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The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction


By Meghan Cox Gurdon
Reviewed by Nancy Eichhorn

The reading specialist in me refused to wait. Meghan Cox Gurdon’s essay in The Wall Street Journal (January 19-20, 2019), adapted from her new book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, inspired me.

Reading her column, I noticed the mental noise in my brain stressed our current focus on the vagus nerve and social engagement (i.e., the power of attunement and secure attachment), the weight of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health balanced on the first three to five years of life (we’re talking brain development that impacts language, cognition, imagination, attention and more), and a muchly needed focus on families (from conception forward). I simply had to share this information now.

Sans the actual book in hand to read, I found free samples online. I read what other reviewers said. And, after that, I was compelled to share my reactions even though I haven’t read the entire book, yet. And, yes, this may surprise you. I’ve never done this before. And, sure, I may miss some things, i.e. one reviewer said she was repetitive. But, honestly, her tone of voice, her intention—what she wanted to say and why—and her focus on a particular audience created a comfortable flow that resonated with me. Information came forward in a manner that was digestible. I read it, and I got it.

So, in the name of transparency as this review begins, I offer my thanks to Meghan for material I used from her article in the WSJ as well as materials from online samples and reviews. References are noted at end of this blog and quotations are used throughout to denote what I ‘borrowed’ with no specific connection because my notes are rather jumbled.

My Review Begins

According to Gurdon, a children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, and also according to me, aka sentiments I shared with families during my time teaching in the public school system, whether you’re snuggled on the couch with your young child or sitting together on a bus in commuter traffic after a harried day at work/daycare, miracles happen when you open the pages of a picture book and read aloud, together.

No phone, no iPad, no distractions filtering through your mind. It’s just you, your child(ren), and a book. Young children love the repetitive nature of both the material in the book and the book itself. I bet many of us have memories of either hearing (ourselves) or reading the same book over and over and over (with our children), starting perhaps with something as simple and hands-on as Pat the Bunny or Give a Mouse a Cookie, or as Gurdon shares, Good Night Moon. And yes, even babies are fascinated by colorful pictures in a book. They attune to you—the rhythmical tone of your voice, perhaps a sing-song lullaby sort of sound; the exaggerations and nuances as you point things out, as you pause, as you simply be with the words, the sounds, the pictures; and then, the physical connection—sitting close, feeling one another, smelling one another, taking in all the sensory experiences of this embodied moment.

Regardless of where or when or even what, reading aloud every day with infants and young children “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships” and “builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime” (per Gurdon, American Academy of Pediatrics).

In The Enchanted Hour, Gurdon, postulates that when “one person reads to another, a miraculous alchemy takes place” in which “the ordinary stuff of life—a book, a voice, a place to sit and a bit of time” transforms “into astonishing fuel for the heart, the mind, and the imagination.”

“When we read to other people, we show them that they matter to us; that we want to give our time and attention and energy in order to bring them something good” (Gurdon, 2019).

Citing current/ongoing research at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discover Center as well as other neuroscience/behavioral research and related literature, Gurdon discusses the potential cognitive and social-emotional benefits that children may experience when they share read-aloud-time with their caregivers (significant people in their lives). Early home reading, defined in Gurdon’s article as a child’s access to books and the frequency of sharing reading with a grown-up, “makes a quantifiable difference in brain function” . . . “when compared with children deprived of this activity”. Furthermore, Gurdon offers that it stands to reason that differences in cognitive development will result as well.

“Besides developing language facility, empathy, and cultural literacy, reading aloud creates a deep bond between reader and listener, sweeping them together ‘in a lovely neurochemical tsunami’”.

Gurdon supports reading aloud as a worthy tradition that is typically/hopefully mindful, focused, interactive—the perfect “antidote” to our frenzied fractured attention-spans that are hyper-stimulated by overdoses of screen time and smart technology. She urges parents to set technology aside and pick-up-a-book. She shares research that notes a significant difference between listening to a story and watching it on a screen. It seems that researchers determined that, when children follow a story on a video, there is a “decoupling of vision, imagery, and language.” Basically, too much screen time can result in brain atrophy and in underdeveloped higher-order brain networks.

Regardless of age—it’s not just about infants and toddlers, so keep reading, please—students in elementary/middle/and high school, college-aged adults, and, yes, even elderly family members—reading aloud has positive benefits. The shared connection “consoles, uplifts and invigorates at every age,” “deepening our intellectual lives and emotional well-being.”

One last personal story before ending this supposedly quick review. My former husband’s grandmother had a wonderful tradition that I want to share. Each summer we went on island—she owned a cabin on a small island off-the-coast of Damariscotta. Maine; you can only get there by boat. There is no electricity, no sewer system, no technology. No, there is nothing other than human beings being together. Her tradition, at the end of the day, was to sit together in the living room by the light of kerosene lanterns while she read aloud from the book selected for that summer. She was a writer, an editor, a journalist, as well as a mother, a grandmother, a part of her nuclear and wider community. The first time I joined their family system, she was reading a chapter from Gentle Ben. I still vividly recall the room: the soft light, the feel of the textiles, the feel of my head laying on my former husband’s lap after a full day ‘on-island’, and most importantly the sound of her voice, the lull, the comfort, the letting go and sinking in. I loved those nights, simply letting go and immersing myself in love, in the connection, in the story. I was transformed back to a precious time, a time of innocence, a time of child and parent, with book in hand, no ulterior motives or intended outcomes. We just shared this time together immersing ourselves in good book.

To bring this not-so-quick review to an end, I offer a quote that I captured from another reviewer that I think pretty much sums it up:
“For everyone, reading aloud engages the mind in complex narratives; for children, it’s an irreplaceable gift that builds vocabulary, fosters imagination, and kindles a lifelong appreciation of language, stories and pictures.”
So, at the end of my story, I say, it’s time to pick up a book and share.

Gurdon, M. C. (2019). Chapter 1: What Reading to Children Does to their Brains. In M. C. Gurdon, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. New York: Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins. Retrieved from: https://aerbook.com/books/The_Enchanted_Hour-192373.html?social=1&retail=1&emailcap=0
Gurdon, M. C. (2019). The Secret Power of the Children’s Picture Book. The Wall Street Journal. Saturday/Sunday, January 19-20, 2019. C3.
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