how do you choose picture books? It’s partly what you happen to have around. It’s partly what comes into the house, if you get a gift or whatever. It’s partly what you pick up on a weekend trip to the bookstore or to the library. We had a kind of rotating fairly eclectic collection of books.

I, like many parents, found myself eager to revisit classics of my own childhood. I remember The Story of Babar, The Story about Ping, which is a particular favorite that my grandmother used to read to me. My mother, bless her, had saved these ancient drooled upon copies of Stan and Jan Berenstain’s, The Great Honey Hunt, Green Eggs and Ham. I was able to read to my children, the actual dogeared copies that my mother had read to me when I was little. So that was the picture of the world.

When it came to chapter books, what I have found, and again, I wish I could go back and do some of this again because I would have maybe expanded the range of things that I read to them or read more nonfiction. Definitely would’ve read more sophisticated poetry. I have found that classics make my experience for better read alouds. That might be because these are books that have stood the test of time, because they are good, and there is so much going on in them.

I found that many modern books, we would sometimes pick up modern books, and find that there is not necessarily the richness of language and syntax that you get with 19th century and early 20th century books. There isn’t necessarily the breadth of vocabulary that you get. I don’t mean to inculpate all modern writers, by any means, there is all sorts of wonderful work being done, fantastic writers. There is one actually, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is in my book, she actually is a librarian in Baltimore and also a brilliant writer. Her books are in a way, a breath of the richness of the past.

All of which is yet another long-winded way of saying that I did find that I got a lot of enthusiasm from books like A Little Princess, Treasure Island, the Narnia books, Little House books. My children absolutely adored those books. The Narnia books are fantastic to read aloud. I’ve probably read them, I don’t know, eight or ten times aloud. So I don’t look forward to them with quite the pleasure now. It’s seven books, I think, right? Our experience was always attenuated because after the first one or two times that I read them The Last Battle, they would never ever let me read it again, too sad.

GT

I have to make a true confession that the only poetry that I liked in elementary school was Shel Silverstein.

MCG

There are many gateways to poetry, that’s fine. I used to read a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I still do whenever I have a chance. Those are books that just never get tired and his poetry is great for children, by the way, Child’s Garden of Verses, but many others as well, a very witty, wonder writer.

GT

Yes. I am curious if you could share about the wonderful story of your experiment in the book.

MCG

Yes. I love it.

GT

I love this image of walking into this family’s house with a box of books. Can you set the stage?

MCG

Absolutely. All right. Here I am, I believe in reading aloud. I believe that it has this power. We haven’t even talked, Gayle, if I may just quickly parenthetically say, there is just a constellation of goods that are achieved when we read with children. It strengthens their language skills. It teaches them syntax and grammar in this effortless way. It also inculcates fantastic social and emotional skills. The physiological comfort of sitting with an adult who’s reading to you is part of the mechanism that a child can bring to bear to learn to self-regulate. Children who get a lot of reading time, they emotionally developed, at an accelerated rate even as they develop in their capacity to experience and understand language. So all this great stuff is going on. Not to mention, of course, all the bonding with the adult they’re sitting with.

GT

Which is fun. Just apart from all the science.

MCG

It’s so rewarding. It’s rewarding for both sides. But I thought, so here I am. I believe all these things; I’ve seen it work. I believe in my family, but I need to have some test cases. I need to find some guinea pigs. This young family agreed to be my guinea pigs. The mother, father, three children, the girl at the time was 10, and she was a reasonably civilized person already, but she had two little brothers who were wonderful little barbarians, I mean, wild kids. I will also say they’re not identified in the book by their real name so I can be frank about this. They have giant big screen TV in the family room on all the time. They have screens. They’re a very techie family and not a family that had ever done any reading aloud. The parents said to me, “We always meant to. We know it’s a good thing, but we just never got around to it.”

