Thursday, April 24, 2014

7 Gifts of Read-Aloud, Or Why I'll Read (Almost) Any Book to My Kid

Ohhhkay. So I think it's time to address the elephant in the room regarding kidlit. Because while you know that I love to celebrate all the terrific books that have been published for children over the years, you and I both know there's a certain dirty little secret among parents, teachers, librarians & kidlit fans.

Are you ready for this one?

(Come in a little closer, okay. . . . )

Some kidlit stinks.

There, I said it. And I'll say it again. There are oodles and scads of fantastic titles published each year, but in among all those wonderful gems are plenty of books that just -- ugh. I find myself rolling my eyes over the endless series entries, the movie tie-ins (I'm looking at you, Disney), the stilted nonfiction, the formulaic genre books, and especially those designed to get the shock factor going (bodily functions and undergarments are the staple topics of these little gems).

Two things got me thinking along this topic today. First were the Facebook comments that erupted after Scholastic Parents shared a post called The Most Important Thing to Remember During Read-Alouds, which just so happened to feature a picture of a Junie B. Jones book. Folks went off on Junie B., and all the reasons they think she isn't right for their kids (and some think she's wrong for all kids). And then came a post by my friend Erica of the excellent blog What Do We Do All Day?. Erica recently shared her post Books My Kids Love, But I Hate on Pinterest, and received quite a backlash from some folks who insinuated that admitting she hated some of her kids' favorite titles made her a "jerk".

Well okay, it seems to me that we have a couple of problems here. First, we have the issue of whether or not books are "appropriate", which is where the Scholastic post seems to be getting caught up. Right off the bat, let me just say that I would never dream of telling another parent what's appropriate for their kid. That is totally your business, not mine - just as I won't correct your kid for eating Froot Loops or wearing their pajamas to school every day, even though I don't let Sprout do either of those.

But it's my right to do what's right in my eyes for Sprout, just as it's your right as a parent to make choices you feel are right for your kids. And that's what sticks with me about those Facebook comments. Poor Junie B. was instantly classified by some as not "good" - and yet, there are others on the same thread who testified to the power of that series to draw in their kids and keep them hooked on books. Does that make Junie B. a problem child or a heroine, in the world of kidlit?

Second, there's the pushback that Erica received for stating that she doesn't like some of the books her kids reach for. Now this is just silly. Who among us can testify with certainty that there aren't some children's books that make you want to cheerfully remove your own frontal lobe? Erica's right up-front about the fact that she reads all of them to her kids (with the exception of one series - which was blackballed after a period of too much exposure for poor Mommy!). But to me her admission that she hates these books makes me love her more -- she is human after all, despite her fantastically inventive activities, which make me want to go to her place for a play date.

I'll state right now, for the record, that the Dinosaur Cove books Sprout is currently obsessed with are so inane as to make me want to read a Harlequin novel to cleanse my palate. But we've slogged through darn near all of them, and I'm dreading Sprout's request to reread them when we're done. I've suffered through Thomas books so long they've rivalled academic papers, and countless repetitions of Goodnight Moon and that whispering bunny. I don't complain -- too much -- when I'm asked to read dinosaur tomes, and I don't balk at reading the counting board books that still come off the shelf when I least expect it.

I don't love any of these things, and it's not a stretch to say that I hate them. Frankly, I'm not really a fan of Junie B., either, if only because I so much prefer Ramona and Clementine and Pippi and Anna Hibiscus. But read them I do, and I'll read Junie B. too, when and if she makes an appearance. Because more important to me than whether or not *I* like a book, is whether or not it's doing what it needs to do for Sprout.

Here's what reading aloud with your kids does:

1. Reading aloud teaches kids to associate reading with pleasure. 
The coziness and togetherness of a shared experience like reading goes a long way. The bond you'll develop is something they'll remember long after the boring series book is forgotten.

2. Reading aloud helps us slow down. 
This activity can't be rushed - it is by nature deliberate and paced. You have to stop, turn off the screens, and be in the moment with your kid. That focus is the gift of your time, a precious thing to help your child see how important they are to you.

3. Reading aloud develops literacy skills. 
Kids learn inflection, tone, emotion. They hear how the voice goes up on a question and drops to a hush at the end of a tense scene. All of this transfers when they begin puzzling out text for themselves.

4. Reading aloud exposes kids to vocabulary. 
They learn how to use familiar words in different ways, and figure out new words from context or by asking. Kids whose parents read aloud are exposed to much more language, and therefore tend to develop a larger vocabulary as a result.

5. Reading aloud offers opportunity for discussion. 
When a character behaves in a certain way, reader and listener have a chance to stop and talk about those actions. Was that a good decision? Was that language appropriate? Why did this happen, and what might happen if a similar situation came up in real life? Reading gives us golden moments to act out scenarios before they happen.

