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December 8, 2011

Shelley Shepard Gray on Reading Aloud

Posted by Katherine


SHELLEY SHEPARD GRAY is the author of the Seasons of Sugarcreek Sisters of the Heart series. She lives with her family in southern Ohio, where she writes full time. Here she lends us some memories she has of reading out loud.


I used to be a fifth and sixth grade teacher.  Now that job was definitely a challenge!  Without a doubt, my favorite part of the day was right after lunch. My students would file in, tired and sweaty and busy talking over the latest drama in their lives. After letting them get settled at their desks, I’d grab my Diet Coke, hop on the stool in the front of the classroom, and read a chapter from our latest read-aloud book.

The secret to a good read-aloud book for 11- and 12-year olds is that it has to be exciting or funny. Preferably both.  No beautiful pages of prose for them! A boring book was a sure way to inspire mutiny --- or at least a whole lot of note passing.

Some books I read every year. THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER was a holiday staple. So was CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. NIGHT OF THE TWISTERS and HATCHETwere favorites, too. Just remembering those books makes me smile.

 But there was one book I always read out loud without fail:  THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS by Betty Ren Wright. It had just the right amount of teenage angst and mystery in it to guarantee an eager class of listeners. So much so, I could practically guarantee my group of students would start asking for ‘just one more chapter’ by the second or third day of reading the book! By the time we got near the end, the tables would have turned.  Then, instead of me being the one to ask the kids to sit quietly while I read, they’d be asking me to skip social studies so we could finish the book.

The truth? Sometimes I would skip social studies! I’ve never been able to resist the appeal of a cliffhanger chapter.

Because I’ve always loved to read aloud, one of my favorite Christmas presents I ever received was a hardcover storybook for young children. A TREASURY OF CHILDREN’S CLASSICS, I believe it was. It was the year I was pregnant with my second child.  That December, it seemed I was always tired and cranky and hungry --- but still my students put up with me. At our holiday party on the last day before  Christmas vacation, my students presented me with that book! Inside was a message, saying that they gave me the book so I could read to my own children the way I read to them.  Of course, receiving that book made me cry. (Boy, did they love that!)

But receiving that book also made me feel happy.  Just by reading out loud to a bunch of squirrelly pre-teens, I had inspired some to love a good story, too. That meant the world to me.

I did read out loud to my own kids a lot over the years. I read out loud on car trips --- no portable DVDs for them! At the time, they weren’t all that thrilled about the idea. But we had some good times --- I read all seven of the Harry Potter books. Oh, those were so good! When my kids were nine and ten, I discovered a set of silly pirate and action adventure books --- all with exciting chapter endings! I read those out loud too, much to my husband’s dismay.

Now my kids are in college and my days of teaching are long gone. But every once in a while, I'll hear something about one of the books I read...and the memories will come back. I’ll remember sitting in the passenger seat of our red mini-van while miles of endless countryside zipped by, my kids laughing at something one of the characters said. I should probably also admit that whenever I see a dollhouse, I still get just a little bit squeamish. Reading THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS eight years in a row has left quite an impression!  

This Christmas, I hope you receive a book you love. Or better yet, maybe you’ll be read to…or get the chance to take a few minutes each day to share the wonder and joy of a really good book with someone you love.