They agreed to be my guinea pigs, and this is really quite a heroic endeavor on their part, they agreed to make reading aloud part of every day for three months. It was going to be their summer project and they had the freedom to choose when they would read, but they were going to try and give it at least 20 minutes, maybe an hour a day. As you know, Gayle, having read to your kids, an hour sounds like a long time, but when everybody is together and really into a story, it just flies by. But these people are going from 0 to 60, so that’s a big job.

I turned up at their house, ding-dong, the doorbell rings. I had actually not boxes of books, I had two big bags of books that I had collected from my own supply here. I have an ample supply of books. The little boys, in particular, came thundering to the front door, and they were roaring, they were so excited, and the mom was really excited. “I’m so excited,” she said. It was bedlam. It was noisy, lively, enthusiastic, everyone was psyched, but they were out of their heads. The boys, I put the bags of books down on the family room floor, and the boys just like lunged at them and they were just pulling books out, throwing them across the room.

GT

Right. I love that image.

MCG

They were really excited, but there was a kind of indiscriminate quality to their enthusiasm. They didn’t stop and look at the books. It was just like, rahh, there is new stuff. I talked to the parents while the kids were going wild with the books. Of course, the 10-year-old, being civilized, extracted a pretty picture book from the pile and went and sat down and was leafing through it. She already had got with the program. I talked to the parents about what they would do, and I was going to tell them about things, like, there is a way of interacting with small children, which is called dialogic reading. Where you sit with the picture book and you ask them questions about the illustrations, you get them to name things you ask them to count how many bunnies are on the meadow or whatever, but this family, they were so enthusiastic, but also so wild, I thought I don’t want to overwhelm them. Just spend the time with the books; let’s see what happens.

I leave them, and I have no idea what’s going to happen. Three months later, at the end of the summer, ding-dong, I ring the bell and I come into the house again, and they’re really happy to see me. This has obviously been a fun thing for them, and the room was full of books, all over on the floor again, but this time it was because the children had, all morning apparently, eagerly been running through the house collecting the books from all the places that they had been reading them. The bathroom had tons of books because the mom used to read to the kids in the bath, the little boys in particular. The nursery was full of books; the other children’s bedrooms were full of books. They had books in the family room, books in the kitchen. They had taken full advantage of the three months, and they had just read at different times of the day depending on when the baby had napped. The books were all reassembled in the family room in slightly more order. But this time, there was this feeling of happy calm. The baby, the young one, who had been, I’m just trying to remember correctly, I think he was about a year and a half when I first turned up with the books, and he was wild, and didn’t know what books were or know what they were for. He spent the whole time, while I was there, on my return visit, crouched on the floor with his little diaper poking out of his trousers the way they do, and just earnestly turning pages of book after book after book. He’d just page through and you’d see him look at pictures, and then look at the pictures, and then turn the page again. He was a child transformed, as was his bigger brother, who was, I think, around 6 at the time.

The parent said it was one of the most incredible things they’ve ever had happen to them as a family. That they had very quickly found it easy to get the reading in each day, as long as they stayed flexible about when it was going to be. They saw almost immediately a change in the boys. Again, with the daughter, she was already there, but the family, they said they felt closer, and they were pretty close to start with, but there was a sense of calm. The father told me that he’d seen the biggest change, of course, with the boys. That they were calmer, not just at story time, but in the mornings, the parents noticed that the vocabulary of the elder boy, in particular, had transformed. He was constantly using words now that they had never said to him in speech. That he certainly, as the father said, “He didn’t get that from Kung Fu Panda.

GT

You mention this in the book. We just were talking about one of your favorites was Babar, which was also one of my favorite childhood stories. In the book, you talk about how they use the word, for example, tureen. Where would you ever encounter that word?

