Starting from Scratch: How To Establish a Read Aloud Family
by Lisa Ripperton
May 16, 2019
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.
Family culture growing up
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.
Gifts from relatives
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.
First opportunity to read aloud
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 suggestion from my older sister
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!
First book about books
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.
The Read Aloud Handbook
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.
Commitment to learning about children's books
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.
More books about children's books
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.
Start with humor
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 resources can we provide?
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.