Say it Loud

Why stories read aloud sparks a child's imagination

“…a reminder of nights spent circled around campfires when our most distant ancestors explained the world away with mythical heroes…”

I’ve always thought there is something appealing about circular buildings – lighthouses, old mills, the way they wrap up those inside against the storms with the wind unable to grab a hold of anything. Or maybe it’s that they hark back to the storytelling traditions that are tens of thousands of years old, a reminder of nights spent circled around campfires when our most distant ancestors explained the world away with mythical heroes and Gods.

The stories that were told were passed from generation to generation, with the finest storytellers venerated by their societies. At some point, people started to write down the legends and fables and they were shared far and wide. Storytellers travelled to learn stories from distant lands then returned home with adapted, personalised versions for their own audiences.

“…the excitement of boarding the pirate ship or a long-anticipated escape from the castle.”

Everyone knows somebody who is great at telling stories: the person who knows how to pause in just the right place, speak loudly and softly in turn to draw the audience in, end with a triumphant moment of drama. And for the finest storytellers of all, there are two phases to the process. The first is the telling of the story and the second is responding to the listeners’ reactions – for everyone will interpret the ideas a little differently, find a meaning that suits them and their life.

And that is why, sometimes, we should just read aloud to children. Let their minds draw the pictures and create the beasts and demons, let them paint the fairies in the flowers and the dragons by the castle. If you’ve ever seen Aristotle’s tragedies being performed, you’ll know that most of the gruesome elements take place off stage – the mind, he believed, is far more powerful than anything that can be shown. That is where the notion of terror comes from, too, that plays alongside horror to shock and awe; Stephen King defines terror as ‘the suspenseful moment in horror before the actual monster is revealed… horror is the moment at which one sees the creature.’ While we aren’t trying to induce either horror or terror in children, we do want to play with the same tools that induce that terror: guide their emotions to anticipate something, whether that be the excitement of boarding the pirate ship or a long-anticipated escape from the castle.

Reading aloud, with dramatic pauses and raised eyebrows, whispered words and excited lines punctuated by exclamation marks that are almost visible to the listener, is an art. It teaches children to be still, to be wrapped up in something other than the standard visual inputs of computer games and television shows. It teaches them to dream up images and make their own connections between ideas. It teaches them that their own imagination is powerful.

And what are we without imagination? Without our own thoughts and ideas and dreams we are merely following an endless procession of sameness and safety. Nobody invented anything without using their imagination. Nobody accidentally set out on a voyage of discovery without first dreaming that they could make it happen. Everything of significance in human history has happened because somebody dreamed it was possible, and then stretched their imagination to make the seemingly impossible – possible.

 

“Everything of significance in human history has happened because somebody dreamed it was possible…”

The ‘Jolly Ollie’ series are written to be read aloud. They flow in a way that is easy for any reader to follow; there is no question where the emphasis is required or when the punchline must be delivered. And more than that, they tell more stories than are just seen on the page. The sentences are open to interpretation, the ideas not rounded off completely – there is space for a child to add something of themselves to the stories. There is space for a child to be a dreamer.

One of the finest storytellers of them all, Shakespeare, through his character Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”.

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