I love to read aloud to my kids. Before they were born, I imagined myself curled on the couch amid a passel of captivated children, doing voices for the characters and receiving a chorus of eager pleas for one more chapter, please, Mom…. And I got that, with my first child, and my second. Then Beanie came along, and suddenly, family read-alouds weren’t fun anymore. It’s not that I expected her, at age one or two, to listen raptly to the novels that entranced her older sisters. I just figured she’d be happy playing somewhere nearby while I read. This was not the case. She was a high-energy toddler who had to be moving at all times. Usually on my head. She’d bounce back and forth across the couch; she’d mess with my hair; she’d torment her sisters. She had no interest in going somewhere else while I read, or in playing with toys that delighted at other times. And it would have been contrary to my reasons for wanting to homeschool in the first place to banish her from the room every time I wanted to read to the others. I didn’t want her to feel exiled during storytime. That certainly would not inspire in her a love of stories.
What I had to do was find times to read when Bean was naturally occupied in some activity even more absorbing than Distracting Her Sisters. Her naptimes were an obvious choice. And at bedtime, when Daddy read to the big girls, I spirited Beanie away to another room for some special cuddle time with Mommy. I read to her, and by that time of day, she was ready to be still and listen. And of course, the books were at her speed, not her sisters’.
But bedtime and naptime isn’t enough time. Too many great books in the world! Fortunately there was an activity Beanie enjoyed even more than jumping on the sofa: eating. Three times a day, she was (and still is) a captive audience.
Some of our best family reading times are over meals. I read to them at breakfast—usually poetry. At lunch I read novels like The Bears of Hemlock Mountain (with its delightful refrain of “No bears, no bears, no bears at all”) or By the Great Horn Spoon. I read picture books like Peter Rabbit or The Maggie B. or Tikki Tikki Tembo—books my older children have almost forgotten, and my younger ones are discovering for the first time.
A little side note here about picture books. They aren’t just for little kids. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease tells about a high-school teacher who reads Judith Viorst’s picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to her students every year. Her teenagers listen raptly. They can relate to Alexander’s plight. Sometimes whole months of adolescence feel like a no good very bad day.
Back to our mealtime reading. I’ve learned to refill milk cups without breaking stride in the narrative. My picky eater forgets to pick—she’s into the story. And my wild wall-climbing preschooler shovels in her peas with her eyes fixed on the the picture I’m holding up.
Our breakfast poetry readings have done more to instill a love of poetry in my children than any curriculum I could have bought. I don’t make them memorize poems, but they do, because they ask for certain favorites over and over again. I read a mix of old favorites and new discoveries. Often I pick poems appropriate to the day’s weather, or the current season or holiday or animal we’ve been reading about or bird we’ve spotted on a nature walk. I read nonsense poems and serious, lyrical poetry. My little ones know Tennyson, Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Frost—not because I’ve taught these poets as schoolwork, but because they’ve joined us for breakfast so many a morning.
Our choices for novels are often dictated by what we’re interested in at the moment. In spring, our thoughts turn to green, growing things and fluffy animals. We follow “rabbit trails” of related books, like the year we hopped from Beatrix Potter to The Secret Garden to Redwall. In the winter, when we tend to read for longer stretches of time because we’re stuck indoors, we tend toward adventure stories and historical fiction.
Our suppertime book right now is Eleanor Estes’s hilarious Ginger Pye. It’s almost too funny for a mealtime read-aloud, because it’s encouraging bad manners in my gang—they keep laughing with their mouths full!
What are your family’s favorite read-alouds? Write me and I’ll post your recommendations.
The Month That Ate My Brain
Lots to Read in the New Year
“A generation ago, there was no general conspiracy among writers to protect children.”