MCG

Right. I have to, here, pause to put a plug in, I hope, Gayle, that your listeners will actually pick the book up because I was thrilled to find how much there is about this topic that is worth knowing. Part of it is this richness of vocabulary the children can get through picture books is quite astonishing. You might think you know a picture book is, well, they’re 32 pages, usually. Especially in the last 50 years, they have not that many words in them from book to book, you have to go back earlier, in fact, to books like Babar and The Story about Ping, just to pick two examples close to my heart, to get a lot of pros on each page. Yet there is a fantastic diversity of language that’s used in these books. I don’t have the figure at the tip of my tongue, but a child who gets two picture books read, I can look it up for you if you want, a child who gets two picture books read to him or her every day will pick up, I think it’s something close to like 400,000 extra words a year that they might never hear through speech or any other place.

GT

Which is just crazy. Think of what worlds that opens up?

MCG

It does and equips children. Language is a fantastic gift because it allows people to express themselves. It allows them to understand what’s going on around them.

I will tell you, my 17-year-old daughter, the number four child, she was asked the other day by someone, “What did reading aloud mean to you?” This was actually her answer, she said, “I didn’t know how to explain things I was feeling, and I got the words from listening to stories read aloud.” She still remembers when she came across the word, I don’t remember if it was patronizing or condescending, but that was the idea, in something I was reading, and she said it was like a light went on. That’s the thing. That was the feeling that so aggrieved her when she had it. She didn’t know what it was. Up until that point, the only language she had to describe that feeling was that someone was being mean. She knew that wasn’t right. It wasn’t getting it. As I say in the book, refinement of language is marvelous because it allows us to get close to the truth. It allows us to say the thing we mean and to know what it is that we are feeling.

Also, if I can say, in the book, the Babar book, there is a soup tureen, I don’t think, actually, that the word tureen is in the book, but I mentioned it because you have with picture books, not just the language of the text. There all kinds of other words in Babar, like, Marabou bird or floorwalker, the fellows who used to walk through stores and spy out if anybody is misbehaving, that sort of thing. Then you have everything that is depicted in the pictures.

This is where I mentioned dialogic reading. This is where the real turbocharging of language can come. When you’re sitting with your children and you’re looking at The Story of Babar and you read the story to them with that terrible scene of Babar’s mother being shot by the wicked hunter, some people find so traumatic, they skip the page, it’s just too much or they hide, as some children do, from that picture, but you’re sitting and you’re looking and then the child points to something you say, “Yes, that’s a coconut and that’s a palm tree. Remember we had coconut juice when I came home from my yoga class,” or whatever. In this way, you take the language that’s in the book and then expand it out exponentially.

Here is something else about picture books that is so brilliant, is that English doesn’t have to be your first language to read an English-language picture book, or conversely, I used to read some books in Spanish and French to my children and I am, by no means, an accomplished speaker Spanish or French speaker. The pictures then you can say anything you want about the pictures. You can talk about concepts like above, below, inside, outside, and you can look at the pictures and say, “Who is inside the house?” or “Who is on top of the garage?” or whatever it is. You can have your children look at colors and all of this is just fantastic grist for the language mill.

GT

I found it very interesting that you can also see things through your children’s eyes and all of us have strengths and weaknesses. I myself love vocabulary. I really love the written word, and I am not visually oriented. I’m not drawn to that as much. I remember reading a picture book with my son and I’m reading the language and getting through the story and I was reading it too fast. He called me out on it, and he said mom you need to look at these pictures and understand how detailed they are and how long it took the artist to envision this and create it for us. I felt so chastened.

MCG

Isn’t that great though? Nobody likes to be reprimanded by a child, but that’s a real —

GT

It was so sweet.

MCG

He’s right, Gayle. We need to take time to stop and look at things.

I’m working on this pet theory I have. Whenever I go to a museum, I spend time, which is regrettably not as often as I would like to do, somehow so arduous to get downtown sometimes.

GT

Same. We should go on a museum trip.

