Read an Excerpt
The Sound of Reading
Calls Us Home
My strongest memory from childhood is the sound of mymother’s voice reading Blueberries for Sal. Little Sal is walking withher pail, and because she is eating so many of the berries, the onesshe does manage to save enter her pail with a kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk. Iloved the way my mother formed those words as she said them. There wassomething immensely satisfying in her reading of that book to me. It was acombination of the way she spoke and the nature of the story itself: terrificallyscary but at the same time tremendously comforting. One rainy day afterschool, my mother sat next to me on the couch and read that book to me forprobably the hundredth time. I can still remember from that particular daythe sound of the rain on the windowpane and the sound of her voice formingthe words: kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk. Sal is happily oblivious to the bearcub nearby and yet we know that mother is also nearby. Nothing will happento Sal. Nothing will happen to the cub. Something in Robert McCloskey’stelling makes you sure.
Years later, it is nighttime, and I am holding one of my daughters, Charlotte,in my arms. She cannot sleep, and so we are sitting together; the chairgoes back and forth; her hair smells like milk. We are under the window wherethe glimmer of a full moon glints down upon us. She reaches her hand up,and it looks to my tired eyes as if she is literally holding the moon insideit. “Good night, moon,” she whispers. She is not yet two. “Good night, room,”I whisper back. “Good night, old lady,” she whispers back to me, and it lookslike she winks at me as her hand falls to my shoulder, and she drifts, finally,off to sleep.
The power of reading aloud to draw you and your child near is profound. As Goodnight Moon proves millions of bedtimes over, and as Blueberries forSal proved unmistakably to me, the sound of the human voice can reach acrossthe gulf of age, of all the things that keep us apart, and create a bridge thatlasts a lifetime and extends through generations. Through books and storiesthat are designed to be read aloud, we convey to our children the beauty oflanguage and the joys of rhythm and rhyme; and in the books we choose toread and the way we read them, we also convey the values we hold dear. Everyday as you pack a lunch, wave good-bye to a school bus, tie a shoelace, braida ponytail, the words you want to say to your child hum inside: I love you, besafe, I love you, be free. I love you, I love you, I love you, let the world treatyou kindly, come back to me. Here are the values of my life, our family, hereis what I hope for you, here is what I dream for you. And yet, for most of us,too many moments slip by and we’re lucky to get an “I love you” in edgewise.The good news, wondrously, is that the world is full of literature written bypeople who know you are longing to make connections and are striving to puta voice to them. This book is your guide to making lasting connections withyour child through reading. It is also an essential resource for all the bestbooks to read to your child and all the right times to read them.
Children’s literature has long held a cherished place in our culture as aconveyor of values, of belief systems that will give our children courage andhelp them through a hard day. In Victorian times, children’s books were usedto convey a strong sense of morals and discipline. Generations later, writerssuch as Margaret Wise Brown and Maurice Sendak changed the paradigm ofchildren’s literature by giving voice to the real lives of children, with theirmany worries and delights. Through these radically new narratives, the “hereand now,” as Margaret Wise Brown called them, children were given theopportunity to explore a sometimes confusing universe with a moral compass.How and where will your own child find the human center in an often overwhelmingworld? Begin the conversation with books that resonate and giveyou both a point of reference. Whatever the issue at hand—a lost toy, a newsibling, a scary shadow—books and the time spent together reading them canhelp. There has never been a better time to read aloud to your child. Librariesand bookstores are full of beautiful, astonishing collections that continue tobreak new ground in their confluence of art and language and depth of feeling.The millions of books available to us also offer an opportunity to redefinechildhood in our wired and overprogrammed times, helping us to slow downand reconnect with something timeless and universal. At the same time, thebreadth of books with subtle emotion allows us to connect with our childrenin new and intensely meaningful ways.
And yet, for many of us, there has never been a more confusing time toshop for a book. It’s possible to go to a bookstore and stand for what feelslike hours in front of rows and rows of books and not know how to choose.They all look beautiful, but who knows what’s inside? We know we trust theold favorites, the ones we all remember. But what about the books that speakto the sorrows and the joys of childhood as it is in today’s world? These toomust be added to our canon. And yet there are thousands. How does a busyparent, grandparent, or caregiver search for the just right book? What is justthe right book?
The same way we choose foods to suit our moods—hot soup on a coldwinter’s night, spicy ribs for a family picnic—we long to choose the “justright” books that will match the moments we find ourselves in with our children.With all those books out there, certainly there must be a book for everymoment: a book to mark the moment of leaving, of coming, of newness, ofsameness, of change. As adults, we connect with our reading of books in differentways at different times. So what, then, are the books that are right forour children at very particular times in their lives? How can we match thetime, place, and circumstances of our lives with just the right book? What toRead When will help you find the perfect books for the perfect times. This isthe work of parenting no one told you about when you left the hospital orwalked through the front door with your newly adopted child. At all life-cyclemoments, we adults hunger to capture the moment in words: we read poemsto each other at weddings, we tell stories of a beloved friend at a funeral service.It is humanity’s greatest gift to be able to see the power of storytelling topin down experience, to capture it, and render it timeless. What to Read Whenis a guide to the life-cycle moments of childhood—the occasions big and smallwhen you want to bond most with your children—and the books, words, andpictures that will bring both clarity and connection to those moments.
