My mother’s reading voice is still one of my favorites on the planet—yes, including Morgan Freeman’s and Idris Elba’s. She was a stay-at-home mom for 22 years and always emphasized reading to my brother and I. For many years she thought that she read to my brother too much because he didn’t like reading as he grew older, though he’s come back around. But I always recognized the importance of books and her love of them.
I wanted to read long before I could. I remember the process of learning to read and was just precocious enough that I wondered how my reading relationship with my mother was going to change when I didn’t need her to read to me anymore. I love being read to, and was at times frustrated that I couldn’t read myself, but I did so love being read to.
However, my mother still emphasized reading with us by paying a lot of attention to our summer reading and what we were reading at school. She continued to read to us at times, too. The one I remember the best is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a summer reading requirement that was one of the first really visceral reading experiences I’d had. And mom made it clear that it was that way for her, too, wrapped up together under the afghan. Her example showed me that reading could just as immersive to adults, defying my previous idea that reading is only fun when you’re a kid.
My 4th grade teacher, Ms. Harris, was one of the rockstar teachers at my school. At least to the kids. Everybody loved her and everybody looked forward to her class because she made a point to read to her classes every single day. And she was very good at it. Presumably, she still is. Some books were staples of every year’s class, like The BFG by Ronald Dahl and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, but she also read The Secret Garden to us and poem after poem in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.
Ms. Harris and librarian teamed up to get us excited about the brand new book that was making a lot of waves in the librarian and literary world: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember the librarian’s pitch to us during Library Time, as we were all trying to pick out our books for the week. And it didn’t sound all that good to me. I wasn’t really interested in reading about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I was much more interested in reading about Dorothy or a young woman named Kate who helped save a train full of people or more Little House books. Only one person in the class took that first available copy of Sorcerer’s Stone home with him. His name is Adam and I have no idea where he is but I cannot think about that book without also thinking of him. Ms. Harris and the librarian chose to counter our overwhelming lack of enthusiasm by making it the next book Ms. Harris read to us. By chapter 3, Sorcerer’s Stone had become our all-time favorite listen, even as we mispronounced most of the names. We would riddle Adam with questions, begging him to tell us what was going to happen next. Blessed soul, he never gave in. He preserved that reading experience for us.
I also can’t think about the early Harry Potter books without thinking about Alex. I’ve written about him before. He had relatives in England who sent him a brand new copy of The Chamber of Secrets when it came out. And we got to start it right after we finished The Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember seeing that colorful paperback cover for the first time in Alex’s hands. And when I think about that book, I don’t picture the cover of the hardcover copy I own and have reread many times; I picture that paperback book in his hands, blue car flying above the Hogwarts Express in the English countryside. I forgot, though, that Ms. Harris read it to us until years later when I was rereading the series ahead of the release of the 4th or 5th book. Professor Sprout house was teaching second years to repot mandrakes. As she instructed them, she indicated that she would give a thumbs-up when it was okay to take their earmuffs off. Ms. Harris’s thumbs would bent back extremely far in an almost double-jointed arc. And as she read that sentence to us, she had turned up her thumb. I read the sentence years later, I could see it in my mind. Her red jumper dress, her red nail polish, her tanned skin, sitting in her butter-colored wooden rocking chair, the arc of her finger under the projection of her voice.
Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love this series so much is because the first two books were read to me. However, I also find it important that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book, and one of my favorite books, and it was the first one I read by myself. It was my first step alone down the path of this series.
The last time I was read to corporately, shall we say, was in 8th grade. My 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Walker had also been my 6th grade teacher. I was at a relatively small Arts and Humanities magnet school, so the class hadn’t changed much in the year between. In 6th grade, our favorite book we read and studying that year was Holes by Louis Sachar. By the time we were in 8th grade, the movie was coming out. We talked about how much we loved that book, and somehow we came up with the idea of reading it again. But rather than trying to get copies and add assignments on to our existing load, she offered to read it to us during class. It was glorious. We loved to hear her reading anyway, and we loved her, and we didn’t care that we were supposed to be way too old to be read to.
I’m very grateful to report that I’m still be read to. I’m a regular subscribed to Audible, which has helped me read books I may never have gotten to otherwise, including A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. I’ve listened to The Martian by Andy Weir three times because I love the narrator so much (I own a paperback copy, too) and my next re-listen will probably be the exceptionally well performed and well written The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or the Grammy-winning The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher.
My best friend Kayla and I also like to read new children’s books, and occasionally the beloved books of our childhood, to each other. And we have no shame in that. Children’s books are good literature and a really good picture books are enjoyed by adults, too. That’s part of the point.
Kayla and I are further unique in that we also like to read longer works to each other. Kayla’s mind tends to wander with audiobooks, but she can listen to at least short bursts of me reading a novel to her. The first time this happened, I had just finished Kiera Cass’s The Selection. I called her and said something like, “Oh my gosh this is the most amazing book and you’re going to love it! When can you get it?” The answer was, “Not really any time soon,” and I said, “Okay, what if I just read you the first page though?” And that quickly became read the first chapter, one more, then the entire book. I did most of it by Skype, and we proceeded to read a few books to each other that way, including Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Just this past year, Kayla read the opening chapters of Maureen Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love to me at Starbucks one Sunday morning. She then gave the book to me so I could take it home and inhale the rest myself. But I “heard” the words in her voice. And she was right, it is the cutest book ever.
We don’t always have time to do that anymore, and it’s all so much faster just to read a book yourself most of the time, but we still love it. It’s easy to feel loved when someone is reading a book they love to you.
My current audiobook is A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab.
My next audiobook is The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish.