Early Readers as Read-Alouds, and Other Book Suggestions for Three-Year-Olds

October 8, 2012 @ 5:48 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

Harmony asked:

I have a question which you may have written about somewhere… but anyway, I have a just-turning-3 boy. We’ve enjoyed a lot of the picture books you’ve recommended, but I think he may be getting ready for some longer books. I’m curious what chapter books have gotten your kids interested at early ages? Not to replace beautiful picture books of course! Just in addition. I’m thinking to try Winnie the Pooh… other ideas?

I guess I have two questions, because another thing I’ve wondered about is early readers. I think my son would love Frog and Toad, and Elephant and Piggie–but should I save those for when he can actually start to read them himself? Have you ever struggled with this?

These are great questions. I’ll start with the second batch first: nope, I’ve never saved beginning readers for actually-beginning-to-read children because—well, at first it was probably because I couldn’t wait to share those stories, but also it’s because beginning readers make such wonderful read-alouds for toddlers. It’s funny, though, now that you’ve made me consider the question, Harmony: I don’t think I’ve ever seen much discussion on this topic. But here’s what I think—wait, to get there, first I have to back up to picture books.

Picture books are written to be read by an adult to a child. The vocabulary is often quite sophisticated—think of Beatrix Potter: “Jemima Puddle-duck became quite desperate. She determined to make a nest right away from the farm.” Many contemporary picture books are tending toward simple, spare text (many of them quite wonderfully, like I Want My Hat Back or the charming Me Hungry); but in my mind the form is dominated by longish stories with rich vocabulary.

(To run off on a tangent: I’ve known parents who steered their children away from picture books once the kids learned to read, or hit first grade. Too young, not challenging enough, etc. Au contraire, I say! Picture book text is often MUCH more challenging for an emergent reader than the Early Reader books, about which more in a second. Besides, no one, not anyone, is ever too old for a good picture book. I mean it. All the Places to Love or I Remember Papa can be every bit as moving and cathartic a read for an adult as Persuasion. The Quiltmaker’s Gift is better therapy than Pinterest. I get the same uplifted, happy rush from Mordant’s Wish as I do from About a Boy.)

I’ve had toddlers who liked to cuddle up and listen to long picture books (especially Jane, who spent nearly a year of her toddlerhood in a hospital bed—sitting and listening was one of a very limited range of options, in her case) and toddlers for whom the concept of sitting in one place for a 32-page stretch was a notion for another universe. (Hello, darling Bean.) 😉 For those children especially, but really for all my two- and three-year-olds, I drew (draw, since Huck is this age exactly) heavily on treasured Early Reader favorites like Little Bear, Frog and Toad, The Best Nest, Newt, Biscuit, Mouse Soup, Owl at Home—oh, anything by Arnold Lobel really. And yes, yes, yes, absolutely Elephant and Piggy. We’ve had stretches these past few years where I bet I read five or six Elephant and Piggy books a day—five or six times each! Both Wonderboy and Rilla made giant leaps toward reading thanks to Mo Willems and his animal antics.

I also had the fun of trying out both my Inch and Roly series and Fox and Crow Are Not Friends on my ready-made test audience here at home. I read my littles the manuscripts straight off the computer. It’s always helpful to read your work aloud, but when you’re writing an early reader or picture book, it’s imperative: if I’m going to inflict a book upon a parent who may, if I’m lucky, be called upon to read the book over and over and over, I’ve got to do my best to make sure that isn’t a torturous experience. And not just that. Reading a manuscript aloud always alerts you to clunky bits that need more polish. And children, even (especially?) your own children, will inform you with unabashed clarity where you’ve lost their attention. My early reader manuscripts are much tighter after a round or two (or ten) of read-alouds to Huck and Rilla. When they start asking for ‘that story’ again—‘you know, Mommy, that book on your computer’—then I know I’m on the right track.

Anyway, to return to the question:

By all means, add Early Readers to the toddler’s read-aloud shelf.

