We spend a lot of time in the car.
A whole lot of time.
Hours and hours and hours.
And, of course, I can't just let those hours go to waste! All that precious time has to be used wisely. Plus, siblings who spend hours and hours in the car can also spend hours and hours picking on each other. Either that, or they try to talk to me, and, between the road noise and the size of our van, I can't hear them, so we end up hollering back and forth. None of that makes for a pleasant drive.
Enter the audio book.
It used to be that families sat around the fire, knitting and whittling, while someone read aloud. Now, we spend a lot of time on the road, running from one place to another, desperately trying to keep up with the frenzied pace of the modern world. Although the time around the fire is probably ideal, it's not reality for our family. Audio books give us a taste of that simpler time, integrated seamlessly with our busy lives.
The great thing about listening to books in the car is that I automatically have a captive audience. They're literally strapped in! And since we've been in the habit of listening since my older ones were little bitty, they know the drill: Get in the car, get buckled, listen quietly. No talking unless you have a question about the story. (Or you just realized that you got out of the house without shoes. That constitutes an exceptional circumstance.)
When I only had little ones, I would pause the book and summarize every so often, just to make sure they were following along. I still do that every once in awhile, but that sort of cuts down on the enjoyment for the older ones, so the younger ones just have to get what they can. And they get a lot! It amazes me how much of a story they can follow.
Great literature is a beautiful thing, and enjoying it together is so enriching. Because we're all listening to the same book, we can talk about it and discuss the characters and plot. This all happens naturally. It's not like the "literature discussions" you might have had in school. It's just part of life. Lots of times we laugh out loud as we're driving along. And sometimes, we cry.
Working through emotions alongside characters in a book, I think, is an excellent way to prepare for real life. The angst, the insecurities, and the joys that they experience helps us with our own journey. It might be tempting for parents to shield their children from anything that they might find upsetting, but I believe that good stories, even when there are parts that are hard to hear, help kids cope with the inevitable difficulties of life.
[Disclaimer: I'm getting ready to list some actual titles. Every family has to decide individually what is appropriate. Please don't assume that every book that I like is perfect for you. And don't judge too harshly if my choices are different than yours. To each his own. The world is full of excellent literature. I'm also including links. We download most of our books from Audible, but we occasionally get CDs from the library or purchase them from Amazon.]
After Bryan died, we listened to the unabridged Lord of the Rings Trilogy narrated by Rob Inglis. (He is an extremely gifted narrator. A good narrator brings a book alive, and a bad one can just about kill even the best story. That's true even if the narrator is the author! I'm thinking of A Wrinkle in Time. Fortunately, we weren't the only ones who thought L'Engles' voice was grating. The new edition has a professional narrator.) Anyway, there was something about imagining the desperate quest to destroy the ring that was very cathartic. Frodo did us more good than any of the "death and grieving" books that we were given. (Though in defense of those books, I suppose it would only be fair to say that we didn't read more than a paragraph or so. Perhaps they have a place for the people who read them.)
We also listened to the first of A Series of Unfortunate Events around that time. If you fall into the "misery loves company" camp, the dark humor of that series might just make you feel better. The Chronicles of Narnia are also favorites of ours, full of so much deep meaning, without being so allegorical as to disturb the beauty of the stories themselves. And I love to have the kids listen to books about kids working hard- REALLY hard- like getting up at four in the morning and doing chores and hauling logs all day hard. Farmer Boy (narrated by Cherry Jones- remember her? The president from 24?) and the other Little House books are good for that, as are the Little Britches books. (That series has some "cowboy language" in it, but the adventures of that little boy are right down my boys' alley.)
I try to mix the books up a bit when it comes to appealing to different tastes in the family. Some of my kids are animal lovers, others like fantasy and science fiction. Most of the things we pick end up being enjoyed by all (notwithstanding the intense debate that often goes on when we decide what to listen to next.) My younger ones have especially liked E.B. White's books. (Now, there's an author who can narrate!)
When people ask me how to get their kids started on audio books, I usually recommend that they listen to fun stuff first. Roald Dahl's stuff is hilarious (and perhaps a bit irreverent.) Eric Idle does a great job with Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I would bet just about any child would enjoy that one. Some people think that starting with dramatized adaptations is a good idea. That's a matter of preference. When you're listening to something by a truly gifted author, each word is like a jewel. When you start plucking out jewels to abridge the work, you're missing out on the beauty of the whole. But, then again, some literature is better than none, and in our fast-paced world where over-stimulation abounds, dramatized adaptations might be a good bridge (not a permanent destination, but a bridge) between three minute YouTube videos and great books.
As a final note, in spite of the fact that we listen to a lot of literature, for some of my children it has been an acquired taste. Most of the little ones complain a bit until they're old enough to really get caught up in the stories. Steffen, for example,would much rather listen to music- especially TobyMac. He's very strong-willed, so we wage a mini-battle every time we get into the car. He demands music, but if the trip is more than ten or fifteen minutes, we turn on the book. I'm driving, so I win, but the other day, he got more creative.
Megan: "Hand me the phone, Mom. I'll connect it to Bluetooth so we can listen to our book."
Steffen: "No, you can't. Turn on TobyMac."
Me: "No, Steffen, we're going to listen to our book."
Steffen: "No, you can't. I deleted Audible!"
Megan: "He did! It's gone!"
So sometimes, in the quest for a language-rich environment, we parents just have to be harder-headed than our preschoolers. They'll thank us one day.