The best thing I have ever done for my kids, and probably for myself as well, is read to them. When I was pregnant, I had my husband read to me. (People told me that was a good way to have the baby recognize daddy’s voice when he or she made her appearance.) When they were too tiny to scoot away, I held them and read to them, pointing at pictures and making big faces along with the book. By the time they were able to scoot away, they didn’t want to. Storytime was such a warm, happy place that we could sit for an hour by the time they were one, when everyone was telling me babies had no attention span. A few years of books bringing close, loving, quiet time, and my kids associated books with happiness. Neither one of them has lost that, even during those perilous ‘tween years, when pressure increases to do more and be more cool.They are 14 and 16 now, and they both read more than I do. And while we don’t have faithful, nightly storytime (starting about a year ago), I still read some–just bigger books: The Odyssey and The Iliad. A Tale of Two Cities.
There have always been books all over my house. My parents used to talk about “decorating with books.” They had whole walls of bookshelves in most rooms of their house, so I grew up knowing books as a part of daily life long before college–where I first dubbed myself a reader. My house looks like that too, now, but with a lot more kids’ books, and a lot less order. There are books in every room, and some of them are not neatly stored on shelves, but stacked on tables or desks, resting on the couch where they were last read, or piled on the floor, practically becoming furniture themselves because we can’t bear to put them away and have them not close at hand. That was the one request I could never refuse, if I had the money. I could say no to the Nerf gun or the latest Littlest Pet Shop critter, but if they wanted a book, that was something else.That was an investment.
And it has paid off more than I could have anticipated. At the end of third grade, my daughter was testing at 12th grade level, and her teacher thanked me for doing all that “enrichment” at home. Reading to her? Really? I certainly never did flashcards or drills or any overt reading instruction. All I did was read. We talked about the books, defined unfamiliar words as we went, and talked about anything scary or troubling as well as laughed together about the funny moments. And we built a repertoire of stories that became our shared frame of reference for the world. That kid is just like Ferdinand the Bull; he just wants some quiet time to himself. Today I feel like Angelina the mouse, when she submarined herself and missed her chance to be in the big ballet. Poohsticks is just like Calvinball is just like our made-up games.
Both kids called the shots on their relationship to storytime, in addition to helping choose the titles. The girly went through a phase where she wanted to “be” the people in the stories. She would point and assign: “I’ll be Frances, Mommy. You be Gloria.” (Can you name that picture book series?) And we would start from the plot of the book and make up new adventures for the sisters. My son left the couch at around 8 years old and never came back. He built stuff with Legos on the living room floor while we read; his sister eagerly followed along with the words, but he was happy to listen and keep his hands busy.
I don’t think there’s any right way to read to kids. I think any time we spend reading to kids is good. If we ham it up with voices and emotions, they get involved viscerally, but if we don’t do so much, they bring their own faculties to bear. If we let them read some too, they get to feel like they run the show too, but if we don’t, they get more time listening to an experienced reader, and their skills improve more quickly. Kids benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of genres and cultures, so it helps if the reader brings in new stuff the kids have never seen. But kids also thrive on repetition, the familiar, and the power to choose texts for themselves, so reading time is best when it’s a mix of both impulses. In fact, the only way I can think of screwing up storytime is simply by not having it.