As for the first question, about longer-form read-alouds for three-year-olds, we usually do Pooh around age four (though Rilla didn’t cotton to it at that age; nor did Wonderboy), and we nearly always read the My Father’s Dragon series as our first novels. I have a list of other good read-alouds for four-year-olds here. I remember reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Jane at age four, and Rose’s obsession at that age (and long afterward) was anything to do with Greek myths, but Rilla (at age six) still MUCH prefers picture books and Early Readers over anything that looks like a novel. She eyed Brambly Hedge with suspicion at first, because of its size (we have the large Treasury edition that includes all the books), but its profusion of pictures won her over. She also loved The Cottage by Bantry Bay and The Family Under the Bridge. But now it’s back to ‘Too long, not enough pictures, I only like picture books.’ Which is fine with me. Our picture-book collection occupies a formidable amount of square footage in this little house; it’s got to earn its keep. 🙂

Besides the list of short novels and story collections I linked to above, let me throw in a vote for Thornton Burgess’s various animal stories (available in inexpensive Dover editions). Also the Family Treasury of Little Golden Books: obviously, those are picture books, not novels, but the older Golden Books tend to be quite text-rich. Any good collection of folk or fairy tales is an excellent choice for three- and four-year-olds (though don’t be surprised if most fairy tales turn out to be too long for a three-year-old to hear in one sitting; that goes for any longer-form prose story, really). Just So Stories—delicious—already on my other list, I think.

As I list all these suggestions, I’m aware that Huck (who will be four in January) is not ready for many of them. Too much text for his busy, bouncy body. I could woo him with Just So Stories, I think (note to self: give it a try) and the Little Golden Books, but he wandered off quickly when I was reading a Burgess story to Rilla the other day. What he wants, over and over and over and whyyyy did we succumb to the request?, is a Thomas the Tank Engine 8×8 we picked up after my booksigning last week. I am Beezus, he is Ramona, and this book is our Scoopy.

(I guarantee you no one involved in the publication of this Thomas book read it out loud even once, much less six times a day, every day for a week. I’m just saying.)

Speaking of picture books and early readers! (And every other kind of children’s book.) There’s still a week left to nominate your favorite books of the past year for the CYBILs Awards. Book apps, too! That’s the committee I’m serving on this year. I’d love to hear what your 2012 picks are.

Oh, and it’s Monday, which means a new Thicklebit.

    Related Posts


15 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. MelanieB says:

    Ooh another delightful book post!

    My current three and four year-olds both adore Fox and Crow and Inch and Roly. We also went through a phase recently with lots of Frog and Toad and Little Bear. Although it was more four-year-old Sophie who asked for those over and over again, three-year-old Ben would sit and listen and occasionally request them. We’ve done a few Pooh stories; but they seem just a wee bit too long for him. They all definitely love everything Elephant and Piggy– starting to read Elephant and Piggy to the other kids can even pull Bella away from the Eyewitness Archaeology book, which is her current obsession.

    It’s funny when my oldest, Bella, was two she would sit through two Pooh stories in a row and asked for them over and over and over and over again. We must have read at least one or two Pooh stories a day for a full year. It’s a good thing Milne is so readable. I can’t think of any other author who wouldn’t have driven me stark raving mad by that point. Pooh was her first imaginary friend and I rather miss those days. It was a disappointment a bit when the other kids haven’t taken to Pooh so strongly and so early. At three Bella also loved Beatrix Potter. I’m starting to see that her attention span was unusual for so young a child. She can still sit still for amazing lengths of time even now– so very different from Rilla.

    Just So Stories were a summer favorite with four-year-old Sophie. We sat outside in the afternoons and read one a day and then she would go play while I read Bella Little House and biographies of saints. I’m so glad you mentioned them because I’d never have guessed they would be such a perfect fit for her. She tends to be very hard to draw into a longer book. She’ll occasionally listen to Betsy Tacy or Five Little Peppers but she’s easily distractable and will often run off before the end of the chapter.

    I am so grateful, Lissa, that you so rigorously apply the read-aloud test to your books. Would that more children’s book authors were so considerate of us poor parents. There are so many books that make me feel almost physically ill to read aloud.

  2. Harmony says:

    Wow, thanks for this awesome response! A lot of books to consider, here, although it sounds likely that my son is a little young for most of them based on your experience. He loves Beatrix Potter and was excited to see Jemima Puddleduck in your post as he looked over my shoulder–he was disappointed that this didn’t mean a Jemima video to watch though. I love that he uses “amongst” in conversation thanks to Potter. He’s an extremely verbal child and I think that he likes to listen to more complex language, but he’s also a 3 yo boy and has limits to his sitting still and his attention span.

