How She Reads
Art by Abigale Palmer, abigalepalmer.com
Terra Hutchings grew up in a home without books. “I don’t remember many books,” she says. “If there were any, it was maybe for decorating—like to make a lamp a little bit taller. I never saw anybody reading.”
When she was young, Terra didn’t realize reading was a thing in other families. She remembers visiting the library once, as if it were a trip to a museum. It was amazing to see so many books in one place, but libraries were not part of her life.
Then as a teenager, she started babysitting. One of the moms she babysat for asked her to read two books each to the kids before bed. That was a new concept for Terra, but she did it, and loved it. As the little two-year-old would stare at the books in her bedroom and pick which one she wanted to read, Terra could tell that she knew and loved these books. “She was so aware of which one she was choosing. She knew them. She had a relationship with them,” Terra says.
“I was able to get a glimpse into how people were living and I wanted to be part of it. How incredible is that, that those kids have a parent sitting next to them, snuggling, and hearing their voice, and connecting in that way. It makes reading such a joy. I knew I wanted my kids to have that one day in my future.”
As you may have guessed, Terra’s story gets way better. After struggling through school with very poor reading skills, she managed to be the first member of her family to graduate from college, and she now loves to read. And so do her two boys, who practically live at the library.
“My older kid, who’s 11, he swallows up books. He doesn’t snack on them. When he finds a book he loves he’s like a paper shredder and just devours it.”
Isn’t she just so amazing. The whole interview just blew me away.
In this post, I’ll talk about how moms read to their kids, how they fit in some reading time for themselves, and how they create a culture of reading in their homes.
There’s plenty of evidence that reading is good for our brains—and for our kids’ brains. We know that reading to our kids improves their own reading skills and helps them with other academic subjects too. The importance and value of this cannot be overstated.
But all this research, all the quotas of the number of books we’re supposed to read to our kids by the time they enter kindergarten, is not the only reason we should read to our kids. It misses all the magic.
Reading is also about connecting with other people—the people who wrote the books, the characters inside them (real or imaginary), and whoever you read the book with or talk about it with.
In his book, “On Writing,” (which is incredible, by the way) Stephen King talks about how reading a book is legitimately a form of telepathy. The writer is actually putting his or her words into another person’s thoughts enabling them to conjure up sophisticated images and ideas. Kind of like I’m doing right now with this podcast.
This is a powerful idea. It’s amazing to be able to share ideas like this. Part of the power comes from sheer vulnerability. It takes courage to put a book out there in the world.
This is why I cry at book signings. Whether the table is swarmed with people or just a lonely stack of books and an expectant author, witnessing the vulnerability of an author sitting at that table and putting this piece of her soul out there for the world to judge gets me every time.
Sometimes I even get a bit teary when I walk into a library. I can just feel all the love that went into each little book. A library is a holy place. Each book represents a real living, breathing (or formerly breathing) person. And just think about how many hours of work went into each one. Each library holds centuries of time. It’s magical.
This deep connection and vulnerability is why I consider some authors to be among my best friends. Edith Wharton knows all the best gossip. Terri Pratchett makes me laugh out loud. E. B. White finds meaning in even the most mundane things. His book of essays is one of my favorite books of all time. And don’t get me started about Jane Austen, Wallace Stegner, and Zora Neale Hurston.
I often imagine inviting these wonderful friends to dinner, along with other authors, living and dead, who make up my personal canon of literary masters. We wouldn’t waste time with small talk—we’d just jump into good conversation like old friends.
When I had kids, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to my author friends—from Dr. Seuss to Lilian Hoban to Lucy Maud Montgomery and C. S. Lewis. And reading to my kids is one of my favorite parts of being a mom. But it’s also a lot harder than I thought it would be.
Many moms I talked to started reading aloud to their kids while they were still in the womb, then continued with the baby in their arms and then on their laps and far beyond the point the kids fit on their laps. I love imagining beautiful scenes of rapt children listening to their mothers’ stories in front of a cozy fireplace in houses all around the world.
The reality is often quite different—wiggly kids jumping up and running around after every page, older kids rolling their eyes and claiming they’re too old for this, whiny kids demanding that mind-numbing superhero book yet again. Or you might be the problem, rushing through a book so your kids will go to sleep, hoping they don’t notice when you skip pages. (Spoiler alert: they usually do notice.)
Luckily, there are a lot of brilliant moms out there who, like Terra, have put some serious work into creating a culture of reading in their families and have some great ideas for us. I’ve organized them into ten tips.