6. Reading aloud promotes exploration. 
Children typically experience books by hearing them long before they are able to read those words themselves. As a result kids can explore interests that might be a bit of a stretch, strengthening their comprehension and encouraging inquiry. Of course books need to be within the realm of appropriateness, but pushing the boundaries of age levels is completely possible in a read-aloud.

7. Reading aloud teaches us to share the magic of story. 
As humans, we crave story; it's around us every day, in the way we interact and the background we bring to each encounter we have. When you read to a child, you open the door of story, and help them find new keys to relate to the world they live in through the lessons they've learned in imagination.

I may not always love the books Sprout chooses to bring home, checked out from the library on his newly minted library card. But grin and bear it I shall, reading cheerfully even the books I least enjoy -- because the rewards for reading these awful books together far outweigh the cost.


Kampuchea Crossings said...

Nothing elicits the most hotly opinionated comments as parenting styles. But only you and your kids know what's best for you.

We expose our kids to all manner of reading materials; their library isn't and will never be limited to kidlit. If they're curious about a book, no matter how averse we might be to it, we're game to get it/read it to them.

When I was plodding (laughing) through that horrible book "50 Shades of Gray" for my book club, I read some of the tame passages to them at bedtime. Same with "Training the Samurai Mind", "Guns Germs and Steel" and other books my husband and I are currently on.

The next most important thing after developing a love of reading is that they read widely. Shaping their preferences for good writing and content can't happen without exposure to the "bad" or "inappropriate" or "objectionable" literature.

Erica MomandKiddo said...

I love you for this post, Mary! Fortunately, I've never had to read Junie or Dinosaur Cove although I would! ... and I'm ready for that play date. :)

JanaO said...

Bravo! I've trudged through some books that I less than loved. But you're spot on with the context and contact. I know it's been a too-busy, impersonal week when my 10 year old grabs Magic Treehouse or Fudge books covered in dust, snuggles up, and says "read to me tonight mama?"

Even in Australia said...

I think we can accomplish all that you listed without reading books *we* hate aloud. After all, eventually our kids will be able to read them to themselves. While I'd never forbid my daughter to read the Rainbow Fairy books, I did refuse to read them out loud. Reading out loud should be something both parties enjoy, and with so many great books to choose from, there's no reason to suffer through the awful ones.

Mary Kinser said...

Kampuchea - I think it's awesome that you read so widely to your kids' interests. Totally agree that developing a sense of what's good comes from exposing kids to all kinds of lit!

Erica - thanks for being such an inspiration! Your blog is hands-down amazing!

Jana - I love that you're still reading to your 10 year old. I hope to be reading to Sprout absolutely as long as he'll let me. :)

Australia - For me, it's sending a strong message to Sprout if I turn down a book he finds appealing. Of course he can't yet read for himself, but even once he can, the power of honoring his request for read-aloud, for time together, far outweighs my need to read only books I like. And, as I told someone else - once we've gotten through one I hate, the next pick is Mama's. :)

Jodie @ Growing Book by Book said...

Excellent post! You are so right! Some children's literature stinks and our kids are still drawn to it. That is ok! Love all your read-aloud tips. Thanks for sharing.

PragmaticMom said...

I have to say that I HATE the Rainbow Fairy series that my girls adored when they were in 1st and 2nd grade. It's the girl equilvalent of Dinosaur Cove but MORE REPETITIVE if you can wrap your brain around that possibility.

But those books are so popular with girls learning to read so I don't object to kids reading them, but please, dear god, don't make me read 46 of them ever again!

I know tons of parents who object to Junie B Jones. It's the fresh attitude she has and the incorrect grammar but I found them hilarious!

I don't think there is such a thing as a "bad" book for kids. It's tough to get kids reading so I will even to go border town libraries to check out those terrible tv show based paperbacks because my town library refuses to buy them and I won't buy them because they are one time use.

But I am in total agreement with you and Erica that we don't have to like the books our kids love. We might pass on reading them aloud (motivating my kids to read on their own). We might not buy them, motivating our kids to figure out to borrow them or nag us to take them to alternate libraries.

Forbidden fruit? That's great for motivating kids to read!!!

Stacey said...

What a great post! Thank you for admitting to your dislikes! I don't understand why people are so a-flutter when grown ups admit to poorly written children's books. There are plenty of them just are there are plenty of gorgeous ones!

Jessica said...

To me, it's not just the poorly written books I don't enjoy, but worse are the books I have a mhard time with certain messages. Without fail nearly every trip to the library, my son asks to check out the original Curious George book. You know, the one where he takes George from the African jungle and puts George in a bag to come to America. There are just too many (negative) parallels between this story and my son's (adopted from Ethiopia). So, I tell him that I just don't agree with how George is treated in the book (my kid adores and idolizes George). He usually drops it after a while, but I get NASTY looks from the ever hovering librarian every time.