Jim Trelease, recently in the Los Angeles area to extol the benefits of reading aloud to children, doesn’t mind the single criticism he says has been leveled against him: that he is evangelical in his fervor. “I want to move people to change their habits,” he said in an interview, “not just to have them say, ‘Uh-huh, that’s a nice idea.’ ”
Trelease, 44, who lives with his wife and two children, ages 16 and 20, in Springfield, Mass., feels so strongly about the importance of books in the lives of children that he used to force his ideas on friends and relatives. “If you don’t start reading to your kid, you’re not going to be my friend anymore,” he told them. “What do you mean you don’t have time to spend a few minutes reading to your child? Did you watch TV last night? Then you have time.”
Trelease no longer has to buttonhole neighbors, however, since 700,000 copies of his book “The Read-Aloud Handbook” (Penguin, $6.95) are in print. The revised edition has just been published; the first edition was on the New York Times best-seller list for four months. The book is available in 30 countries.
A Simple Message
In addition, Trelease speaks to groups all over the country. According to Trelease, his message is so simple, it’s obvious to those educated and literate listeners who tend to turn out for his speeches. “I’m converting, again and again, those who don’t need it,” he lamented.
Trelease believes that if a child is old enough to talk to, he is old enough to read to, yet he emphasizes that he is not interested in raising superkids. By reading aloud, “you are giving your child one of the most important gifts that child is ever going to have: the ability to communicate,” he said. “Because the child who cannot communicate has no way of telling you ‘I hurt, I fear, I love you.’ ”
He also talks to parents about time. “Time is something you cannot buy at Buffums. You cannot send for it from the Sharper Image Catalogue. It’s something you can’t buy, you can only give it,” he insisted. “The memory of the Times (that’s a capital T) you had together, that’s all you have. Reading aloud brings parents and children together in a meaningful way.”
Two years ago Trelease quit the job he held for 20 years as a journalist/artist at the Springfield Daily News to give his full energies to the real-aloud campaign. Reading Tree Productions is comprised of wife Susan, who recently gave up teaching to manage the increasingly complex business of arranging Trelease’s speaking tours, himself and two secretaries. Thirty prints of a film made of Trelease’s presentation circulate nationwide.
When Trelease’s son and daughter were small, he read aloud to them because his father had read to him. The more he did it and the older his children got, the more he enjoyed it. “And I saw this very healthy relationship between my children and the books and what we were sharing,” he said.
When a former teacher recommended him to speak to a class about his career in journalism, Trelease agreed because this teacher was the one who had seated him next to the girl who was later to become his wife. Eventually, he was speaking at about a school a week. While discussing books with the students, he discovered few of them knew many of his favorites. In classes where the teacher read aloud to the children Trelease discovered a great difference in the students’ responses when he asked what they had read lately.
Advertised the Product
“In classes where the teacher didn’t read aloud, most hadn’t read anything,” he said. “In the other classes, the teacher reading to them advertised the product, and they would go out and try to get books by the same author.”
Trelease began to read the research done on reading. “In 1979 I conned my wife out of our vacation money for the Jersey shore,” he said, smiling, “and self-published a little booklet on reading aloud.” To Trelease’s astonishment, it eventually sold 21,000 copies in 30 states. After Penguin published “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” “Dear Abby” mentioned it and 120,000 copies sold.
Trelease plans a revision every four years, including an update of the annotated “Treasury of Read-Alouds,” which makes up nearly half the book. Publishers send him everything written for children, he reads all the reviews and speaks to librarians and parents all over the country. In addition, teachers tell him what has been working in their classrooms.
Half his audiences are teachers. One of the points he makes is that analyzing and writing reports on every book they read in the early grades reduces the pleasure children get from reading. According to Trelease and the studies he cites, when teachers take 15 minutes a day to read aloud to their pupils, right through the teen years, those students have a different attitude toward reading books. “Attitudes are the foundation stones of appetite,” said Trelease, “and if a kid has an appetite he’s going to read.”
Trelease, enthusiastic about parents reading to their children, also recognizes how many other activities compete. He singles out television for a strongly worded chapter in his book, which he says received almost more mail than all other chapters in the book combined. Though not anti-TV, Trelease insists that parents must control use of the set, offering alternative things for their children to do.
“You can’t possibly effectively develop intelligence sitting passively in front of a plastic box 30 hours a week letting somebody else do all the thinking, speaking, imagining, playing, and so on,” he said.
Trelease is working on an audiocassette that answers parents’ most often-asked questions about reading aloud. And he keeps trying to reach those he feels need it the most.
“In this country we have millions of 4-year-olds who could find their way to the mall blindfolded,” he said, “but couldn’t find their way to the library. You could blindfold these kids, at 4, and they could do a pretty good job of operating their VCR but they wouldn’t know where to begin to check out a book from the library. There are homes with every kind of sports equipment, but no books at all.
“The only way I have of reaching their parents is through the people who do come to hear me. They’ll be fired up, go home, and share this contagious experience. And I think we have an obligation as a part of this culture to keep it alive. I think it was Plato who said about 3,000 years ago, ‘It is the responsibility of people who carry torches to pass them on.’ ”