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Storyteller Takes Fiction to Children by Teaching Their Parents : Reading Aloud to Youngsters Instills Love of Literature, Former Journalist Says

January 29, 1987|MARJORIE MARKS | Marks is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

Grown-ups from all over the Valley will gather at the knee of storyteller Jim Trelease on Sunday as he reads to them during Community Read-Aloud Day at Temple Judea in Tarzana.

The 45-year-old author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook" will try to help San Fernando Valley parents, teachers and educational therapists convey the love of reading to their children and students.

"In concentrating exclusively on teaching the child how to read, we have forgotten to teach him to want to read," said the Springfield, Mass. father of two grown children.

If you want children to read, you must tell them stories, experts say. That simple belief is the basis for a growing local and national read-aloud movement designed to attract children to reading just for the joy of it.

Trelease has become the unofficial guru of parents who want to infuse their children with the love of reading--children who typically have already viewed 5,000 hours of television by their first day of kindergarten.

"Television is the largest stumbling block to reading enjoyment and achievement in this country," he said.

Acting on his conviction, he decided to ban television viewing on school nights when his own children were young.

"They cried for four months," he said, but family life radically improved.

"Conversation resumed. We began to listen to each other with undivided attention," he said. And the whole family had time to read.

Trelease believes that parents have to regain control over their children's lives.

"You can watch them grow up or you can raise them. To raise them you have to sometimes say 'No.' That means that you take the same set of standards that we have on the medicine cabinet and apply them to the television cabinet."

But television is not the only problem Trelease sees.

"Schools and teachers themselves are often a detriment to the development of a passion for reading," Trelease believes, because they overemphasize workbooks, testing, drills and grammar.

He doesn't recommend that such exercises be eliminated, but that teachers balance the drudgery with the more imaginative experience of being reading aloud to. Too many schools still wait until the sixth grade or later to expose children to novels, he said.

Trelease, a former journalist/artist with the Springfield Daily News, used to visit classrooms to describe his newspaper job to children. At the end of each visit he would routinely ask the children what books they were reading.

Stunned by their negative answers, regardless of the particular school, neighborhood or family they came from, he started reading books to them instead of talking about his work.

Their enthusiasm for good children's literature sparked his own imagination. In 1979, Trelease took the family's vacation money and published a 30-page booklet for parents and teachers on the subject of reading aloud.

Within a few months, 21,000 copies of his book had sold by word-of-mouth. Eventually it was published by Penguin Books and reached the New York Times best-seller list for four months.

The revised edition was published in 1985. More than 700,000 copies are in print in 30 countries.

Trelease spends 120 days a year traveling around the country speaking to parents about the importance of reading aloud to children.

He regrets that few fathers attend his lectures, although he says that when he returns to communities to speak a second or third time, more fathers show up.

The sparse turnout of fathers at a recent Irvine program prompted him to ask the audience, "Do you have males living in this community?"

Participating groups in the Sunday San Fernando Valley Read-Aloud Day have made it their goal to attract more fathers this year.

Gary Kleinman, an Encino father who attended the annual event last year, says that reading to his children, who are 3 and 20 months, has helped him "get involved on a social level" with them.

"We talk about the books while we are driving," he said. The couple has also switched to an English-speaking housekeeper who can read to their children when the parents have to be away from home.

Lack of time, Trelease admits, is one of the biggest reasons that parents and teachers do not read to children. His response to that complaint is unequivocal: "Don't tell me there isn't enough time--we find time for what we value."

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