I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the art of reading aloud.  I say ‘art’ because I’m sure we all have memories of being read to as a child by someone who absolutely had zero desire to be doing such a thing, thus ruining the story for our tiny ears and burgeoning imaginations. I think I’ve blocked out the specifics of such incidents in my life, but I do have a general stain on my mind of a grade school teacher with large glasses droning her way through some equally lifeless book for children.

The times when it worked, though, they were transcendent.  When the teacher, librarian, or parent would really nail the telling of the tale, it would seriously blow my little mind.  The first time I can remember a story being read aloud and having an impact, was when my mom read us The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Not the Disney version, the real book version.  It was a beautiful old book with a green fabric cover.  My mom’s voice was soft and lyrical, and the puppies came alive as we drifted closer to sleep. (My dad didn’t so much read to us as create his own stories which generally centred around a teddy bear that came to life and farted on everything.  For some reason, this bear was always taking school trips to a baked bean factory and falling into tubs of the stuff, that it then had to eat and fart its way out of.  Those stories warped my mind in a different fashion and in no way helped me and my siblings to get to sleep.)

The second story I remember being told scared the living daylights out of me.  (Which, by now, you know I actually kind of enjoy.)  I must have been in kindergarten or grade one, somewhere around there, and our school was having a Halloween celebration day.  Basically, we’d all show up for school in costume, each grade would parade around to the other classes, and then we got turns sitting in the gym doing Halloween-type activities. That year, my teacher, Mrs Roberts, told us a story.  

Mrs Roberts was a very tall and willowy woman, with long wavy red hair and a high forehead.  She always wore long skirts and seemed to glide when she walked, a beautiful combination of benevolent queen and loving grandmother.  Mrs Roberts had a little science corner in our classroom filled with bits of bone and owl pellets, rocks, fossils and a tiny unhatched chick in a jar filled with vinegar.  And when I dropped said jar on my foot, she was very kind as she scooped the dead bird off my toes and rinsed out my sock.  She was a teacher that had no problem exposing children to the weird and scary parts of life and helping them deal with it.  Needless to say, I loved her.

So we filled into the gym to find Mrs Roberts sitting in the dark, a circle of candles around her and shall over her head.  The light from the candles formed strange shadows across her face as she gestured for us to join her.  Then she told us the tale of Tailypo.  

I won’t tell the tale here, we’ll save that for another time.  Just know that it was beyond scary.  And I know you’re probably thinking “Sarah, you were five, of course, it was scary.” Oh no! I have told the same story over the years to many different age groups, and all were frightened.  Hell, I even get scared telling it. 

Grade four was also a big year for scary stories, specifically Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, with those uber disturbing illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  Good lord, those stories are scary.  The books were recently released as ebooks, and I’m reading the first in the series now.  I can honestly say I’ve been as creeped out reading them now as an adult, as I was when I first heard the stories as a child.  Our grade four class was a big open room with two full classes sharing the space.  The other class’s teacher, whose name escapes me, would read us the stories in the afternoon.  He’d get some kids to close the blinds so the vast room was in semi-darkness and then he’d start.  He was very tall, well I remember him as tall but I think I was still at the age when all adults look tall.  I’d probably tower over him now.  He looked a bit like Phil Donahue, with very squinty eyes and a big bark of a voice.  Which doesn’t sound like it would lend itself to storytelling but the clipped style of the writing coupled with that big bark was very effective.  There was a particularly disturbing moment when he looked up at us and did his best Jack Nicholson impression as he read the last line of the story; “I really scared her, didn’t I?”  Just take a minute and picture Phil Donahue doing Jack Nicholson in the Shinning.  Yeah, it was messed up.  But effective.

Sometime towards the end of grade school, I started dabbling in my own storytelling.  In the dark hours of a sleepover, I would retell stories I’d read.  And when people started bringing out the Ouija board in high school, man, it was like doing scary prop comedy!  There’s something particularly enjoyable about hammering on an Ouija board and hearing everyone scream as the planchette jumps at my hand. He he he…

Right out of college I took a job as program coordinator at an arts sleep-away camp.  It was my job to create and run four weeks of theatre camp for kids aged 9-12.  (The first two weeks were excellent, the last two weeks were abysmal. I am not cut out for the camp experience.)  One night I was tasked with running a campfire for the kids in my group.  We did the usual, s’mores, cocoa, etc. Then I started to read to them, first was Harry Potter, which I had only just discovered and was about as obsessed with as the kids, then, when they got bored with that, I started in on the scary stories. I did Tailypo, I did what I could remember from Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark, and then I think I just made up a bunch.  The kids loved it, the councillors that had to get them to sleep that night, not so much. 

Although this blog post started out as a comment on the importance of being read to aloud, I think there’s also something to be said for teaching children how to be scared.  That you can be scared and safe at the same time,Th is an important lesson.  As you know, dear readers, I get more nightmares than the average person – yeah, I am totally making that up, I have no idea how many nightmares is average.  Wait, I’ll look it up…huh… the average for my age group is one a year. That’s hilarious. And the average for children aged 8 to 14 is eleven. Eleven! So yeah, let’s teach kids how to deal with being scared, and what better way than in your loving arms as you read them something that’ll give them nightmares. 

: D

Books & things mentioned in this article (ps. these are affiliate links):

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Ouija Board