Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Book Review: The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie (2018)

The Read-Aloud Family is the inevitable book to arise from Sarah Mackenzie's inexplicably popular Read-Aloud Revival podcast and website.  In this book, Mackenzie tells how she first discovered reading aloud, and then provides advice for doing so with supporting anecdotes from her own life. The book concludes with a series of annotated book lists.

I have long felt that the success of the alleged "Read Aloud Revival" that Mackenzie champions is a bit of a hoax. Though Mackenzie claims she only discovered reading aloud for the first time at age 20, when her oldest child was a baby, this should not suggest to anyone that reading aloud was a lost art that Mackenzie has single-handedly resurrected. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton talks about the man in the yacht who thinks he has discovered England, not realizing that anyone has landed there before him. He was talking about his journey toward the Christian faith when he wrote about how he "fancied [he] was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found [he] was the last," but I think it is also an apt metaphor for describing Mackenzie's relationship to reading aloud. She had never considered the importance of reading aloud, and therefore she assumes no one else has either. But most of us have been here in England all along. 

This book gives very basic advice, most of which is either common sense or simply amateurish. Directives for developing a read-aloud habit are interspersed with personal anecdotes about her kids which often give rise to banal metaphors that are then beaten to death over several pages. Some of the advice just isn't good, such as the assertion that the only two criteria to consider when evaluating a book are appeal to all ages and a sense of hope, and some of it is a mere regurgitation of quotations from articles, books, and studies that have already presented this information more cogently, and in better prose. Though she says a few times that reading aloud should be simple, she undermines this message by over-complicating the process at every turn and by providing condescending examples for each point she makes. (The worst of these occurs in the chapter about "compelling questions." At one point, she suggests asking a child reader what a character in a given book fears most, then provides three examples, all of which consist of the same exact question: "What is Henry Huggins most afraid of? What is Janner Ibigy most afraid of? What is Corrie ten Boom most afraid of?" Surely, anyone who can read could have figured out how to pose that question without help.)

Though the book is published by a Christian publisher (Zondervan) and is labeled as a Religion book right above the ISBN on the back cover, there is next to nothing in this book about how Mackenzie's faith informs her family's read-aloud culture. There is an assumption on her part that the reader desires to raise Christian children who love God, and she includes recommendations for Bibles, and makes casual references to parables, but she completely misses the opportunity to provide Catholic families like hers with any advice unique to their (our) particular values and morals. This would have been the only redeeming quality of the book for me, and it was just not there.

The book lists in the final section of the book are very hit or miss. Some of the books are so new, it seems foolish to put them on any kind of list without knowing how they'll stand the test of time. Others are books written by Mackenzie's friends, all of whom have blurbed the book and appeared on her podcast, and most of whom are mentioned multiple times in the text of the book. The lists are also very short - there are dozens of blog posts and library websites out there that provide more comprehensive lists. 

The countless positive reviews of this book are baffling to me. As I've blogged about before, reading aloud is not that hard to begin with, and, frankly, if a handbook is needed, Jim Trelease has already taken care of it.  The fact that The Read-Aloud Family is so popular with #bookstagrammers and other parents who already read to their kids makes me think it's less about the quality of the book, and more about the fact that the content reaffirms what these readers already know and experience. But I am seeking more than just a pat on the back when I read books like this, and this one had nothing else to offer me. My recommendation would be to skip this book and instead look for Annis Duff's wonderful books Bequest of Wings: A Family's Pleasure with Books (1944) and Longer Flight: A Family Grows Up with Books (1955). Not only is Duff an expert (she was a librarian), but she also writes beautifully and in great depth about her family's relationship to books. 

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