MCG

We definitely should. But when I do, I feel so extraordinarily refreshed, even if I’m only looking at a couple of pictures and just giving them a little time. It occurred to me, this is my theory, that actually what is happening then is the kind of deep brain network engagement that we know is so helpful for children when they look at picture books. When you take time to look, to really look at something, to really see it, to notice the way that the colors interact, to look closely at the expressions of the animals or the people or whatever, or even the expression that is to say the mood of the weather in the landscape painting, when we take time to look something shifts in us, right? Something kind of profound happens when you’re exposed to beauty and you take the time to look at it and to drink it in.

I wouldn’t be surprised if actually, when your son was telling you to slow down and look at the pictures in the picture book, he was offering you that kind of visual refreshment. That you, being busy mom, had forgotten to slow down.

GT

Right. Part of it is, I just am not a visual person. I think it’s a beautiful thing when you come together and take that time, I could suddenly see it through his eyes. The book was a magician and his bunny, I forget the title of the book. But the bunny gets lost and there are pages and pages of where the bunny and the magician are just a page apart, but you can see the stars that the magician has left and there are little tiny things. I think my vision is too bad I couldn’t even pick it out, but, he, with his eagle eye, he saw it. It wasn’t just the skill of the drawing, but it was the artist trying to convey the connection between this magician and his bunny. I just get chills just even talking about it because how much do I miss in life because that’s just not the way that I tend to —

MCG

When you are in the hands of a great illustrator, it’s not always obvious at first. As you say, Gayle, you’re not that visual of the person, you flip through, and you think, yeah, that’s a picture of this, yeah, that’s a picture of that. But when you slow down and you look at the pictures and you notice, you know, I don’t suggest this is any kind of, like, job one has to do, it’s more of just the pleasure of slightly unpacking what an artist has put into his or her work. You see the shifts in perspectives, the way that mood is evoked by different choices of color. It’s tremendously enriching and rich experience to spend time with beautiful pictures.

One of the points I make in the book as well, is that we now have access through picture books to some of the greatest art that humankind has created. You know? There are picture books illustrated by Vermeer and Mary Cassatt, and there are picture books with Picasso sculptures and there are picture books that are done in the style of other artistic traditions. The wonderful fellow who does classical Chinese calligraphy and painting, strike that, he doesn’t do calligraphy, it’s just the classical Chinese painting. Wonderful misty mountains and horses and things to tell stories that he’s inventing now. There is this wonderful way in which children and their parents, in looking at these books, it’s like entering a museum each time you open some of these gorgeous books. Some are just jolly, lively illustration, lots of swooping bits of watercolor. There may be beauty to it and maybe not a lot of intricacy. Then there are paintings so detailed that you could scrutinize them for hours and not see everything that’s in them. Just a fantastic multiplicity of talent that’s available to us and, also, inexpensively. This is like the golden age of access to all good things.

GT

It’s surprising how much access there is and how inexpensive it can be. Very inexpensive, if you go to the library. You have a great amount of selection. I was interested in reading your book, too, because you have five kids, you have a husband, who is also employed. I was curious to see what you were to tell us about how your family set it up. I thought it was interesting in your book how you talked about how any parent can do it, caregiver, grandparent, babysitter, or whatever. It’s not just one person who is supposed to do it, but it was interesting you share in your book how you were the main person who was doing the reading aloud at night or during the day, too, like during bath time or whatever.

MCG

Yeah, that’s right. What I’ve observed is in two-parent households anyway, the parent who enjoys reading aloud will naturally tend to be that one does it. I know there are some households where it’s the father who absolutely grabs the books and wants to be the one. In fact, I spoke to a mother the other day and she and her husband both love reading aloud. Their poor children they get put through a lot of reading aloud, because both parents really want that experience. Then there are families where the people are shy or not confident.

I really encourage people just you don’t have to be heroic. You don’t have to read for an hour. It doesn’t have to be every night at bedtime or whatever, but to find some time every day, ideally, the same time, because it’s always easier to keep those dates with our own lives and just give it a go. Even if you don’t feel confident in your ability to dramatize what you’re reading and lots of us don’t. The author has done that work for you. You just say the words and the magic will begin to come.

