Thursday, June 20, 2019

On Books and Reading Aloud as a Family

I am writing these words from the library at this very moment. My husband is with the kids and I'm spending this time writing. About books. In a library. What a nerd.

You know that empty feeling you get when you realize that you have just spent thirty minutes trying to figure out what you're going watch on Netflix? And then you end up watching Parks & Rec or The Office for the umpteenth time? Book browsing does not have that same effect. One of my favorite of all favorites is to walk through a bookstore. Oh, the reading possibilities! The people to meet, places to go, time periods to explore. I love a library in the same way. If they allowed Starbucks inside, I would be perfectly content.

My Dad is a voracious reader. If I'm guessing, he has read several books a month since he could read chapter books. As kids, he took us to the library often. Even in the remembering, I'm transported back to our small town library and oddly enough the dank musty smell that comes to memory is comforting. Now that I look back, I realize how extraordinary it was to go to the library with my father. You don't see too many dads perusing the children's book shelves with their young kids. This could be for several reasons none of which I'll speculate on here, but what I know is that it was a gift.

Not too familiar with titles young girls might be interested in reading, my Dad went back to his own childhood and pointed me in the direction of The Hardy Boys series. I devoured them all and turned my nose up at Nancy Drew until I caved and read my mom's old copy of The Clue of the Tapping Heels. Don't you love the titles of those books? The Bungalow MysteryWhat Happened at Midnight, etc. To this day, I love a good mystery thanks to Frank and Joe Hardy and their "chum" Chet Morton along with Nancy, George and Bess. From there I met friends for life: Laura Ingalls, Anne with an "e", the March girls and eventually the Austen heroines.

It makes me laugh to think of my Dad pointing me to the Hardy Boys, but now that I'm a parent I totally understand. I long to share the books that I fell in love with as a child with my own kids. There's something special about the books and the characters discovered when the mind was fresh and the hard lines of experience had yet to cement. These books have a sticking quality. I want my children to experience getting lost in the same stories that had me from page one, to fall in love with the characters that are to me, like old friends.

There are many things that I have been sadly and terribly inconsistent with in parenting, but reading isn't one of them. My kids may not stay in their beds for nap time or consistently ask to be excused from the table, but by George we will be readers. (P.S. Don't worry, Mom, we're working on habits too) From board books to picture books to chapter books, it's been a joy to share the reading experience with my preschoolers. It's incredibly fulfilling to watch their little faces absorb the illustrations of Richard Scarry or delight in the antics of Amelia Bedelia. When I read to them, my own childhood comes alive and delight in the golden wonder that halos around the books of ones youth.

One of the best things we've done with our kiddo's reading life is to read "above level", meaning above what they can read.  Since my kids are not reading on their own yet, I take that to mean above their language level. If you're a fan of Sarah Mackenzie's Read Aloud Revival, you'll know that she talks about this concept often. I think if not exposed to this idea, we would yet to venture far beyond the picture book and short story category. Of course, we still read loads of picture books and even simple favorites like Brown Bear Brown Bear, but we've expanded to include a family read aloud that is usually a chapter book with a few pictures here and there.

We began experimenting with short stories like Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and the tales of Winnie the Pooh when Claire was around three and Keaton was two. These stories are of course written for young children, however the language is much more deep than often found in children's literature today. Did they pay attention the whole time? Nope. Did they understand every single word and follow the entire plot line? Nope. Did they fall in love with the characters? Get the gist of the story? Stretch their vocabulary and knowledge of the world around them? Yes! As we've continued to work at it, I am truly amazed by what they pick up and how their attention span has grown. I can't believe the number of incredible books we've been able to enjoy together. It's definitely taken time and consistency, but it's been fun.

Our first "big read" was Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. It was my first time to read it as well. We all fell in love with it! When we finally returned it to the library, Claire put it in the book slot and in a sad voice said "Mom, it feels like we're saying goodbye to a friend." Yes, baby, yes it does. My heart melted because she got out of it exactly what I hoped she would.

One of my concerns in introducing bigger content books to my littles was that they would not "get" everything in the book by reading it so young and would therefore, miss out on the complete experience. It's true that they're not going to get everything, but the beauty about books is that you can pick them up over and over again. They already want to read Trumpet of the Swan for a second time. I don't know if it will be together or on their own, but we will meet our friend again. We've listened to Little House in the Big Woods once on audio and have chipped away at reading it aloud a second time. Claire requests a chapter often and we chew on it for a week or more before it's requested again. Each time you read the same book in a different season of life you see what you didn't see before - at least with good books. The content of the book remains the same, but the person reading it has changed. My hope is that the favorites will surface again many times over and with each re-reading the discovery will be more rich.

Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook is a great resource for book lists and the how-to's on reading with your kids. I've also heard Honey for A Child's Heart is great as well. These can be found at the library. If you want to follow someone who has extensive resources for families wanting to create a reading culture in their home, you absolutely must follow Sarah Mackenzie on all the internet places. She has book lists by age groups, gender, special interest, monthly, etc. Her monthly lists are so popular that you'll want to put them on hold at the library well in advance. She also has a podcast that is fantastic. Or get her book The Read Aloud Family. Most of the ideas that I've implemented at home around reading have been at her recommendation. There's a lot of "Sarah Mackenzie says..." in this post because she is awesome. Some of her best tips in practice are below:

Give the kids a busy activity

If you're thinking our kids sit in my lap for longer books, let me nix that idea. I'll pull out blocks, Legos, Perler beads, coloring books, etc. while we read. It keeps little hands busy while listening. When they were very little we read around the breakfast or lunch table. Even when it looks like they're not paying attention they're still absorbing a lot. In fact, if I stop reading they'll usually say "Mom, why did you stop reading?" or they'll ask questions to let me know they're still following the story. They're listening. Keep reading.

Read around food

One of my favorite tips from RAR is to make a pan of warm brownies and then invite everyone to listen as you read and they dig in. Who wouldn't want their kids to associate books with the smell and taste of brownies?! It's not often brownies specifically for us, but I'll simply put out a tray of animal cookies and lemonade. Who doesn't love a good snack? Also, in pursuit of keeping little hands AND mouths busy, I put out a bowl of peanuts with shells that must be cracked or cherries which require effort. My kids absolutely love a good "tea time". It feels special. We'll throw a blanket outside and bring the tea and books into the sunshine. Yes, fights break out around who gets the last cookie. "Tea" is spilled. Cups are chipped. Distractions abound and the reading pace is sometimes slow. But, these are some of my favorite memories with my kids.

Set out book invitations

I don't keep all of our books on the book shelf. I will pull out a few picture books and put them in stacks or face out in baskets around the house. Think about it...that's what all the book stores do and they've done their research on presentation that sells. I'm so glad Sarah Mackenzie pointed this out. Face out is key! Keaton especially cannot resist the temptation of a lonely book begging to be opened. These little reading invitations are now all over our house. This is something my parents did really well. We may not have had all the latest toys or video games, but book invitations were everywhere!

Let your children catch you reading

We haven't yet started academic schooling, but I want to make sure our kids don't associate reading with school assignments only. They take a note on this from us. I typically read for pleasure when my kids are asleep or preoccupied, however I've started taking a few minutes to let them see me read. Oh, and can I put a plug in for letting your kids see you read your Bible? This is so important! When they see you delighting in God's Word, they look at the Bible as a source of delight for themselves as well. I still remember waking up in the morning growing up and seeing my Mom's Bible open on the kitchen table alongside a cup of Constant Comment tea. I would venture to say that seeing my parents read their Bibles probably had the biggest impact on my faith because whenever I felt lost later in life I knew where to look for answers.

Introduce audio books

We started out with audio picture books from the library, expanding to chapter books last year. I'll set out colors and paper and the kids will listen while I'm working in the kitchen. Or we listen as we're running errands in the car. Some of our favorites are Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, The Adventures of Frog and Toad, Stuart Little and The Big Picture Story Bible. We get most of our audio books from the library. I'm sure there are a few more that I can't think of at the moment.

A note on audio books...choose wisely. One thing that has gotten me into trouble is hastily picking up favorites from my own childhood that call out to me from the library shelf and that I think I know pretty well. I can't resist them! I have now learned that the memories are not necessarily trustworthy in that they were filtered through the lens of my elementary-aged self. With audio books, you can't read ahead or edit as needed. For instance, although I read Little House on the Prairie several times growing up, I forgot that the theme that runs through the second half of the book is the relationship between settlers and Native Americans. Unlike Little House in the Big Woods on audio, I needed editing capability that comes with reading it aloud myself for topics that were beyond their capacity at this stage. The Little House books are also written with language that was acceptable in the 19th century, but not used today. I realized my mistake pretty quickly while washing dishes and I couldn't dry my hands off fast enough to hit the pause button. We skipped ahead as needed and I stayed close to the CD player for the rest of the book. When we re-read it, I'll edit as needed.

Another similar moment happened with The Wind and the Willows. First off, I even had a tough time understanding the older British language through the narrator's heavy accent. I was wondering how much the kids were understanding when one of the characters called the other "a complete ahhss". We didn't finish The Wind and the Willows. It will be a read aloud that I can edit as we go. If one of my kids calls someone "a complete ahhss", this is why. Rookie mistake. This will help you avoid being such one yourself. You're welcome.

