Growing Up in a Read-Aloud Family

by Rebecca Ripperton
March 18, 2019

Ever since we’ve started this blog, I’ve had a flood of memories come back to me about our experiences of reading aloud as a family. And although I have always appreciated the value my mom placed on literature, it’s taken me a long time to realize that it was our ritual of reading aloud in particular that both shaped our family dynamic and my own love for books. Accordingly, today’s post is a glimpse into what it was like growing up in a read-aloud family.

A nightly tradition and family unity

For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, we ended each evening by reading aloud as a family. Usually my mom read aloud to us, but sometimes my brother and I also took turns reading. We began by reading simple picture books, then chapter books like the Twins series and the Little Britches books. Along with these books, we also read some more modern titles. Eventually we worked our way up to authors such as Melville, Dickens, and Scott and later on, Wendell Berry.

Reading aloud was an activity that brought us together at the end of each day, and gave us a sense of unity as a family. Because we were all invested in the books we were reading, we all looked forward to this nightly tradition and the time we were able to spend together then. 

My older brother and I could not have been more dissimilar while we were growing up, but reading aloud gave us a shared interest and goal. It served as a way for us to do something together without bickering or becoming annoyed at one other. It also gave us things to talk about, and helped us develop more sympathy for each other.

Healing through the ritual of reading-aloud

In retrospect, I think reading aloud was especially important for our family dynamic after my dad died. This ritual gave my mom a way to spend quality time with both of us together every single day and to check in on us in an indirect and subtle manner. So many aspects of our family life had been thrown off kilter after his death that the constancy and comfort of that one ritual was really critical for all of us, playing a valuable role in our healing process.

Independent reading vs. reading aloud

Of course, there were always plenty of good books available to us for independent reading, as well, which we did more or less as we pleased. My mom mostly took a “laissez faire” approach to independent reading since she wanted us to actually enjoy it. She figured that it would be best to let us come to reading in our own time (which we both did). But reading aloud was non-negotiable.

So all throughout our childhoods,  she read books of the very highest quality aloud to us, one chapter at a time. Many of the books that we read aloud together I went back to a year or so later and re-read by myself. But reading these books aloud together was an entirely different experience and one that was valuable in itself.

Processing difficult topics as a family

One powerful outcome of reading aloud together was that we processed difficult topics together. I particularly remember reading books like The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and Mildred Taylor’s Logan series (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, etc.). These books address hard subjects, but ones that are important for children to be aware of and to talk about. We often discussed what we read afterward and would refer back to it in later conversations.

Simply sharing the experience of reading these hard chapters also brought us closer together. I don’t think I will ​ever forget about the revelation about being grateful for fleas in The Hiding Place, or the terror their family felt. I was also very, very glad to have my family there when reading about those experiences.

Part of the joy of reading is being able to share what you read with others, and spending time reading aloud as a family enabled us to do just that. Over the years we shed many tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter together. We also read scores of outstanding books that enriched our hearts and our minds alike. Best of all, though, we were able to share these experiences as a family.

Share your experience

Do you have a favorite memory of your family reading aloud when you were growing up? Is reading aloud something you do with your children now? Please let us know in a comment below — we love hearing from our readers!

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What Makes a Children’s Book Worth Bringing Home?

by Lisa Ripperton
​March 14, 2019

Today's post is the first in an on-going series about the selection criteria we use for children's books. Through this series, our aim is to answer the question "what makes a book good enough to bring home?"

A quest to articulate selection criteria

For years I have chosen books mostly by instinct.  More recently, however, I am feeling the need to discern the selection criteria I use so I can clearly articulate them to others. I have been thinking about this issue a good deal after a recent encounter offered me a new perspective on choosing children's books. This encounter, described below, has set me on a mission to answer the question of "what makes a book good enough to bring home?"

Typical parent-child interactions at our local book sale

I am fortunate to live in a town where the Friends of the Library Book Sale has a building the size of a high school gymnasium dedicated to their efforts. With sales held both in the spring and the fall, volunteers work year round to organize on shelves the hundreds of thousands of books donated to them every year.

Since children's books typically comprise over 40,000 of the 250,000+ items offered at each sale, there is a dedicated corner for the display of children's books. Wide aisles, a comfortable chair, attractive displays, and a nook under the table of easy readers for toddlers to hide in make it an inviting space for children and their parents. 

As a regular visitor on the days that the sale is open, I have observed many interactions between parents and children there over the years. Many of them proceed like this: parent, with arms laden with books of their own choosing, escorts child into the children's corner (almost it seems as an afterthought), then urges them to pick a book (or occasionally two), and do it quickly, because they have some place else to go.

An encounter of a different kind

But one day I observed a young mother settle down with her small son on the floor in one of the wide aisles. She had a sizeable stack of picture books to one side of her and her son, who appeared to be about three and full of anticipation, on the other. She explained to him that they were going to "read through the books to see if any of them were good enough to bring home." Being a week-day it was a quiet time at the sale and they were able to make their way through the pile one book after another.

I was really struck by the phrase "good enough to bring home." In my experience at book sales I had mostly heard reasons offered to children for why NOT to get a book. Indeed, I shudder to think, I probably uttered a few myself. 

But this young mother changed my perspective. What a powerful thing it is to have positive reasons for choosing books rather than negative ones for discarding them! I regret that I didn't linger, so had no chance to overhear what criteria guided her selections.

Our first criterion: the language must have a "forward-moving flow"

For any book that I am going to read aloud─picture books and unillustrated books alike─the text must read well, and it must be so engaging that I am willing to read it again and again.

I will never forget the weekend we spent with my sister's family at Myrtle Beach when my two year old son Nathan called upon his 12 year-old cousin David to read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to him dozens of times in the course of the visit. Poor David had a very difficult time grasping the insatiability of an eager young listener!

My experience aligns with Dorothy White's which she expresses in her Books Before Five (1954):

"I do enjoy the reading more, however simple it may be, when the prose has a forward-moving flow about it, the cadence which one hears in 'If it were not so I would have told you' or 'Once upon a time there were three little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.' "

Share your experience

I will return to the subject of selection criteria in subsequent posts. In the meantime, if you have selection criteria you use when choosing picture books, please share in the comments below! If not, I hope you'll join me in thinking about this topic. 

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