The power of The Monster at the End of this Book

Do you remember the warm comfort of sitting very close to an adult who devoted some time to just you as he/she read you a story? Do you remember asking for the same familiar story to be read again, and again? And do you remember listening carefully for any change in the tale – either in the narrative, or in the inflection of the reader’s voice?

The Monster at the End of this Book is a case in point. Grover, a character from Sesame Street stars in this tale. The story line is quite simple – he warns the reader on every page that there is a monster at the end of the book. He implores the reader not to turn the page, and devises many cunning plots to stop the reader from doing so. Of course, my children were delighted as we defiantly turned the pages, determined to outdo Grover and push him to his limits! After the first reading, the plot was clear, but this did not deter these fledgling readers – The Monster at the End of this Book was always the first choice, until I, and they, could say the story off by heart!

Researchers have been suggesting in recent years that parents and caregivers should be reading to babies as early as the first days of their lives. This, of course, is a problem for barely literate or illiterate adults. This problem is aggravated by the fact that many barely literate or illiterate adults live in low economic situations, and books are a luxury, and their children often do not have access to them. Reading takes a back seat in more affluent homes as work pressures and conflicting schedules do not allow for this special time. The losers in both of these situations are the children.

In the case of parents and caregivers who are unable to read, a second best option is their own story telling informed by picture book. Studies show that children who are read to enter pre-school with larger vocabularies, stronger language skills and an interest in reading that often shapes their future educational lives, than those who were denied this experience.

The other spin-off for the parents and children who read together is that a strong, nurturing relationship is created during the reading experiences – this helps the child’s cognitive, emotional and social development.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathise with them and view the world from their perspective. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions. (1) This state is reached through the deep reading of a text as opposed to the superficial skimming and scanning that often characterises our digital lives. The immersion in the complexity of the emotional choices and moral dilemmas of the characters in even the simplest of stories, will lead to the development of human beings with the capacity to empathise with others in real life, and who will have the thought processes for critical thinking and choice-making of their own.

This brings us to the debate about ‘real’ books versus the digital kind. Most people have an opinion about where their preference lies, and it does not really matter as long as the reading is taking place. However, books are at a disadvantage when competing with high resolution and animated texts that are found on digital devices.

The act of reading is about entertainment and pleasure, but for maximum benefit to be derived from the experience, words and sentences tucked safely in their paragraphs and chapters need to be explored. The psychologist Victor Nell compares the pleasure of reading to falling into a hypnotic trance in which the reader and the author enter into an ‘extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love’. This conversation does not happen in the skimming and scanning of digital texts, or with the distraction of colourful, and noisy animations. It only happens as readers move through the printed page at their own pace decoding the words, and engaging their own emotions, thoughts, memories and opinions.

For me, the deep engagement with the monster who lived at the end of the book by my children, created a sense of magic that thirty years later both they and I can remember. And the book is a treasure that we anticipate sharing with the coming generation. Surely that beats the digital version?

(1) Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer By Annie Murphy Paul