How To Raise A Reader (Without Really Trying)

young woman teaching a child...
young woman teaching a child...

In the two years since my book, >Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site was first published, I've been asked by dozens of moms for advice on how to raise a reader and what books they should read to their child. I'd love to be able to rattle off terms like 'phonemic awareness' and 'decoding' -- the vocabulary of the brilliant teachers and librarians I've met, but I can't. However, I've been blessed to have boys who love books, and I like to think I've helped that along. So, the best advice I can offer is my experience as a mom...

It begins with board books: Chubby fingers finding the balloon on each page of Goodnight Gorilla, pointing out the mush in Goodnight Moon ("It's sort of like oat-me-o," they announce each time.) or petting the soft fur on Pat the Bunny. They always poke their finger through mummy's ring on that page, and I always grab their tiny finger from the other side, and we always laugh. Ben loves to lift the blue fabric to play peek-a-boo with Paul. Zak always hides his own eyes, which cracks me up every time. (I bought a Hallmark Pat The Bunny Christmas ornament several years ago. Not my usual taste, but it jerks me to tears every December when I unpack it.)

Slowly, we move on to explore all the classic picture books: Dr. Seuss, Harry the Dirty Dog, Virginia Burton, Curious George, Thomas. We read the books I grew up loving: The Little House, Be Nice To Spiders and Where's Wallace? We point out our favorite things in the illustrations, and they show me things I never noticed. We laugh at the silly parts. Their little brows furrow during the scary part of Bunny My Honey. I smell their heads and play with their toes as I read. And, of course, they each hone in on their favorites: Ben has a special affinity for A Fish Out of Water and Wacky Wednesday. Zak cannot get enough of I Stink and Dig It, Build It -- and we look for the sneaky little mouse hidden on each page.

We move on to Early Chapter Books like Frog and Toad, and they read some pages themselves. I'm proud and encouraging, but a little choked up. There is nothing in the world like watching a child learning to read. First grade teachers are blessed to have the honor as a profession. But, for a mother, it's bittersweet: before your eyes, they are taking a step toward conquering the world. And, soon, they will be taking those steps without needing to hold your hand.

We transition to Chapter Books: Beverly Cleary and the Mouse and the Motorcycle series. Spiderwick. Magic Treehouse. Weird School Daze. Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. (Did I mention that I have boys?)

Though I didn't know it when we started, the Harry Potter series would be the last books my older son and I would read together. As I'm reading to Ben, out loud, my husband peeks his head into the guestroom, looking slightly irritated. "Don't you think it's about time to call it a night? It's after midnight!" My oldest son, a third grader, is doubly irritated at the interruption. "Dad! We're in the middle of the Triwizard tournament! We can't stop now." I look sheepish: "Just a few more pages, hon. We're almost done." I'm every bit as addicted to this story as my son, but I pretend that this is for his benefit. My husband sighs and walks out.

This is our special time together: Harry Potter on Friday nights in our PJ's, no mention of bedtime. For me, it's as much about "us" as it is about Harry Potter. This is our private thing. During dinner or in the car we talk about what happened last night, what might happen tonight. We talk about the Hogwarts teachers and students as if they live next door. My husband is completely left out of the conversation, but listens politely. My son and I have this "thing" that we share, and I treasure it -- because each passing moment makes it more clear: this won't last forever.

And, sure enough, one sad day, Percy Jackson walks into our lives and my oldest son decides that he will get to know Percy without my help. He reads alone in his room and darts into the bookstore the day the new one is available. He and his friend spend an afternoon reading together, but separately, and discussing the plot. I'm proud and amused. But a little bummed that I'm left out.

I thank I have at least two years before that blasted Percy Jackson finds my youngest one (or the other way around), and I'm going to enjoy every darn second of reading with him until then.

So, how do you raise a reader? Forget the dishes and the laundry. Have some coffee after dinner so you're awake to read, "just one more." Snuggle up and read together. It's as much about being together as it is about expanding their minds and opening their vocabularies.

You get just one chance at this. The time flies away in a blink -- but, in every page, the memories last forever.