When everyone's frustrated, read

This is direct advice from Sarah MacKenzie. She is a mother of six and says when everyone is fighting, start reading. If you've created a reading culture in your home, this trick is almost like magic. They can be at each other's throats and if I sit down, open a favorite book and begin to read the little people stop whatever it is they're doing and begin to listen. It works most of the time with the exception of The Great Lego Fight of 2018.

Here are some of the best things we've discovered thus far about creating a reading culture with our preschoolers:

Creating shared experience

There is something about reading a book together that bonds the readers to each other. You are gripped by the same characters and experience the emotions together. As Sarah Mackenzie says "It puts everyone on the same side of the fence.". One of the joys of raising readers is to hear your little ones conversing in the language of their favorite books. My kids have named the mischievous squirrel that visits our front garden "Nutkin" after Beatrix Potter's character of a similar nature. We all have a laugh over Nutkin's antics as if he were the exact same Nutkin of page 32. It's a little inside joke we can all share in. Or when Claire tells Keaton to come quickly to see the the papoose at the museum that looks just like the one described in Little House on the Prairie. These connections make my heart soar.

We live in a world that is now overflowing with consumption choices. Technology gives us the ability to bring any special interest to our fingertips on demand. Slowly, the opportunity for shared experience has diminished. There is much that we have gained and much that we have lost. We develop our own little worlds on our phones or social media circles and tune everything else out, experiencing and communicating in a tailored vacuum. It's an Everyone Has Their Earbuds In kind of culture. I'm an introvert and I love frequent alone time, but there are some things that blossom more fully when experienced together. You find someone who enjoyed the same book? It's immediate common ground, conversation, community. What better place to foster this than within the family? As they grow and begin to find their own personal interests and passions, I hope the shared scaffolding built in childhood is one they can always come back to together no matter where their own personal stories lead.

Seeing the world with perspective and possibility

Reading about different people, places, perspectives and periods of time is a way to open their eyes to this crazy idea that the world isn't all about them. It also introduces the concept of time and change, that everything has not always been as it is now, nor will it be in the future. That's a big concept for preschoolers and one that comes in layers. One of my favorite family experiences surrounding books was when we were reading the Little House series. We had breakfast at Cracker Barrel not just for the pancakes, but to see all the household items of the pioneer era. It was like watching a hundred light bulbs go off one after the other as they put together the actual object with what had been described to them in the book. They were especially fascinated to see an actual butter churner just like the one Ma used! It's the little things.

Because of reading, they know that we haven't always had electricity or cars or refrigerators. They know that people have gotten together over time to solve problems and make our world better in many ways. It opens up the world of possibility, expanding time and space without leaving our living room. I hope that in knowing that things have changed over time, they'll see their own potential to be problems solvers, a part of the story for the greater good.

Opening opportunities to learn

Often these "bigger kid" books, become a springboard to learn about many different subjects. It was also through the Little House series that our kids were introduced to Native American history and culture. As mentioned, I skipped much of the settler's point of view and kept the information regarding the people group as a whole. At their ages, these concepts are too weighty. We went to the library and checked out stacks of picture books on various Indian tribes and learned about their way of life. It brought up big questions about Native Americans now and we talked about how people have not always made the right decisions in the way in which we've treated others. I was so surprised with the other avenues for learning that came with each book. With Trumpet of the Swan, we looked up the musical pieces referenced on YouTube and they're familiar with Louis Armstrong. The kids checked out books on swans from the library. We also pull out our Map Book and find the locations mentioned in a book. If there are things we don't know, we look them up. I learn a lot too!

Seeing beyond the words on the page to the story

I share all this not just because it has been such a wonderful pursuit and experience for our family. I can't help but wonder if a love of story is ingrained within us all. There is an automatic response to lean in closer, whether it's around a campfire or curled up under blankets on the couch. Quite possibly it's part of a created and inward desire to know and understand the greatest and true narrative that is still unfolding, the original redemption story. He spoke the world into being through words. The written word is a gift from God to his people. Storytelling, an ability given by our Creator. Jesus revealed great truths to his followers through parables, stories. He chose to communicate his love to us in many ways, but chiefly through a book. If we have an urge to share a story with others, maybe it's out of an innate ability meant to share the greatest story ever told, the Gospel. If my kids learn to share beautiful messages told through books with others, maybe one day they'll share the only story that truly matters.

Aside from all the other positive reasons for raising children to be readers, this is the greatest one for us. It's not about just being well-read or academically prepared. It's about being well set up to read what matters and live in a way that matters. A love of reading can be a springboard to read the most important book of all. This is my ultimate hope for them in creating a reading culture within our home. May the love of the Greatest Story Ever Told point them to know its author. Tales that close with "They all lived happily ever after." don't hold a candle to the story that will go on for eternity. It opens with "In the beginning..." and ends with "Amen.".