By Cyrisse Jaffee
Even though options for parents abound, the very best option remains the simplest — pick up a book, snuggle up, and read.
Right now you can find a dizzying array of options to help you share books with children. You can listen to Michelle Obama on Mondays on PBS KIDS, Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton on their podcast “Julie’s Library,” and read books long-distance to grandkids on the Caribu app (children get to turn the page, virtually). The celebrities, authors, and front-line workers reading picture books aloud on #sharewithstories, a Save the Children charity on Instagram and Facebook (started by Jennifer Garner and Amy Adams), range from a hilarious interpretation by David Tennant of The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler to a somewhat sedate Julius Randle reading Pete the Cat: Out of This World by James Dean.
Even though options for parents abound, the very best option remains the simplest — pick up a book, snuggle up, and read. Reading aloud with young children, reading chapter books with independent and older readers “round-robin” (taking turns), and yes, even family read-alouds with teens, provide not only an essential educational foundation but that elusive thing that we all crave: quality time with one another.
You may already be reading with your children and you may already know the cognitive and social-emotional benefits it bestows. But just in case you don’t, here are some tips and reminders for reading with children up until about age five.
Start early and often. The bright pictures of a very simple picture book, the rhythm of the words, and the very sound of your voice — combined with the physical closeness of baby on your lap or in your arms — are the perfect ingredients. Choose board books, books you loved as a child, or books with things baby can touch or smell. Keep it short and sweet and chat as you read. Ask questions: “What’s behind the flap?” and “Where did the kitty go?” and “What sounds does the wind make?” You may feel silly at first, reading to a baby. Don’t worry, feeling foolish is all part of parenting.
Make reading part of the routine. The schedules of babies and toddlers change often as they grow. When you make reading a regular part of their routine, it becomes a source of security and comfort. Reading before bed is a classic time for settling down, but you can also do a mid-morning story time, right after lunch, or in the late afternoon when kids tend to get cranky and bored. Be flexible, though. Never force your child to sit and listen to a story. Be ready to close the book and move on.
Variety is the spice of life. As your children grow, expand their exposure to books of all types. Story books, fairy tales, myths, fact books, alphabet and counting books, joke books, and wordless picture books are just some of the types of books to include in your repertoire. Preschoolers love books with characters they can relate to and everyday life experiences they will immediately understand. They often like books in a series, with familiar characters. But they also love books about outer space, magical beings, dinosaurs, and silly stories with ridiculous situations.
Another aspect of variety is diversity. Make a conscious effort to seek out books that feature a range of characters and settings. It’s important for children to see themselves in books they read but it’s also crucial for them to become aware of the wider world around them. And, since so many childhood experiences and milestones are nearly universal, books help children learn early on about the similarities we share and the differences that make each of us unique and special.
One more time?! Despite your best efforts to offer an assortment of titles, many children become attached to a particular book. They want it read to them over and over and over again. Is it weird? No! You think it’s boring, but rereading books is actually an important part of literacy development. As children hear the same words repeated, they enjoy knowing what to expect and even begin to associate words on the page with their meanings. You may be astonished to watch your very young child pick up a favorite book and “read” it, especially if she or he has memorized it. This is one way that children get ready to read.
Look at those pictures! Illustrations and photographs go hand-in-hand with the text in the best picture books. Spend some time looking at the illustrations together. Point out what you notice and ask your child to do the same. Colors, brushstrokes, collages, pencil drawings, cartoons, and other art techniques give the stories depth and meaning. You can also explore how photographs add information and impact in fiction and nonfiction books.
Act it out. You don’t have to be Meryl Streep or Will Smith to add some dramatic pauses and flourishes. Try a different accent for a character or just vary the volume of your voice (a whisper can be particularly effective). Turn a rhyming refrain or chant into a little song. If a character is sad, give a little sniff. If dog howls in a story, release your inner wolf.
Keep talking. Just as you did when your child was a baby, talk about what you are reading. Give your child lots of time to ask questions, reflect on the story, retell it, and comment on it. As you look at the picture on the cover, ask your child to predict what the book is about. (There is no right or wrong answer. You can just say, “Hmm, let’s see.”) Talk about what the characters are doing or saying. Ask questions: “What do you think happens next?” “I wonder where that buried treasure really is.” Afterwards, talk about the meaning of story: “Did you like that story? Why do you think it ended like that? Tell me more.” Encourage your child to relate the story to his or her own life, family, or circumstances.
Where to find books. Normally libraries, bookstores, and secondhand shops are all you need to find free or inexpensive books. During the quarantine, though, things get a lot trickier. Try a book swap with friends or neighbors, wiping down any books new to your home. Fold or staple a few pages together and have your children write their own books, drawing the pictures and then narrating the text for you to write down. Good luck!
Here are a few titles to get you started.
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Big Blue Truck (series) by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates and Juniper Bates
Bus Route to Boston by Mary-Ann Cocca-Leffler
Cat’s Colors by Jane Cabrera
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees
Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelman
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, pictures by Christian Robinson
One Love adapted by Cedella Marley, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen
Association for Library Service to Children (part of the American Library Association)
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for the Education Department of WGBH. She holds a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.