Recently, I have been asked several times, by friends whom I love and respect very much, for advice on books for children, and reading to and with children. How do we raise readers? What do we read? How do we find books that we enjoy and also have depth and meaning?
As an aspiring writer/linguist, I am acutely aware of the role that stories have in shaping our values and perspectives. I am also aware that we live in a time when books are everywhere, and most of them…well, most of them are probably better suited for purposes other than reading (such as cleaning your windows or bum fodder). But that still leaves stacks and piles and shelves and rooms full of books that are very much worth bringing home and reading until the pages curl and the rhythm of the words sink so deeply into your mind that they pop back out in odd places like the checkout line or drive home from school.
So I suppose my first piece of advice is this:
Read what you love. Don't settle. Yes, they can bring home what they like from the library, but that doesn't mean you have to read it to them. You are under no obligation to read aloud the glitter fairy stories or the adventures of Timmy the Dumptruck or what that insipid rabbit did this week. When your children snuggle up next to you, the words you read need to come alive, the story needs to be an experience that you are sharing. Stories are here to connect us, after all. And it is pretty hard to find a meaningful connection or a love of language if one participant is undergoing nefarious lexical torture.
My second piece of advice slipped in up there, too: read aloud, together. I am terrible at talking to my babies. I would happily pass the entire day without uttering a word. But they need to hear speech, they need to develop spoken language. So I read. To my teeny tiny babies. I read them poetry that I printed out and taped up over the changing table so they could get lost in the cadence of A A Milne as I wrangled floppy limbs into sleeves. I chanted the Shaker Abecedarius propped on a music stand as I swayed babies to sleep. I collapsed into the corner of the couch with "Quick As a Cricket" to make animal noises for the five hundredth time. But read I did, and it was a time for closeness, a time for focusing on something special that was shared.
I also, when they became older and decided they liked this whole being read to thing, set limits. Three books and then I fell asleep. Every time. It was amazing really, how I just could never make it into that fourth book. But they could thumb through it themselves, of course.
Books are an integral part of our lives. I read books for my own pleasure, and make sure they see me reading. We have always, even in the wilds of Africa (I say that a bit tongue in cheek, you know, lest anyone jump on me for slighting an entire continent) had books in every room. Now we have weekly treks to the library. Books have always been accessible for them. First board books, and slowly more and more. Some people rotate their books, setting out a few at a time. I have never done this. But we have placed different books in different spots all over our home, so perhaps this achieves a similar, less overwhelming effect.
The final piece of advice I want to reinforce is this: read good books. I said this before, but I really mean it. If you don't love it, don't do it. Sure, there are books we get tired of reading after the 428642864829th time. Fair enough (funny how they sometimes fall behind the back of the shelf, though, isn't it?). But do not inflict horrible literature on either yourself or your children. Language is glorious, stories are numerous. Find the ones that touch your heart, give you courage, expand your mind, open your eyes. Don't settle for drivel.
To this end, I've started a pinterest board ingeniously titled "Children's Books" (I know!). There are books here from board books for itty bitties all the way through to chapter books my twelve year old is currently reading. I chose these books because these are the ones that have survived getting hauled to Zambia, Malawi and back again. They are well-written, but beyond that, these are all books that illustrate strong values. They address morals without becoming moralizing, and lead to discussion or reinforce what we teach and learn in our home. Sometimes the connections can be harder to see (Little Pea, about a pea who hates eating candy, can be used to discuss eating your veggies, but it can also take a look at how ridiculous our stubborn prejudices are). Most of these are not overtly moralistic tales. I find those hard to stomach. And sometimes we like one part of a series, but not the rest (like The Gruffalo's Child). It is also important to note that these stories are written for children. Does that seem obvious to you? Well, it ought to be obvious to authors and publishers as well, but often they do get sidetracked by what is hip and current, or important and "must be told", or simply sells well. At least, it appears so to me.
I hope this is helpful to those of you who have asked me about this recently. In one of those grand coincidences at which the internet excels, Robert (Kyrie Mead's husband, and perfectly qualified in his own right through his work as a father and in early childhood development/care) also wrote a post today on how to choose good books for children.
There are many, many conversations to be had on this topic of course, but at the very least, I say this: make reading a source of enjoyment, and something you all look forward to.