Book Commercial - Treasure Island

As Jim Trelease says in The Read-Aloud Handbook, one of Oprah Winfrey's great contributions to a renewed interest in reading in the United States is her ability to function as a commercial for a book. This really struck me, and it's something that I've been endeavoring to do when I read aloud. Build the book up before you begin! I had a recent experience with my own children, who are sometimes reluctant to settle in to listening to a new book if the style is unfamiliar, that shows how “hype” can really make a difference.

My son was given Treasure Island for his 6th birthday last June. At the time, I hadn't read it, and — although I knew it had something to do with treasure (clever) and I thought there were possibly pirates in it — I didn't give my son any introduction. I didn't even know if I would enjoy it myself. I launched straight into it without preamble:

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17--, and go back to the time when my father kept the “Admiral Benbow” inn, and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof (p. 3).

Ninety words in the opening sentence! My 6-year-old balked, and no wonder. But then one day I decided to read Treasure Island to myself. I couldn't put it down. And then I went to the Internet and looked up Robert Louis Stevenson and things like “black spot,” “Davy Jones,” and “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Now I was prepared to be a commercial for this book.

Theo had seen me reading Treasure Island, and heard me “oohing” and “aahing” when it got exciting or scary, and he wanted to know what was happening. I showed him the poem “Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,” which was familiar to him from watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and I told him that it was written by the author of Treasure Island. I told him that there were vicious pirates and lots of danger. Now and then I would give him a taste, saying something like: “Oh no! The little boy in this book is making friends with a pirate – but he doesn't know he's a pirate! He should know! He was told to watch out for a one-legged man! And this guy has only one leg, Theo! What is going to happen?!?” When I finished reading the book myself, I immediately started it from the beginning again, this time reading aloud to both of my kids, who were hanging on to every word. And while I did skip over some lengthy descriptive passages, I didn't substitute any of the difficult vocabulary. In that first sitting, I read them eight chapters and they begged for me to go on. We finished the entire book in only five sessions, and it's over 300 pages long. Because I had done a little research, I was able to explain a bit about the black spot and other things that might have otherwise been a bit obscure. I wouldn't have been able to do that if my first reading and theirs had been simultaneous. We're now reading Kidnapped by the same author.