In our family what we did, my husband, when our children were young, worked very, very long hours and didn’t get home till 10:00 at night most nights, so the whole bedtime routine was up to me. I actually found reading aloud is not merely my favorite part of the day, but it was immensely helpful, what destination I suppose, for all of us as we got — you know, Gayle, you have more children than I do, it just can be —

GT

Only slightly.

MCG

– wild scrum of getting dinner and getting the kitchen done, and getting everybody upstairs, chased into their jammies and their toothbrushing, and have you flossed. It can be forever really. We had always this wonderful thing waiting for us at the end and it really gave order and structure to our lives as a family. Again, as an only child from a broken home, I had to learn how to do this from scratch. I found leaning on the books and leaning on that book time really helped me. It helped me learn how to be a mother.

GT

I think that can’t be understated. My experience was I really wanted to have that special time with the kids and, like you, my husband worked crazy hours and was rarely home and when he would come home and try to read to the kids or read to them on the weekend, he would frequently fall asleep with a child in his arms. That was the days before cell phones, so I don’t have any cute pictures of him doing that.

I think that’s the challenge. I think everyone needs to read your book and understand the science, the data, behind why this is so beneficial, apart from the enjoyment of it. I think parents are trying so hard all the time to do helpful things for their kids, right?

MCG

Right. I will say, this is not me speaking, this is social science speaking.

GT

Exactly.

MCG

Reading to your children is one of the most important indicators of their prospects in life. Actually I’m quoting from, I knew this was going to happen, I’m quoting from a very eminent social scientist whose name will come to me in a moment.

GT

I understand that.

MCG

It’s as they say, a true fact. It is probably the single most nourishing thing you can do for your family. Here is the thing, also, that I think we need to keep in mind, there are single-parent families, there are families that are working crazy hours, actually for the busiest families, it’s almost the best thing of all because so much is achieved during that time. Just ten minutes of your precious time with your children, use this in that time, and you achieve a multiplicity of ends. You build your relationship with them and their relationship with you. You build a relationship with each other, if you have more than one child. You build their language. You build their social/emotional skills. You really set them on a path for success in school and in life.

Can I mention one other thing that comes along with this?

GT

Please. Please do.

MCG

This is where the age of distraction comes in. By our distracted age, I, of course, refer to technology. Our attention spans are all getting shorter. For you and me, whether we have a long attention span or not, that’s something that’s sort of up to us, but our kids absolutely must be able to pay attention if they are to succeed in school. If they succeed in school, then they’re on, again, on this great trajectory for a productive life.

There is a strong, I think it’s not so much correlation, there is an absolute line that can be drawn from the attention span persistence of a 4-year-old child to the likelihood of that child graduating university by the age 25. There are all sorts of other breakdown bits and pieces in there. Learning to pay attention to a story is not just a nice way for a kid to spend some time. It’s an immensely helpful skill, life skill to pick up that has ramifications all through life.

GT

I want listeners to be excited about this and not feel like it’s a difficult thing and that’s why I brought up that story of your experiment in the book with this very busy family with like you mentioned all the screens and how just in three months’ time, there was a dramatic difference in what you observed from the first time you dropped off the bags of books to when you returned to check in on them.

MCG

It makes a huge change in three months in their kids, a huge improvement I should say.

GT

I think that should be very encouraging for everybody. Like you said, it can be ten minutes, it can be an hour, you can work up to it. That family, I think, like you said, was gung-ho on really jumping into it as a project. It doesn’t have to be that much of a project, right?

MCG

Absolutely, yeah. I don’t want anyone to feel like this is yet another thing I have to do. I can’t believe this woman is telling me turn off my phone. First of all, I don’t want to do that, and she’s telling me to read to my kids, I don’t have time. That is not the attitude. The attitude is: Go for it. It can be actually exciting, and it’s something you will never regret. Speaking for myself, you, Gayle, are probably a paragon of motherhood.