1. Make Reading Aloud a Top Priority
One of the biggest cheerleaders for reading to our kids is Sarah Mackenzie, host of the podcast Read-Aloud Revival and author of The Read-Aloud Family.
I first listened to her podcast as I was driving home from the airport this summer, and I listened to episode 130, an interview with another amazing woman, Meghan Cox Gurdon, author of another great book about reading aloud with kids, “The Enchanted Hour.” I was enchanted myself from beginning to end. When Meghan said, “Picture books are a portal to the human soul,” I audibly gasped, shut off the podcast to catch my breath, and--you knew it was coming--shed a tear or two.
Later in the episode, she said:
“[G]etting to the read aloud at night sometimes felt like almost an insurmountable task, like how, it's madness, and it's dinner, and it's bath time, and it's everything. But I made it absolutely something that was never to be missed. I mean…it was like flossing your teeth, it was the thing that we absolutely always did, even if it was really late or even if we could do only do it for a little while… You can fight your way through the kind of furious waves of the day, and then, ugh, when I got to the read aloud, I would think, wait, this is what I should have been doing all day long.”
2. Figure Out the Best Time to Read
Implementation is where it gets a bit tricky. Bedtime is the traditional time to read to kids, but Nicole, who blogs at learningaswego.blog, used to dread reading to her kids at bedtime because she was so tired. She would either agree and hurry though the book or just tell them, “Not tonight.” Then she’d feel guilty—and sad—that she wasn’t reading to them.
The thing is, Nicole actually loves reading to her kids. She just had to find a better time. So she started a new afternoon tradition called Tea and Read. They make a pot of tea and have small snacks as they read. Now it’s a time they all look forward to, plus they have time to linger over the books and really enjoy them.
Terra, whom we heard from in the intro, finds it pretty easy to read to her kids before bed during the school year, when bedtime is predictable. But they stay up later in the summer and don’t have time to squeeze it in. So in the summer, she started reading to her kids when she snuggles in and wakes them up in the morning. That worked great for them.
When I just had small kids with no evening extracurriculars, we had relatively early bedtimes, and reading was a regular part of our bedtime routine. I was really good and consistent about reading aloud. And we all loved it.
Jump to now, with kids that range from 4 to 13. What with homework, sports, and other activities, bedtime is anything but routine. It changes every night. I need quick routines and don’t have time to linger over a book. So last year, I decided the best time to read to preschooler is right after I drop the other kids off at school. When I read to him in the morning, I’m not exhausted and I’m not rushing against the clock. We can take time to look at the pictures, ask questions, laugh at what’s funny, and talk about the story. The magic is back. I still usually read to my daughter at night after I put my youngest son in bed. Unfortunately, though, I’d kind of stopped reading to the older boys.
This week, inspired by all the research I’ve been doing on the topic, I decided to start a family read-aloud. It has been several years since I attempted to read to them all at once. I tried reading at the random times we were all together, like during snacks or meals, or sometimes right before bed. For the first few days, it went great, but by chapter 4, when reading time erupted into multiple fights, and everyone but my daughter said they don’t care about the book, I decided this may not be our season for an entire family read-aloud. Too many different ages, different interests, different schedules, and volatile personalities. But I’m not giving up—just switching tactics. I’ve picked individual read-alouds for each kid and I’ll try to fit in a few minutes at a time when I can. This will solve another problem I’m having, making time for one-on-one time. It’s all about experimenting until we figure out what works. And it’s important enough to keep trying.
3. Delight in Reading
The third tip is to delight in reading. Angela Halliday remembers how excited her Aunt Anne was when she learned how to read. “She said, ‘Angie! You can read! Let’s read this book and this book! I just remember her being my biggest cheerleader. She clapped, and took a picture. It was a big deal for her, so it became a big deal for me.”
This excitement for reading stuck with Angela for the rest of her life. She shared this passion with her own five children, and this summer, she was also able to share her love for reading with the people of a small village in Malawi, called Kadzakalowa. She joined a group from the non-profit organization, Village Book Builders, to help finish a library in the village and stock it with 1500 books, computers, solar panels, and other amenities.
While she was there, they split up in groups and went to every home to read books. They were so excited to read and touch the books. At one home in particular, Angela read the book “The Little Engine that Could,” by Watty Piper to a 76-year-old woman, her granddaughter, and great-grandson. “You should have seen her face. She was tickled pink about the little peaches and apples and oranges and the dolls that could talk. The magic of the story brought a sparkle to her eyes. I had not looked at that story in that way for a long time.
You can read more about Angela’s trip to Malawi and about how she creates a reading culture in her home at How Angela Reads. And you can learn more about Village Book Builders at villagebookbuilders.org.
