An interview with the author of ‘The Enchanted Hour’, celebrating the art of family storytime
In her beautiful new book The Enchanted Hour, author Meghan Cox Gurdon, a long-time Wall Street Journal columnist, seamlessly combines both scientific studies and personal experiences to showcase the merits of reading aloud to your children. Here she shares her reasons for writing the book and her tips on how we can all carve out this special hour every day for our own benefit.
How did you get the idea for the book?
In the spring of 2015, I began to notice two things. Screens and tech had crept deep into family life and were beginning to show some deleterious effects: fragmented attention spans, a big reduction in the time parents and kids were spending together unmediated, and a subtle alienation within families resulting from everyone being off on their own separate virtual realities. The second thing I noticed was that reading aloud with my children, which we did every night without fail, had exactly opposite effects. It was a concentrated time of shared attention, a loving time that brought us all together with books, and an experience that knitted us closer by way of the stories we read and the conversations we had about them.
That summer, I wrote a piece for the WSJ entitled “The Great Gift of Reading Aloud,” and it went viral, not because people were outraged but because it resonated with them. Clearly there was real hunger for this topic. When I began poking around as a journalist I realized there was a case to be made. In the book, I lay it out.
While you based this book on scientific studies, it obviously also came from your personal experiences as well.
I was lucky to have the example not only of my parents and grandparents, who read to me, but also of a friend who started having babies before I did. She would drop everything to read to her kids before bed. It made a big impression on me. My husband and I had five children in eleven years and I read to all of them every night from the get-go until they were teenagers. It was sometimes fatiguing, sometimes a nuisance, but always worthwhile. As we sat tucked up together with pictures and stories and all the impromptu conversation that goes along with reading aloud I know that something good was happening. But not until I started researching the book did I discover just how consequential it all was.
What tips do you have for carving out this time during the day?
Sometimes it’s hard enough to get through the regular to-do list, let alone add something like a daily dose of reading aloud. But here’s the thing: It’s the busiest parents who need reading aloud the most, because it’s a way to turbo-charge the time they have with their kids. It builds the relationship, enhances trust and reduces stress, fills children’s mind with language (and stimulates their cognitive development) and, super-importantly, gives them their parents’ full attention. But the tablets and phones do have to go off–tech is not a good companion during read-aloud time.
Pick a moment when you’d naturally be together. It might be at breakfast or after dinner or at bedtime, but every day at the same time do a bit of reading aloud. No need for heroics: Start small. It might be just an enchanted ten minutes reading a poem or a fairy tale or a picture book. But keep that daily appointment and soon you may find it’s become everyone’s favorite part of the day.
Do you have a favorite book or memory from reading to your own children, or from your parents reading to you as a child?
I remember one of our periodic visits to Treasure Island. My son was stretched out across my shoulders along the back of the sofa, like a panther, my eldest daughter was snuggled beside me, and somehow I had two toddlers and a baby on my lap. As I was reading, my husband came in from work and stretched out on the floor in his suit and tie to listen. We were all together at home, and all together on the deck of the Hispaniola in Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure story. It was bliss.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing the research for this book?
When someone is telling an enthralling story–which is essentially what’s happens when we read aloud, we take a story off the page and turn it into speech–the brains of the speaker and the listeners actually synchronize. Isn’t that amazing? Those feelings of closeness, connectedness, and shared experience we get from reading together turn out to be grounded in scientific reality.
You’ve been the Children’s Book Reviewer for The Wall Street Journal for 15 years. Do you have your own favorite children’s book?
I could give you a list of my 100 favorites and still not be able to include them all, but if there’s one book I adored beyond all others as a child it was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Reading aloud is in some respects a single, unitary experience, so the challenge was in figuring out how to tease it apart into distinct threads that could be examined and followed. At one point, I stood in my living room surrounded by tiny sheets of paper, each with an idea or a phrase written on it. t looked like the aftermath of a ticker-tape parade!
What have you been reading for yourself during this pandemic?
Books for work, of course, piles of them. But for myself, last summer I was on a huge Hilary Mantel binge. I read The Mirror and the Light in the conventional way, and then turned around and re-read her entire Wolf Hall trilogy on audiobook. Once Thomas Cromwell was well and truly dead, I re-read her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety on audiobook, having already read it twice on paper.
Double-reading in this way, alternating between eye and ear, has become my favorite method. I love toggling back and forth, especially when, as happened to me with The Three Musketeers, the audiobook is from one translator and the print edition from another. I go through phases with writers. I’m now in my Ann Patchett period, having read The Dutch House (Tom Hanks reads it brilliantly on Audible) and State of Wonder, and I’m now in the middle of Commonwealth. Great stuff.
What, in your opinion, is the most important thing we can gain from the gift of reading aloud with others?
Reading aloud is one of the greatest gifts we can give to the people we love. For children, there’s nothing it like it to kindle their growing brains, fortify their social-emotional development, strengthen the bonds of affection, and give them effortless access to the beauty and complexity of language–vocabulary, syntax, grammar, of course; but also, its cadence and imaginative power. And for adults, it offers–well! Check out Chapter 8.