GT

Oh, no. No, no, no. I just have to interrupt for that. I struggle, but I love my kids. No one loves the kids more than I do, my children.

MCG

I love my children, too. I would not say that I have been a flawless mother, but in this regard, I would say that the time I have spent reading to them is the best that I have done for them and I don’t regret a minute of it. I press this on other families, not because I want anyone to feel guilty, but because I want them to experience some of the greatness of this fortifying practice that will help them get a little a space, a little respite from the distraction of technology.

GT

I want to underscore that, and I would like you to say that again about how it’s not to make people feel guilty or force someone, but just because you, yourself, have seen such enormous benefit from this practice that you want to share it with the world.

MCG

Absolutely. I will tell you also, I want people to know the kind of joy that I have experienced, but not because it has anything to do with me, but because I want them to have it themselves. Also, I want, through The Enchanted Hour, the book, to give people the evidence that if they’re not persuaded, I hope it will persuade them. I hope that people will also use this book, those who love reading aloud already, as their sacred text in their own evangelization. It’s a beautiful book, and that has nothing to do with me, by the way, that is, the brilliant Robin Bilardello and Fritz Metsch at HarperCollins. Robin designed the front cover and Fritz designed the interior design. They are magically talented people. The Enchanted Hour is actually, physically, a very beautiful book and thus not embarrassing to give to others as a gift.

GT

I will describe the cover of it. It has these beautiful books. A lot of the covers of the books have just such pretty designs on them, butterflies, beetles, some of the titles are Narnia, Arabian Nights and I can tell you, I agree, for a person who is not even very visually oriented, I do love books. So the cover of it makes you just want to jump into the book.

MCG

I agree. Of course, it’s very mercenary and self-satisfying for me to say that, but it’s true. It is the kind of book you want to touch. I’m thrilled if it gets through to a nonvisual person like you, Gayle, then that means they have really conquered the world then. They know their business, these designers. They really do magical work.

GT

The title, The Enchanted Hour, enchanted is not a word that I think we use very often anymore, do you?

MCG

It’s something we need more of. We need more enchantment in this fractured time. Here I am talking to you on your show, Right in DC, this is a book for everybody. This is a book for people who are on the right; it’s a book for people who are on the left. There is a chapter about acculturation through books. About how reading aloud can be a time to, not only share with your children things that you find important stories that really resonate with you, but also to tell them something about the world that you want them to know. For conservatives, certainly this is a no-brainer, right? It’s a way to inculcate lessons of history that we might want our kids to have, and that’s true for people of every background. You know what? Fair enough. We have our families. We want our families to reflect or at least our children to know what we think. Picture books, chapter books, that’s a wonderful way to achieve that end.

GT

Absolutely. I love the fact that you said it’s for people on all sides of the political spectrum or not on the political spectrum at all. I think that is a bridge that I’ve certainly experienced. Being in D.C., there are not a tremendous amount of conservatives, let alone Republicans, and I can tell you that the entré of a discussion about a book that you love is something that people of all different backgrounds can connect on. I think, like you were saying at the very beginning of our discussion in these very fractured times, fractious times, as well, that is something that not only gives us the ability to connect with other people but also gives our children the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds.

MCG

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think books now seem to be more like a bridge over the troubles of life than they ever have before. We know that, let’s say, it’s pouring with rain, and you can sit inside with a book and there is a wonderful consolation to that, but a book shared out loud is a bridge over conversation that might be difficult to have. If you’re reading with a teenager, it’s a sincere thing. I always use my poor son as an example, but when he was 13, 14, 15, we just did not have that much in common and it was not easy to have flowing conversations but where we could meet, we could meet in a book. I would read with him, and we experienced the story side-by-side and something really profound was happening and it kind of carried us over. In that way it was a bridge. Books are also bridge when you have a little squalling infants and toddlers, and it’s difficult to know when you can’t really have conversations with them either, but if you are reading with them, everybody is engaged in this wonderful thing and you’re kind of up above the choppy waters of toddlerhood.