I’m guessing that most of my readers have easy access to libraries and books. It’s easy in such abundance to take them for granted. This was such a good reminder to me to help our kids really find delight and wonder in books.
Sadly, some of the delight of reading fades as kids grow up. In episode 125 of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast, Sarah Mackenzie says:
“Usually when we have kids who don't love reading, it's because a love of stories and books have been schooled out of them. I don't know too many three- or four-year-olds who don't like to be told a bedtime story, but our older kids often start to dislike reading as soon as they associate reading with the kind of reading they do for school. Whether they're homeschooled or they go to traditional school or any kind of hybrid school, a lot of times the way we engage our kids with reading around their education literally ruins reading for them. The antidote, I believe, is to create a book club culture at home.”
But we can’t just blame the schools. Here’s Sarah again:
“Parents who think that the primary importance of reading is success in school or academic benefits, those children will read less than parents who think that the primary source of reading is entertainment…We have this tendency to really think that the entertainment value of reading is just gravy, but it's actually more than that. It's so important… I think if we remember that importance of delight, then we will have an easier time setting up a book club culture in our home because we will remember that our children loving reading is not just a benefit or a bonus, it's the heart of the reading life.”
4. Give Books as Gifts or Rewards
Nothing elevates the status of an object quite like wrapping it up in shiny paper. My kids know that they’ll get a hand-picked book at every birthday, Christmas, and Easter. My friend Amy Leffler also gives bookstore gift cards as gifts so her kids get the excitement of picking out books on their own.
Cindy Liggett passed down special books that her children loved to her grandchildren. They think it’s so cool to read the very same copy of the book that their parents read and treasured.
And Kelley Durrant buys books as souvenirs when she travels with her family, even though they could buy the same books from home. This tradition started with their first family vacation with their kids, to South Carolina. They watched a presentation about the Gulla GeeChee heritage and the songs and poems and history were so meaningful to her. They went to the gift shop afterwards because they wanted a souvenir to remember it by. But they didn’t want a toy or trinket that would just get lost or broken. They decided to buy a book, “Circle Unbroken,” about a young girl whose grandmother told her those stories about her heritage.
After that, the Durrant family started buying books whenever they traveled, as a way to revisit those places after they got home. One they especially love is one they bought after a swamp tour in Louisiana: “Petite Rouge.” It’s a Cajun retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and they read it together often, accent and all. “As we read that book we reminisce about the swamp tour we took and the alligators we held and fed. It really takes us back to the fun time we shared as a family.
Another great way to make books feel special is to use them as rewards—letting kids earn books themselves or read aloud time for good behavior or for being consistent with chores. Sometimes when I help my kids clean their rooms, I’ll say, “Once we finish cleaning up all the clothes we get to read two pages.” Then we’ll pick up all the toys and earn another couple of pages.
5. Make books accessible
A motherhood mentor of mine and one of the most interesting women I know, Tamsin Barlow, furnishes her whole house with books. There are stacks on every table, shelf, and nightstand. There is no doubt how great a role books have in their family life. One of my favorite rooms in the house is the guest bathroom. It’s decorated from floor to ceiling with framed quotes—chosen by all six family members from their favorite books.
Angela Halliday, who we heard from earlier, keeps bookshelves in all of her kids rooms, and makes sure to update them every now and again with fresh books as her kids’ reading progresses. She wants them to always have good books at their fingertips. And they all love to read.
Even though her kids are 9 and 12, Anne Trott keeps their library basket full of picture books so they can casually pick them up and browse through them. Anne says, “I never want them to outgrow picture books! The beautiful illustrations, great values, and lessons that can be learned in short stories are just priceless!”
I keep a couple of books in the car so I can read to my son while we’re waiting at school pickup, or other activities. Sarah Hauge also keeps books in her car, but she chooses books that she wants to donate, so when she and her kids come across one of the Little Free Libraries that are scattered around town, they can swap them for new books.
6. Start a Family Book Club
The sixth tip is to start a family book club. When my oldest son started reading chapter books, we started a one-on-one book club. I told him that he could pick a book and I’d read it with him and then we’d go out for a treat and discuss it. As more of the kids became good readers, my reading and treating schedule became a bit too much to handle, so now I rotate which kid gets to pick the book, and anyone who reads it can come. It’s been such a fun way to discuss big ideas with the kids--and they feel so grown up being in a book club.
Beau Lefler works overseas for much of the year, so he and his daughters have a long-distance book club, where they read the same books and discuss them.
