The following is a recovered and reclaimed post from a blog I used to write on skepticism and rational parenting. Commenting is permanently closed.
I’ve been trying to dig up some real research on the topic of reading aloud to kids, positive or negative. Other than a few vague correlational analysis there does not seem to be much scientific literature online about this either way. (Perhaps a reader could point me in the right direction. I thought I was adept at searching, but I’m stumped on this one.) Alas…
I’ve been reading aloud two books to my daughter. And while she does not understand the content, context, or conflict of either, I’m banking on the value of simply a familiar voice and a comforting tone adding to the prospect and value of a potential life-long love of books and reading… just like her old man. That said, this isn’t a review of the value of reading, but a comparison and (yes) a question about the types of books one should be reading.
So here’s the thing: the two books I am reading aloud right now are both classics, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson. Assignment: compare and contrast. And like any good skeptical puzzle, the data so far has me both surprised and questioning my assumptions.
Before I started reading…
My initial assumptions, having only vague and distant memories of both tomes, were as follows: Verne as science and Wyss as religion. That is to say, I understood Jules Verne to be an author of some fantastic regard, but with ideas steeped in the scientific method. Contrary to that, I supposed the writings of Wyss (a pastor in his time) would be steeped in high handed religion and moral preaching.
Where did these assumptions come from? Popular culture, I suppose would be the answer. These are not the sources of my own assumptions, but Wikipedia sums up the popular opinion of each:
“Jules Verne’s novels have been noted for being startlingly accurate descriptions of modern times. Paris in the 20th Century is an often cited example of this as it describes air conditioning, automobiles, the internet, television, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts.” 
A similar, but much abbreviated entry for The Swiss Family Robinson simply states two facts that many avid readers probably know: Johann David Wyss was a swiss pastor, and The Swiss Family Robinson is more often remembered for the 1960 Walt Disney movie adaptation.
If my own assumptions do not match your own (perhaps more likely a circumstance than I expect) you are indeed better read than I.
…and then part way along…
Now, I’m going to step back for a moment and clarify: I have not finished reading either book. I’m not a slow reader, but we try to read aloud a chapter a night from whichever book suits my fancy (though eventually I suppose it will be listener’s choice) which takes us at a meandering pace through each novel. I am admittedly one of those guys who has a dozen books on the go at any one time and I can (though my wife wonders how the heck I do it) still manage to keep all the plots and/or premises straight. Bouncing back and forth between a couple kid\’s books read aloud is not a problem. That said, these impressions are from the first half of each book and a part of me fully expects the characters to grow to better fit my assumptions of the author’s reputation.
Why am I doing this then?
I suppose my analysis of each is coming from an eye for both skepticism and critical thought. I don’t usually pay undue attention to those things in my own reading, what with absorbing heaps of science fiction and fantasy as I do, but (because of this blog, mostly) I’ve become a little more observant with regard to kid’s books. That, and I thought it might be interesting to track my “skeptical impressions” of literature at various points in two contrasting books.
Within the first half-dozen chapters of each book certain points begin become clear about the critical depth of each novel:
For starts, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is indeed a tale of science and technology, but his characters (at least in the early pages) are not models of critical thought. The story is awash with technical details, numbers, calculations, and observations, true. And the story so far does have an air of analysis to it, but the main character does little to encourage others to think on things. In fact, in one early chapter the protagonist actively debates another more skeptical character and does so with a generous portion of fallacious reasoning, jumping to conclusions, quoting false dichotomies, and making assumptions that should not be made. Perhaps, my memory failing me, I’m going to come to the end to find this is the lesson of the tale. If so, please don’t comment and spoil it.
The Swiss Family Robinson on the other hand does have a distinctly theistic overtone, but the narrator (and father) promotes common sense, rational thought and actively encourages the kids to be creative in their approach to a situation otherwise beyond their control. In fact (so far in my reading, anyhow) I would almost argue that the religion aspect of the story is more akin to a hollow acknowledgment to the culture of the day and the author’s profession, allowing Wyss to approach the moral, creative, and rational lessons he wishes to convey without other objection.
The Jury is Still Out…
… and I’ll keep reading hoping to (as the slow art of reading aloud only permits) uncover more balanced perceptions of these novels and their value in all those important things — from a simple love of reading and spending time with the girl, to setting a framework for critical thought.