When your child is small, and you turn the pages of Mr. Rabbit and theLovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, and the two of you can nearly feel thetexture of the fruits he so lovingly chooses for his mother, the rabbit’s journeyand his gift giving help you to show your child the power of a simple act ofgenerosity. The tender repetition of the language as he adds his fruits to thebasket is soothing and familiar. You are reminded that gifts come in all sizesand all forms. This becomes one of the first, precious lessons you can teachyour child. Later, when your child is older, six or seven, and you read thechapter book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to this same childyou feel one another tense up as Lucy opens the door of the wardrobe andfeels the cold rush of air in Narnia for the first time. Here is where Lucy will find the courage she never knew she had and meet beloved friends such as Mr. Tumnus. Here too is where she will face the frailties of human naturewhen her own brother Edmund betrays her to the icy, cruel White Witch.Here is where Lucy will be brave, even though she is a small girl, and here iswhere she will learn to forgive her brother and give him another chance. Hereis where, as a parent, you will accompany your child through this essentialjourney of making choices and finding acceptance, standing up for yourself,and knowing when to forgive. Books give you ways to talk to your childrenabout these big ideas. Later, when your child is on the brink of leaving childhoodbehind, you want to share words with your child that will help her movegracefully into young adulthood. According to the poet Billy Collins, poetrytells the history of the human heart. But I think that all of great literature mapsthe human heart, and children’s literature knows how to do so best of all.
My Life with Words
As a child, books were my transport. Through reading, I discovered worldsof people I had not known before. I read stories about history and places andpeople that moved me, reduced me to tears, brought me off of my couch andon a journey that never ended. The protagonist in Faith Ringgold’s masterpieceTar Beach travels the city of New York by flying: she soars over the cityand gets a bird’s-eye view of her home. The reading experience for me wasmuch like this: I found myself soaring overhead, even while I could still keepan eye on my reading self: on the couch down below.
Both Jo in Little Women and Sal in Blueberries for Sal taught me the kindof girl I wanted to be. The heroines of those books were more meaningfulto me than most of the girls I saw on television or even met in my 1960schildhood. As a parent of two daughters, now sixteen and fourteen, I read tothem as eagerly as I read on the couch all those years ago. It was a delight toreturn to some of those old books and watch my own daughters cry too whenBeth falls ill in Little Women, or laugh over Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s antics, orgrip my hand tighter when Milo begins the next adventure in The PhantomTollbooth.
But it has also been my great pleasure to fi nd new books through thesereadings together, books that had not been written when I was a child. Howfantastic that my daughters were present for the birth of a Landmark text, theHarry Potter series, and that they have also been part of a revolution in children’sliterature as illustrated books by authors like Mo Willems and BrianSelznick break new ground in storytelling through pictures.
I’m often asked in workshops when I stopped reading aloud to my daughters,but the fact is, I haven’t stopped. Even now, as teenagers, my daughtersrevel with me in the nuances of language in a Billy Collins poem that I readaloud to them from the current issue of The New Yorker. At the breakfasttable, my husband and I read aloud to them from articles on African education,one of the issues currently on our minds as a family. We read to themfrom books they may still, as fluent readers, have challenges navigating ontheir own, or books that will benefit from a collective reading through thediscussions that ensue. And, simply, because a shared text creates anotherkind of energy in our family: like going on a long road trip, it is a new venturethat bonds us most.
Reading is more than a passion to me: it is a life’s work. I am certain thatit has the capacity to be exhilarating for every child, and so I have devotedmyself to the task of expanding literacy so that one day every child will be ableto read to the point of transcendence. There is still so much work for us leftto do together, not only for our children, but for all children. I hope to sharewith you the techniques and the titles I have found to be the most compellingfor both children and their teachers and to help you be your child’s own bestteacher in the purest and most joyous sense of that word.
As executive director of LitLife, an internationally recognized organizationdedicated to cultivating the reading and writing lives of children andyoung adults, I train more than a thousand teachers a year in the teaching ofreading and writing. In every classroom, there is one unfailingly successfultool for unlocking the door to literacy for all children, and that is the readaloud:the book that is read by the teacher to her students: the shared experience.I want every home to have access to this wondrous and miraculoustool. I want you to have all the resources you need to unlock the door forlifelong literacy for your child.