Thirteen years ago, Maria Eckersley started a family summer tradition called the Couch Potato Book Club. Every so often, she calls a random club meeting and announces the location—a weird location around the house, like the trampoline, the basement floor, in the car, in hammocks or some other hideout. They start each meeting with a secret chant (it’s classified), and they have specific rules. Only fantasy books are allowed, they can never read in the same place twice (per book), no overhead lights allowed—just flashlights and lanterns, everyone has to be in pjs and have their teeth brushed before they start, and they use ridiculous voices for the characters. The name Couch Potato Book Club came from another rule the Eckersley’s observe during the summer. If you’re on the couch reading, you have immunity from the chore chart. One you get up, you have to get to work! Maria shares more of her fun ideas at meckmom.com
Sarah Mackenzie created a fabulous master class about creating a book club culture in your family, which she aired in two parts on The Read-Aloud Revival podcast, episodes 125 and 126. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing. You don’t have to have actual meetings to create a book club culture, you just have to start meaningful conversations about the books you and your kids are reading. The same rules apply here as when your kids come home from school. You don’t ask them yes or no questions, like “Did you like the book?” you ask open-ended questions that make them think and engage. Books can be such a great avenue to talk about tricky moral issues, values and relationships.
Sarah’s list of ten discussion questions to ask your kids may be the best part of her book, “The Read-Aloud Family.” A few of my favorites are:
“Who is the most courageous character in this story?”
“Which character reminds you most of yourself?”
“What is the character most afraid of?”
“What surprised you most about the book?”
I suggest you just find the book immediately to read the rest of her questions.
7. Create Reading Rituals
During winter months when it got dark earlier, Kristen Wood read to her kids by candlelight, over cookies and milk. Beau Lefler’s family used to gather in living room with big bowl of popcorn and read their own books together. Sarah Mackenzie recommends Saturday mornings over pancakes or Sunday afternoons with brownies as a great setting for family reading.
Some moms pair a relevant activity with the book, especially with little kids. This doesn’t have to be elaborate. When Lauran Newman introduced her kids to the book Blueberries for Sal, by Robert McKloskey, she paired it with a big bowl full of blueberries. She also finds that her sons are more likely to listen to a book when they have something else to do while listening, like playing Legos, folding paper airplanes or coloring. Audra Elkington’s daughters like to draw picture of what they’re hearing as she reads.
When Sarah Hauge and her kids read Charlotte’s Web, they also watched the movie and made a craft—a spiderweb in the corner of a doorway with the word Kind spelled out in it.
8. Have the Kids Read to Each Other
The eighth tip is to have your kids read to each other. Since her son has to read every night for school anyway, Kira Godfrey has him read to his sweet baby sister each night. Of course this is a win-win, because reading aloud is so good for the one reading and the one being read to, plus it’s a great way for them to bond.
I vividly remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth and the Trumpet of the Swan to my own younger siblings. I loved sharing my favorite books with them.
Some of the sweetest moments between my kids have been when they read together. When bedtime rolls around and I’m needed elsewhere, I often assign one of the older kids to read to my youngest to settle him down until I can make it up to tuck him in.
9. Choose Great Books
There are so many delightful books out there, but there are also lots of books that will make reading to your kids a chore. Gina Prescott has a strong opinions about this. When her oldest son, Max, was little, she felt like she had to read whatever book he picked. He often gravitated to the ones about cartoon characters—mind-numbingly dull books that she’s pretty sure were written by a computer and not a real person.
Gina says, “I realized I had this concept in my mind that if my child wanted to read a book I had to read whatever book he wanted to read. Then I decided, no. I am the captain of this ship. I gathered up all the books I could not stand anywhere and donated them.”
She started researching online to find good book lists. One of the first she found was Everyday Reading, which has great recommendations. She started putting books on hold and then picking them up at the library and it changed the way she read to her kids. “That’s how I started really falling in love with reading to my kids, and making sure we have quality literature in our home. If kids are getting those really empty books that no one put their heart into, it’s going to show. They’re not going to love reading because it’s going to be just a lot of words on a page. But if there’s humor behind it, or mystery, that’s what captures them.”
Janae Ku likes to let her kids pick books through their school book orders, because they get so excited about reading them, but she knows if left to their own devices they could easily come home with some of those mind-numbing books Gina talked about. So she lets the kids make a list of the books they want from each book order, then she picks from that list. which ones to buy them.
In our family, we compromise. I’m pretty flexible about reading them whatever picture book they want—I’ve curated our collection well enough that I like the ones we own. But I always get to choose which chapter books I read aloud—or I let them pick from my three top choices. Those are a commitment that sometimes last several months, and I’m going to make sure I enjoy them too. However, I let the kids take turns choosing the book club books.