    I think I will give Pooh a try soon and get myself a copy of Just So Stories also. And jump into the Early Reader section next library visit… We read Owl at Home a few months ago at my mother’s, and he was entranced, so I think more Arnold Lobel will go over beautifully. Thank you Melissa! And Melanie, I appreciate your experience also!

  3. GeekLady says:

    Kids have amazing abilities to appreciate complex stories (both listening to books and watching movies) that isn’t really appreciated these days. I started Winnie the Pooh on my son when he was not quite three out of sheer desperation – we were camping, and I was trying to get him to stay in his own sleeping bag where he could stay warm instead of trying to get out and cuddle in mine. The book came free with iBooks, so it was convenient, but it was such a big hit that I picked up one of the big anthologies at Half Price.

    Lately, I’ve picked up the poems in When We Were Very Young for bedtime and those are also a hit – but of all the poems in the book, he insists on Rice Pudding every night. It’s very funny, he’s roused himself from almost asleep to roll over and ask for the “Mary Jane one”. We’ve also started reading aloud The BFG, but reading that takes some precise timing. Too close to bed, and my voice just lulls him to sleep. But at the wrong time during the day he’s in go-go-go mode and can’t sit still or focus on anything.

    My mom gave him the Frog and Toad collection in his Easter basket last year, but I’ve been saving them for learning to read bribery. This may have changed my mind.

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Lovely Rice Pudding is a favorite here too. 🙂

      And so true about the importance of good timing! And (I meant to say this in the post and forgot) busy hands can help keep little ones (or big ones, for that matter) engaged during read-alouds. Rilla is usually in the room, drawing or playing with toys, while I’m reading to her older sisters during our high-tide lessons. (That’s another topic, but even as teenagers the girls prefer to have me read certain books aloud to everyone, so we can discuss them as a group, rather than each go off and read them individually.) While seemingly absorbed in her artwork or paper dolls or tormenting her little brother by sproinging his curls, Rilla is soaking up things like Beowulf and history and a lot of poetry. And if Huck is holding a toy car or train while I read to him, he listens much more intently.

  4. Haley says:

    Perfect timing on this post, as my daughter is 3 1/2 and these book suggestions look exactly like what she’d enjoy these days. They’re going straight on my library list!

    The “save early readers for early readers” theory comes from Jim Weiss in The Read Aloud Handbook, or at least that’s where I first encountered it. It made sense to me at the time so I’ve been more or less avoiding them (except as audio books – we love Little Bear and Arnold Lobel’s stories on audio for 2s and 3s!)… but your counterpoints make sense, too, so now I’m feeling permission to dive into them with my daughter. Thanks!

    One of the wonderful benefits to having read your blog for years and years, by the way, is knowing exactly which books to grab in the sea of books at used book sales. A local store had one this weekend and as I picked up Wise Child, Swallows and Amazons, Dancing Shoes, and various Edward Eager titles for $.50 each I was thinking of you! 🙂

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Haley, I’d forgotten that about The Read-Aloud Handbook! I loved that book but it’s been over 15 years since I read it. I can see his point applying in a classroom context—encouraging teachers to read middle-grade novels, say, to first-graders. And certainly it resonates with Charlotte Mason-ish homeschooling types like me, where challenging read-aloud material is a mainstay of our homeschooling life. But I definitely advocate against saving early readers for six-year-olds. I think my general philosophy is to keep one’s range of options as wide as possible—mixing up short books, long books, sophisticated prose, simple prose, poetry, fiction, nonfiction—the smorgasbord approach. 🙂

      P.S. Fantastic haul at the book sale!

  5. Lindsay says:

    What nostalgia, as The Boy is off majoring in Physics at college!

    However, about Thomas the Tank Engine,. If you have a REAL train lover you aren’t going to escape Thomas (and really shouldn’t), so try to get the real Thomas books. We got the complete set in one volume, but were also lucky enough to be able to collect quite a few of the individual British editions — little books just the right size to fit in the hand, like Beatrix Potter’s books.

    I think we were in the first American “wave” of Thomas fans, and of course had to frequently go and ride on the little restored steam train near us. All staffed by volunteers, and most of the volunteers used to adult train buffs. Suddenly they were confronted with hordes of toddlers asking all kinds of questions, and all in British “train speak!” They did seem to take it in stride and worked hard at acquiring the new language.