Just the last point I’d like to make is that this is also true, we haven’t talked much about it yet, but about late in life, with our elders, we can read with our elders. If someone is in the hospital, you go to the hospital room, and it’s difficult to make conversation. “So what do the doctor’s say? When are you doing to get out of here?” No. You read aloud and that person who is in the hospital bed gets delivered from the hospital for a little while, and you are connecting with them because there’s something you can share, a gift you can give them. Again, it’s that it’s that fantastic bridging that a book will serve when it’s difficult to have a conversation.

GT

I love that, and I will share that it was bittersweet to read in your book about your children going off and not being part of the reading time anymore. I have certainly experienced that. I have two children who have left for college. I think parents, at least in my experience, I shouldn’t generalize to other people, but I think you get stuck in the weeds, and it’s all making food and doing laundry and taking them to activities, taking them to school, and making sure their homework is done, and you get so caught up in that that you tend to forget that this time is very fleeting.

Meghan, what was your experience of that as your kids went off from home or weren’t part of that time anymore?

MCG

It was poignant, right, it always is. I think, most mothers, we struggle a little bit with the degree to which we can press our children to spend time with us and also the understanding that we really don’t make, you know, nobody enjoys being compelled to do things. I really had to respect when my children left the reading circle one by one, and some stayed quite a long time. I would say my first left at 12, but she’d had so much reading aloud the poor thing, and she was the oldest of the family. Then the second, the boy, he and I kept reading aloud until he was probably 14, maybe 15. Then my third daughter stayed until she was, I think it was 16, but she thinks it was 15, but anyway it was quite a long time. My fourth daughter left early, I think she was 13, maybe 12. My last one, who is 13 now, still listens every night. We have a wonderful practice of reading aloud together in the evenings. Interestingly though, the 17-year-old, number four, let’s me read to her in the morning sometimes now, over breakfast. She gets ready to go to school and sits at the kitchen bar, and I make us both a coffee and can often get a couple pages in before she has to zoom off.

GT

That sounds amazing.

MCG

You can return sometimes. It’s difficult, but I think the advice I would give any family is start as soon as you can and go as long as you can and then don’t stop until they tell you have to stop.

GT

On that note, we do need to stop, but I would like to share with everyone where they can find your wonderful book.

MCG

Thank you. People can go to any reputable bookstore, and possibly disreputable bookstores, I don’t know, to get The Enchanted Hour. You can also, if you like, you can buy it from my website. There are links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Indie, I forgot what the other one is, and also to HarperCollins directly. My website is www.meghancoxgurdon.com. That also has links to the audiobook there, whatever you’d like. By the way, I recorded the audiobook for Harper, too.

GT

That’s great. I didn’t realize that.

MCG

Yeah, if you’re not fed up with the sound of my voice now, that might be a way to do it.

GT

How perfect. I just wanted to thank you so much for speaking with us about this and I hope that anyone listening to this will share their experiences with us. You can go on my website and share any comments you have about your experiences reading as a child aloud or reading now with your children. I would love to share them with Meghan, too, once I receive them.

MCG

Definitely. I love hearing people’s stories. It’s one of the most fun parts of this job.

GT

I really appreciate you being with us today, Meghan.

MCG

Thank you so much, Gayle. It was a lot of fun talking about it.

GT

You can like me on Facebook. You can follow me on Twitter. You can follow me on Instagram. You can subscribe to this podcast Right in DC on iTunes. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel. You can support this podcast on Patreon. We have brand-new Right in DC T-shirts as gifts. I also want to thank Trio Caliente, which is a local music group for providing the music for the podcast. This is Right in DC.

About the author

Gayle Trotter

Gayle Trotter is a columnist, political analyst and attorney who regularly appears on TV, such as Fox News Channel, contributes to The Hill, The Daily Caller, Townhall and other well-known political websites, and is a frequent guest on radio shows across the country providing an insider’s view of Washington, DC. Read More