When choosing bedtime stories for her children as they grew up, Marjean always went for the tear-jerkers. She liked books that elicited strong emotions so her kids could learn to experience and process those feelings—both the highs and the lows—in a supportive place. Books like Where the Red Fern Grows or The Hundred Dresses.
Books like A Monster Calls, in which a boy learns to cope with his mother’s cancer, can really help kids deal with hard or scary things.
Hannah Christmas picks books based on places she wants to visit—she can travel anywhere she wants through the pages of a book. She printed out a world map that you can color, and glued it to the front of her reading journal. As she reads, she colors in the countries where each book took place.
Terra loved this idea and bought a scratch-off map. She and her kids scratch off the countries they read about together.
One year, I decided to do a genre project, where I read highly acclaimed books in every genre I could think of, from graphic novels, to mystery, westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc. It was so fun to expand my horizons that way and I discovered some of my very favorite books that year.
There are so many great book lists to help you discover fabulous books for both you and your kids. I can’t tell you which lists will be best for you, since we all have different taste. I like to look for books I already know I love on lists to figure out which recommenders have taste similar to my own.
Sarah Hauge has been working through Mensa’s list for K-3 with her kids. It’s a fabulous one.
Sarah Paulsen reads through the Newberry Medal winners with her kids. Another fun list is readkiddoread.com, started by the author James Patterson with age-and genre-specific recommendations.
Janssen Bradshaw at Everyday Reading, which Gina mentioned, has fabulous book lists, as, of course, does Sarah Mackenzie.
My favorite podcast for adult recommendations and book talk is What Should I Read Next? hosted by Anne Bogel. We love so many of the same books that I really trust her recommendations. She ends each episode with a matchmaking session with her guests, picking books she thinks they’d love. The concept of book matchmaking makes me giddy.
And of course, it’s always wonderful when you have real live friends with similar book taste with whom you can trade recommendations. Jillian Johnsrud, who blogs at montanamoneyadventures.com has a personal rule that if three people she knows recommend the same book to her she has to buy it. It hasn’t failed her yet!
Each Friday of this month, I’ll send out a different reading list of some of my favorite read alouds, picture book authors, adult books, etc. You can sign up for my mailing list here.
10. Let them See You Reading
The tenth tip for creating a reading culture in your home is to read books yourself and let your kids see you reading. The big challenge here is obviously finding the time when you’re a busy mom.
When she was growing up, Angela Halliday’s mom instituted a great reading ritual to solve this problem. In the summer, she designated two hours a day for quiet alone time, during which the kids could read a book, write a story, or take a nap.
The thing that made this quiet time work is that her mom participated too. If she had used that time to get things done around the house, the kids would have been up trying to follow her around. But she would read during that time too. I think this is so brilliant! Angela kept the tradition alive with her own family each summer, and during the school year, she has her kids do quiet reading time on Sunday afternoons.
I like to use reading to make mundane tasks something I actually look forward to. Doing dishes or laundry are the perfect times to listen to a good audio book. And reading a chapter in a physical book is a great reward after finishing a task. When I finish loading the dishwasher, or finish sweeping the floor, I get to read a chapter. The better the book, the cleaner my house!
When Bri McCoy has even five minutes of downtime, she sets her timer and picks up her current book to read it until her timer is up. Sometimes she sets it for longer, if she has the time. She calls these runaway minutes, and they really add up by the end of the week. Bri talks about this and other great reading tips on the first episode of her excellent podcast, 10Things to Tell You.
Kendra Adachi has four main tactics to make time for reading:
1. She keeps books she wants to read in plain sight--on her kitchen desk, on her nightstand, and on the table next to her favorite chair.
2. She sets her phone restrictions to turn off at 9:15, which is her signal to pick up a book.
3. She brings her Kindle Paperwhite everywhere she goes.
4. She only reads what she loves, and quits the books that she doesn’t.
Kendra hosts a fabulous podcast called The Lazy Genius.
And then there are some times you don’t want them to see you reading and you have to be sneaky. Sheri Bates sneaks a book to family movie night, because her kids and husband all like Marvel movies and she does not. Kelley does the same thing. She sits behind the kids and reads, so they think she’s watching the movie with them, but she’s in her own world.
I think following the last tip, letting my kids see my passion for reading is the main reason all five of them love to read, despite their totally different personalities and their varying skill levels. It makes up for my inconsistencies and the recent volatility of our family read-alouds.
Our enthusiasm and passion for reading can help our kids keep that innate love for stories that they have when they’re little all the way through high school and beyond. Let’s keep the magic alive!