Maybe some of you, like me, did not grow up in a "Read Aloud family", and are wondering what steps you can take to establish a culture of reading aloud in your home when you did not experience one yourself, and what you might do to get started. So, in this post I share my experience of reading as I was growing up and the first steps I took to prepare for reading with my children.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family where both my parents read regularly, even though they never read to us. They both had books going all the time, with my mother reading mostly fiction and my father reading more broadly. And, for the most part, they did their reading in the family room, so we caught the habit from them. Rather than reading together, we watched our favorite TV shows as a family several evenings a week.
I learned to read before entering first grade from a Dick and Jane primer lying around the house. When I got to school, years of more Dick and Jane readers stretched out before me. I remember one of the reading textbooks was called Just Imagine! though there was nothing imaginative in it at all. With dull stories, followed by pages of workbook exercises, I am amazed that my love for reading was not extinguished!
I have no memory of any of my elementary school teachers ever reading aloud to my class, but I do remember visits to the school library. It was housed in a space about the size of a deep janitor's closet, with bookshelves along three sides and barely enough room for three children to browse at a time. Here I discovered Curious George, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and a generous collection of Hardy Boys books.
The first grade I remember having a classroom library was the 4th grade with three built-in shelves holding dozens of elementary biographies in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I read them all! The next year in the 5th grade there were a dozen or so books on government displayed on the windowsill that we were required to read by the end of the year.
I have no memory of being taken to the public library as a child. I do recall going there by myself when I was in middle school and being overwhelmed by so many choices that I left empty-handed.
At home we had a small bookshelf in the upstairs hall that contained some children's books that I am guessing had been my father's, among them Lang's Red Fairy Book and Blue Fairy Book and The Christmas Reindeer by Thornton W. Burgess.
But my best source of books were gifts bought by my Granny and Uncle Ralph at the Wide Awake Bookshop in Wilkes-Barre, PA. (Isn't that a wonderful name for a book store?) My favorites were Rumer Godden's The Fairy Doll and Holly and Ivy, d'Aulaire's Benjamin Franklin, Marguerite de Angeli's Skippack School, as well as Stories That Never Grow Old and Scrambled Eggs Super! I read these volumes over and over again, lingering over the text and poring over the illustrations.
When I was almost nine, my younger sister Meg arrived on the scene just days before Christmas. She soon became a ready audience for my first read aloud attempts. We made our way through Pat the Bunny, Chicken Soup with Rice, Little Bear, and If I Ran the Circus. But when she could decipher the text herself, our read aloud sessions stopped. Fast forward a couple of years and she entered my room while I was immersed in Andersen's "Great Claus and Little Claus." I started reading aloud and we were soon howling with laughter, giving me a glimpse of what family read aloud time might look like.
A couple of months before my first son was due to arrive, my sister Judy paid me a weekend visit. Among the advice she gave me was to not expect our mother to gush over this new baby of mine. She would not be any more affectionate with him than she had been with us, Judy warned. But she did say that I could become the kind of mother that I wished I had had, and in that there was healing. That idea sent my hopes soaring!
One of my first purchases after Nathan was born was Nancy Larrick's A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading. I was ready to begin reading to my little bundle of joy. But Larrick's guide overwhelmed me with page after page that listed titles, with minimal description of the contents. I needed someone to hold my hand and take me step by step through the process.
With one story after another about why to read aloud, how to read aloud, and what to read aloud, Jim Trelease's first edition of The Read Aloud Handbook was the guide I sought. It was so helpful to me that I still recommend his handbook today as the first title to read about reading aloud. All editions of The Read Aloud Handbook are worth reading. Trelease estimates that he changed about 40% of the text in each new edition, changing the stories, and updating the research, as well as revising the book selections to include only those currently in print. The 7th edition, recently released, is the final one, according to Trelease.
With Trelease's recommendations limited to books in print, I felt the need to educate myself about worthy books from the past. Two books by May Hill Arbuthnot I found especially useful: Children's Reading in the Home (1969) and Children's Books Too Good To Miss (1971).
Children's Books Too Good To Miss lists fewer books, but as the title implies, the ones they do list are exceptional, as seen in the page spread below.
