Many families have a tradition of giving books to their children at Christmas and on their birthdays. While this can be a wonderful custom, today I want to talk about finding opportunities for book giving outside of those occasions.
With my oldest son, the practice of giving books on holidays turned out to be less rewarding than I had initially hoped. As energetic as he was, he tended to gravitate toward gifts that gave him opportunity to move and play actively, rather than those that involved sitting still and reading. Because I didn’t want to waste valuable time wrapping books that would be quickly set aside, I soon stopped presenting him with books on those occasions altogether.
Of course we still bought books and incorporated them into our family read-aloud time, but we didn’t make a special occasion out of it. I reasoned that since nourishment for the mind is as critical as nourishment for the body, books are not optional; they are a necessity. But I wouldn't wrap up a loaf of bread to put under the Christmas tree and expect him to be overjoyed upon discovering it, so why should I do that with books?
We did have one exception to not gifting books on holidays, however, and that occurred each year during Advent.
In anticipation of St. Nicholas’ annual visit on December 6th, my children put wooden shoes in front of our fireplace on the evening before. In addition to chocolate coins, clementines, and a long hand-written letter, St. Nicholas often left a few other goodies to help them prepare for the holidays. One year he gave them cookie cutters and aprons for baking gingerbread cookies, and another year, beeswax and molds for making candles. But every year, the children also had the pleasure of finding next to the wooden shoes a couple of new Christmas picture books to brighten the season!
Were I able to go back in time, however, I would want to find more occasions throughout the calendar year to give gifts at times when my children would appreciate them, and in doing so, establish a rhythm that they could anticipate eagerly. (File under “things I would do differently if I had to do it over again”).
Several posts by Celeste Cruz at Joyous Lessons offer excellent ideas for this sort of practice. In one post, Celeste describes tucking a book as a gift in each of her children's Easter baskets, selecting from a store of books she has stockpiled for just such occasions. (I only wish I had heard that suggestion thirty years ago!) In another post, Celeste shares about the celebrations their family holds at the end of each homeschooling term, where part of the presentation is a stack of book that relates to their studies from that term. These books aren’t presented to individual children, but rather given to all to share!
While both Easter and the end of the term present occasions where we might give small presents to children, those gifts aren’t traditionally books. We love that Celeste is using these special times to create her own traditions with her children and to share books with them in such a meaningful way. What better present could she give them?
If presenting books to your children for birthdays and Christmas is already a well-established and joyful ritual, by all means, continue. But we suggest that you consider establishing some new traditions, as well.
One great occasion for giving books to children is when they are about to have more time on their hands than they are accustomed to, say at the start of summer vacation or the beginning of a week by themselves at grandma's house. Either instance would be a great opportunity to offer sequels to some titles they have already enjoyed, or to hide a new book in their suitcase as a surprise.
And, as you head out on a family vacation, be ready with a bag of books related to the places you will be visiting, and audio books for the whole family to enjoy throughout the car ride. Additionally, you can introduce seasonal books to welcome each new season. (Especially rewarding will be those books that provide impetus for new activities out of doors, such as gathering nuts in the fall, or following tracks in winter.) You may even want to put special emphasis in your family on a holiday such as Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, or Thanksgiving by marking the occasion with the gift of a book that brings home the meaning of the holiday.
In families with lots of children, birthday celebrations happen regularly, and are enjoyed by all. If you have an only child, on the other hand, celebrations are much less frequent. You might make their half birthday the cause for celebration each year, or even give them a new book every month on the day of the month that they were born.
Besides birthdays, there may be other days in the calendar significant to your family, but no other. It might be the day a child was adopted, the anniversary of the passing of a loved one, or the occasion of some other momentous event. The gift of a thoughtfully chosen book could be a meaningful way to observe the day.
As you can see, there are boundless opportunities for book giving – marking a beginning, an end, or a special day in the life of your family – which can serve as way posts on your family's journey through the year.
We’d love to hear what occasions you commemorate in your family by giving books! Please let us know in the comments below.
To instill in your child both a love and lifelong habit of reading, you will likely find it helpful to enlist the support of your community. One way to do this is by asking other adults to read to your children outside of the home, as well.
Children look both to their own parents and to other trusted adults to determine their norms, so when you read aloud as a family and this practice is reinforced in other settings, books are firmly established as being an integral part of the fabric of our lives and relationships. Reading aloud with other people in the community can also help children recognize that it is much more than just an activity parents do to help them fall asleep at night. Likewise, reading is not necessarily a solitary activity that removes us from others. Reading – particularly reading aloud – should ultimately bring people together, forming the basis for shared experience, as well as shared conversation and thought.
If your children’s grandparents are active in their lives, you can begin by asking them to read aloud to your children before bed or for a quieter afternoon activity. In our experience, reading aloud with grandparents can create wonderful memories for all parties involved. When we were growing up, my older brother and I absolutely loved going over to our grandmother’s house, which was 5 miles away, and spending time with her. She read to us at every visit and we still cherish the books we read with her, as well as the memories we have of reading them together. (A list of our all-time favorites from her house is at the bottom of this post!)
If your child’s grandparents don’t have children’s books in their house already, consider giving them some to keep for when your children visit. Let them know that reading aloud to your children is important to you and why. You could even ask them what some of their favorite books were when they were growing up and then use a resource like AbeBooks to find copies. If you have purchased one of our ebook treasuries, you may share it with one set of grandparents at no extra charge. Contact us here for more information.
Next, whenever you hire babysitters, be proactive about setting books out for them to read to your children before bed, and let them know that this is an important routine in your family. If your babysitters are young enough to still live with their parents or are now in possession of their childhood books, you could even ask them to bring one or two of their favorite books from when they were your child’s age to read aloud before bed. (We bet they’ll actually be thrilled to do this.)
You can ask older children to read to their younger siblings, as well as enlist the help of aunts, uncles, the parents of your children’s friends during sleepovers, etc. – really, anyone who is an influential figure in your child’s life or who regularly spends time with them, is fair game. We’ve also found that most schools, churches, and synagogues offer numerous read-aloud opportunities for children.
Most public libraries host regular read-aloud events for children of all ages. You can check out your local library’s website to find out what they offer, and if you don’t like what you see, contact their children’s desk to suggest better titles or to get more involved.
Lastly, if your children are older, two great resources to investigate are universities and local bookstores. Both often hold readings that are open to the public and that can serve as an introduction to new titles, authors, and even genres. Sometimes coffee shops will also host poetry nights (which still count as read-alouds in our book), and many theatres will periodically hold “stage readings,” where you can watch and listen to a troupe of actors read a play aloud, with no or minimal costumes and movement.
Please let us know in a comment below what strategies have worked for your family and what suggestions you have for other parents who are hoping to raise their child in a read-aloud community!
When we were growing up, our Greek grandmother – Giagia – kept a shelf of books just to read to her grandchildren. She didn’t have many books, but the books she had were outstanding and ones that we loved wholeheartedly. Some of our all-time favorites were Corgiville Fair – which I’m fairly certain we asked our grandmother to read to us every time we came over – and Jennie’s Hat. We also read the Dr. Dolittle and several L. Frank Baum books with her, and as we grew older, she would periodically order new titles from the Dover Children’s Thrift Classics, like The Boy Who Drew Cats for us to read together. (My brother and I found secret delight in the fact that her corgi, Bandit, was fond of gnawing the Dover books when no one was looking so their bindings often looked rather the worse for wear.) In all, reading aloud with our grandmother was a wonderful experience and gave us memories we both treasure to this day.