I’m still reading Watership Down with my daughter. I wrote before about how she predicted future elements of the plot based on previous knowledge (which I love to see with my educator’s heart), but now I want to write about how reading this aloud with her has affected me as a reader. If you read my previous post, you know this is one of my favorite books. I first read it, by myself, when I was maybe a year older than she is now, and over the past many years, I have read it over and over (although this is the first time in many years that I’ve picked it up). I know the plot and what to expect, but as an adult, having wider experience of the world, its impact doesn’t hit me as hard. And of course because I read it to myself and not with an adult to discuss it with me, I missed a lot on my first time through, especially because the structure is a little confusing, with stories inside stories.
As I explained before, she predicted some pretty unsettling elements of the book, and was excited to see if she was right. She was even waiting impatiently for the reveal. And then we reached it, but the thing is, intellectually knowing what is probably going to happen (she was still debating whether the rabbits in the new warren were cannibals or planned to sacrifice our brave band of adventurers) is different when things start happening, suddenly, to characters you’ve grown to love. Because I already previously spoiled this for you, I’ll say that a greatly-loved, if rather brusque member of our adventuring group is caught by surprise in what will probably be an unsurprising way to any adult reading this, but OH MY GOD it is terrifying, because the witnesses don’t actually see what’s happening but we, the readers, know this is the moment. And when the witnesses do see, because they’re rabbits, they see the peril, and they see what has happened to their friend, but they don’t have the ability to understand what is happening and they don’t know what to do. They are horrified and frozen by what they see. And as readers we have a choice– we can step back and look at the big picture, knowing what is probably going to happen and dreading it– or we can experience it through the rabbits’ eyes, trying to solve the problem without knowing what’s going on even as they are witnessing the terrible thing that is happening right in front of them. The smallest one, Fiver, rushes to the warren to say what has happened, and while our band of adventurers immediately gather and run to their friend, the warren rabbits ignore him, and when he tries to get their attention, they attack him.
Once the immediate crisis has ended, Fiver pulls all the facts together to explain to them why the warren rabbits refused to help (he is a very intuitive creature). An experienced reader has probably figured the situation out by this point, but the average rabbit (and maybe the first time reader who saw the story through the rabbits’ eyes) needs it laid out to them. It’s at this point that my daughter emerged from whatever deep place the story had taken her. Once she understood what had actually occurred (that one of her predictions was correct) she could go the step further that the author never does (because this, after all, is a tale of rabbit adventure and not a deep philosophical discussion) and say “How could the warren rabbits pretend nothing was happening? Why did they stay? How could they be so cruel?” As a first time reader who lived the experience through the eyes of the rabbits, and felt it with them, and then stopped to think about it, the cruelty, indifference, and unfairness of the warren rabbits are something she felt on not just an intellectual level, as an adult or experienced reader might, but on a visceral level. And yet at the end, that same deepness of feeling also showed her, and me through her, the power of mercy and of hope.
Don’t you sometimes feel jaded by the experiences you’ve lived through in this world? You learn that “nature is red in tooth and claw”, that unfairness and cruelty exist in the world everywhere, that people will sometimes turn their backs on those in need if there’s benefit to themselves, that there’s a willingness out there to trade freedom for security. Some kids learn those things the hard way, by living it, but there are some who are protected from having to know those things, until, for the first time, they see the world through rabbits’ eyes. Reading aloud doesn’t just benefit them. It peels back the layers between how so many of us now see the world, and the sharp vision and powerful feelings our children possess.
There are many reasons to read aloud to children: to teach them how stories work, to introduce them to new ideas and new worlds, to help them increase vocabulary, to learn to read with both fluency and comprehension, to engage them in reading independently, to help build emotional bonds, to prepare them to participate effectively in democracy and society. All of these are so important. I can’t emphasize enough the power of reading (and if you have a child of any age who says they’re too old for reading aloud, keep in mind that I read to my husband, as well as my children, until the night before he died).
But here is something many, many of us don’t take into consideration. The benefits of reading aloud are not one-way. There are reasons for adults to read aloud with children, and a very important reason is that is allows us to see our own world with new eyes and a refreshed heart.
Editor’s note: Next up, back to horror fiction. I promise.