As a literacy educator, I also founded an initiative for foster care childrencalled Books for Boys, and now, LitWorld. Both of these initiatives bring thework of LitLife to all communities of children: from the Children’s Village, aresidential school for vulnerable children, to a school for HIV/AIDS orphansin Nairobi, Kenya. No matter the gender, the life story, the nature of the community,or the personal story of that child, over and over again I pay humbleand grateful witness to the mysterious power of the human voice, the humanchild, and the text and what they can accomplish together.
Joined together with each other over the pages of a book, adult and childdiscover new worlds and, with them, a sense of unending possibility. When Iread Dr. Seuss to a child who has survived unspeakable horrors in his early life, and he laughs until he cries, or I read Where the Wild Things Are to awounded and hurt teenager who has years of defense built up around him,and he cries, he literally cries, leaning into me and whispering: “No one everread aloud to me before this moment, and I always wished someone would,”then I know that books and the ritual of the read-aloud do truly have thepower to change the world.
Reading to your child begins as an exquisitely intimate experience, but itsows the seeds for lifelong literacy. I hope What to Read When will be a partof the continuing path toward universal literacy, and it is my honor to sharethis work with you. I hope you will combine your profound knowledge ofyour child’s needs and desires with the advice I offer within this book to createa joyous, nourishing reading environment at home. You’ll find a selectionof books here that I’ve found to be irresistible to children, along with practicaladvice on how and when certain books are most compelling to read.
The most powerful work you can do for the world begins in your home,with the intimacy of one book. There is no better teacher than you, no bettermentor, no better role model. Your connection to literacy will inspire yourchildren to read to their children, and they to theirs. I hope this book will giveyou the tools, strategies, and the utmost confidence to read, read, read to andwith your child. Reading aloud is fun, productive, and life-changing (for youand your child). But sometimes reading with your child also feels hard. I hopethis book will help you to embrace the hard parts too, and to be patient bothwith yourself and with your child and that you will feel the tenderness thatgrowth brings, and your child will feel your tenderness as a teacher. I hopethis book will keep you good company on these journeys and help you feelthe power of your own life-changing potential, for the work you do matters,so much.
How This Book Works
“Part One: The Power of Reading Aloud” begins with my top-ten list of reasonsto read to your kids: values, language, comprehension, story, genre, structure,comfort, critical thought, other worlds and voices, and building a readinglife. The list gives parents some of the same practical tools I share with teachers.It also makes the case anew for the power of reading and why, particularlywithin the context of our information-saturated times, we must read aloud.I will share with you a top-ten list of “Landmark texts.” You may not fully agree, but I will offer you my view on why these books are part of an Americancanon of childhood literature. I hope more will be added as you experiencethis book and become familiar with new titles.
The book is then divided into two major “whens”: the chronological“when” of your child’s reading life, and the emotional “when” of your child’sreading life.
“Part Two: What to Read Aloud at Every Age” takes you on a journey withyour child through every stage of his chronological development. This sectiondescribes some general characteristics of books or stories or poems that makethem appealing reads for certain times of the day or for certain times in achild’s life. This chapter tunes into the exquisite differences of each age group.Six is so different from seven, seven so different from eight. Reading aloudlets you hold those time periods in the cup of your hand, savoring them withyour child as she learns to love literature.
“Part Three: The Emotional ‘When’: Fifty Essential Themes” illuminates theemotional chronology of your child’s literary experiences. This is a deeplyannotated list that identifies the children’s literature best suited for the emotional“whens” in your children’s lives. There are favorite book choices onthemes ranging from friendships to journeys, new siblings to encounters withbullying, social justice to spirituality, giving all parents an indispensable resourcefor nurturing thoughtful, creative, and curious readers. The recommendationsrepresent a synthesis of my personal experience with the booksas a reader, a parent, and as an educator; the annotations include helpful hintsand tips for the best possible read-aloud experience with each book. “Howto Read a Picture Book,” for example, is part of the curriculum I developedfor my organization LitLife and adapted so that parents can use those samepowerful teaching techniques at home.
“Conclusion: Blueberries, Silvery Moons, and a Purple Plastic Purse” is afinal meditation that I hope will be inspiring, a source of nourishment for youas both a reader and as a parent wanting a lifetime of good reading for yourchild.
The idea for this book was born from the hundreds of letters, phone calls,and e-mails I have received from parents, teachers, school administrators,caregivers, and grandparents over the course of these past years asking farrangingquestions about how to read to your children, when to read to yourchildren, and of course, what to read. I long to respond to all of you who havewritten and called, with your words and voices full of love for your childrenand the hunger to get that reading piece right. This book is my opportunityto do so. I consider it a love letter to all those who love children. I honor youfor all the hard work you do in caring for your children and for your desire todo what is right for them. This book is a tribute to you, to all those marvelousquestions you have asked me, and to how they inspire me to continue thiswork. I hope you will enjoy reading What to Read When as much as I enjoyedwriting it.