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Lindsay, that’s a great story. 🙂 Adorable. Huck is my first Thomas-obsessed child: new terrain for me. I’ll have to look for the originals…I love ‘little books’ like the B. Potter ones or Chicken Soup with Rice or Little Fur Family.

  6. sarah says:

    I read the comment post on my Reader and came over here to give my answer but its gone. Shame because I do so love a blogging discussion 😉

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    LOL, I took it down because I decided (again) that I didn’t want threaded comments after all, but now I’m sorry I did because you know how I love a blogging discussion! 😉

  8. Liz says:

    I just read the first three stories in Winnie the Pooh to my 3 and a third year old granddaughter today. The interesting thing is that her mother said they’ve tried reading them and she always said they were too long. The only problem we had was when one page didn’t have pictures , however, since the next one did, I let her sort of turn the page and I finished reading and the picture on the next page actually went pretty well with what I was reading. My kids both liked Pooh at 3. If we’d waited on Little Bear for early reading time we would have totally missed out on him because my kids learned to read so fast that they were on to other things too quickly to be bothered with Little Bear. Besides the Little Bear stories really seem better for younger kids. My daughter was reading Clyde Robert Bulla books at 5, not Little Bear, and Carolyn Haywood and the Box Car Children at 6 (just to illustrate why Little Bear wasn’t the right one for her at that age).

    I’ve been amazed at some of what my granddaughter was willing to sit through, but it truly depended on the book. If it had a cat in it, she’d sit for it far earlier than I would have thought. Lately the same thing is true if it has a mouse in it. She’s loved some of the same books as one or the other of my kids, but others that were real favorites have totally fallen flat with her.

    I do recommend transitioning to some books without many pictures somewhere between 3 and 4 because it really helps with later reading skills if they can imagine the things in their own minds rather than depending on an artist’s rendition. However, it’s really totally developmentally dependent. Some kids will be ready right at 3 others may be close to 5. The Little House books are great ones for younger kids because like the Pooh books, and the Narnia books, they have some pictures to go along with the longer text. I do honestly think that you have to gauge the book to the child, though. Some kids passionately love Narnia, others would not, but would passionately love Thornton Burgess, or the Jungle Book. Especially for reluctant listeners, it’s important to key into their non-book interests.

    I still really love Gladys Hunt’s Honey For A Child’s Heart as a guide to reading to your child. While The Read Aloud Handbook was good, and Books Children Love was helpful, there’s something about Honey For A Child’s Heart that simply still wins me over. I’ve given it as a shower gift, I bought a copy for my daughter, she bought a copy for her best friend. It’s a bit out of date (it wouldn’t have any of Melissa’s books) in the sense that it’s missing some of the newer books out there, but it still has loads of suggestions that still work really, really well, and it goes all the way up to books for teens.

  9. Fanny Harville says:

    I read early readers aloud to my son mixed in with picture books and chapter books, and I’m glad I did because he was never really interested in reading early readers himself. If I’d saved them, waiting for him to hit the “early reader” stage he would have missed out on some fun books. I am sure that listening to early readers and watching the page as they were read aloud played an important role in his developing literacy even though he didn’t read the books independently. He *could* read but wasn’t too interested in doing it himself until he could read more complicated books, it seemed; once he could, he read voraciously.

    My son developed his ability to listen to longer books with fewer pictures via “chapter books” that are really loosely linked sets of discrete stories rather than one long 100+ page plot: Pooh, The big older Thomas collection (horridly moralizing, but my son adored them), James Herriot’s children’s treasury, Homer Price, and Paddington.

    And I enthusiastically agree with you about the continuing value of picture books for all readers!

  10. Lindsay says:

    Oh my, oh my, oh my! This morning at 6 AM I saw the current version of Thomas and Friends on PBS. How they have dumbed it down! I was thinking maybe we should weed out our old Thomas VCRs as the future grandchildren will need DVDs or Blue-ray or something else in the future … but I think we’ll hang on to the tapes. Sadly, much better than the new ones.

    Of course, it didn’t hurt that in “the old days” Mr. Conductor was played by Ringo Starr and later by George Carlin. Ah… remembering!

    Best of luck on finding the “real”Thomas.