Children's Reading in the Home is comprehensive in scope, with lengthy entries describing books in a variety of genres. Sample page spreads below feature selections from Biography, Animal Stories, and Historical Fiction. Many of the descriptions were so memorable that I remembered them years after I first encountered them. The name of Reginald Ottley, for example, author of Boy Alone included in the last page spread, immediately leaped to mind when I spotted a sequel of this title in a bookshop a couple of months ago.
There are dozens of other books about books that I can heartily recommend, but, not wanting to overwhelm you, I will share those little by little.
Finally, start reading! Here are three titles, sure to spark laughter, that are enjoyed by all ages:
I read Mr. Popper's Penguins and My Father's Dragon to the great delight of all my children. But somehow Daniel missed out on Owls in the Family, so I read it to him recently at the ripe old age of 27. We both had a hard time containing our laughter and hated to have the book come to an end!
Start where you are! If you were not steeped in books as a child, don't bemoan your lack of advantage, but commit to providing a different sort of environment for your family. For inspiration read any edition of Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook. Then, gradually become familiar with the best of children's books by doing a little reading every day in one of the books about books that we recommend. Make that easy by keeping a copy in the bathroom or on your nightstand and make the reading of it a regular habit. You will be surprised how quickly your knowledge of children's books will grow, making it easier to zero in on worthy titles whenever you find yourself at the library or the book shop.
What sorts of information would be most helpful to you as you are building a culture of reading in your home and beyond? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Most of us periodically encounter books that we have to battle to get through. Most of us have also “given up” on finishing books in the past. This can be a tremendous source of guilt. It doesn’t feel good to leave things that we’ve started unfinished; giving up on a book can also feel like a reflection of our character and intellectual habits. How are we supposed to be rigorous and disciplined thinkers if we can’t even finish reading a two or three-hundred page book?
However, sometimes the alternative to “giving up” on a book is worse. In some cases, “giving up” is actually a more far prudent choice than the decision to soldier on. Below are some questions that we use to determine when it’s best to keep reading, and when it’s best to set a book aside and simply move on to other projects.
If the answer to this question is yes, you’ll want to evaluate just how far above your current reading level the book is. If it’s only slightly challenging, you may want to persevere. But, if the book is far above your current reading level, you may want to set it aside until you’re better prepared to appreciate it. (This question, as you may infer, is most relevant to younger and/or still developing readers.)
If a book is diminishing your interest in a given subject, it’s probably a good idea to find a different book on that same topic. Reading should always encourage curiosity, not dampen it.
If you believe that you would better appreciate a book at another time or season in your life, it may be best to set it aside for the present with the understanding that you’ll return to it in the future. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready for certain books. In those cases, it’s usually better to wait until we are ready than to jeopardize whatever relationships we may have had with them.
Your desire to discuss a book is a good indication of your engagement with it, even if you aren’t particularly fond of the book. And it can be incredibly beneficial to read things that we don’t “like,” simply because such books present us with an opportunity to sharpen our own thinking and ideas. If you’re absorbed enough by a book to want to talk about it, you are likely engaged enough to find value from finishing it.
Just because you find yourself not reading a book closely doesn’t mean that you should give up on the book, or even that anything is wrong with the book at all. Instead, there may be something awry in your reading habits or in your approach to that particular book.
So, before you make a decision about the fate of the book, look at your own reading habits and see where you can make improvements. You may also want to try reading shorter passages, only increasing the length gradually as your attention and interest develop. Some books really are best digested in smaller quantities.
For me, bad writing is often a deal breaker (depending on the content of the book and the context in which I’m reading it). If you still believe that the ideas presented in the book are valuable and worth spending time with, you may want to continue. But if the ideas are unsound and the writing is poor, you may want to consider moving on to another book entirely.
This can be a hard judgment call to make, and likely requires consideration of other factors. Refer to other questions for insight.
If a book is changing the way you see the world or changing the way you think, I would continue to read it as these are the very reasons we turn to books in the first place. We read to learn and to expand our minds (and to simultaneously sate and encourage our curiosity!) So even though you may be struggling through a more difficult book, if it is refining the way you think, it should be well worth the challenge.
What about you all? How do you know when it’s best to stop reading a book? Have you ever stopped reading a book and then returned to it years later? Are there any books that you’ve given up on that you later regretted? Please let us know in a comment below!