Sunday, July 22, 2007

Finding Time to Read to Children

As parents, we are often told that the more we read to children, the more likely they are to become good readers. Most of us nod our heads in assent and silently wonder: "when am I going to fit that in?" Schedules are busier than ever. Making time for one more thing can seem like just one more chore to add to the list. And yet, it may be easier to find this sort of time than we think.

A toddler's day is filled with potential opportunities to read and early in a child's life is a great time to start this routine. When our children were young, I found that one way to even out the little dramas of the day was to read a story. Upset by a skinned knee? Time to read a story. Just had a tiff with your buddy or your sibling? Time to sit and enjoy a story together. Cranky because it is nap time? Time to read a story and settle down before going to sleep. Tired and irritable because it is late afternoon and dinner is not yet ready? Time to snuggle up and read a story while we wait for dinner to cook. Frightened by thunder and lightening? You guessed it, time to read a story. The simple act of sitting close together, looking at the pictures and listening to the words always seemed to bring order and calm to the ups and downs of the day. And, best of all, it is fun. Initially, it may seem like you do not have the time to stop to do this, but the time in which a child wants to be read to passes almost before you know it. It would be a shame to miss it!

When our children were little, my husband traveled frequently and, often, for long periods of time so I needed to be able to cope with three small children while accomplishing daily tasks like preparing meals, etc. Often I used books and stories to do this. One evening, when we were living in Sydney, Australia, a sudden storm brought lightning, high winds and hail just at bedtime. At that time, the children were 5, 3, and 1. I had read stories to the two younger ones and put them in their beds, but neither one could go to sleep with the storm raging outside. As I was sitting on my oldest child's bed reading the story he had chosen, in popped two little heads. Frightened by the storm, they made a beeline for the bed. Quickly deciding that only humor could help at a time like this, I gathered them into Price's bed, snuggled all three children around me and pulled out The Favorite Uncle Remus. Since I had grown up in the South, I always read in dialect from one of the early editions. Just the idioms were sure to bring a laugh, let alone the antics of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. We began with the Tar Baby and moved on to the story in which Brer Rabbit tells Miss Daisy and the gals that "Brer Fox was my daddy's riding horse" and we laughed until tears ran down our faces. The storm outside was forgotten in the hilarity of the moment. When my husband arrived home an hour or so later, he was surprised that no one seemed to be there. Upon further exploration, he found me, still in Price's bed with three sleeping children, unable to escape without waking them!

Another time to read during the day is while waiting for one child to finish an extracurricular activity. If you have more than one child, this is a great time to pick up a book and enjoy it together rather than being at loose ends for an hour or so. What seemed like wasted time can become a special time to which you both look forward.

As children master the skill of reading and become independent readers, there are still opportunities to snatch a few minutes during the day for reading for pleasure. Our children often retreat to a quiet place (their room, the top of the Magnolia tree, etc.) to chill out and read for a while after a busy day or between activities. It seems to be a very restorative activity: half an hour or so of reading re-establishes their equilibrium and, suddenly, they are ready for the next thing.

Car trips are another great time for reading out loud (if you have someone who does not get car sick while doing it!). Just recently, I was taking my 12 year old daughter to camp. The trip was short, but the drive was not particularly interesting and radio stations acceptable to teenagers were hard to come by. My 15 year old son, who had been reading James Thurber, took out his copy of My Life and Hard Times and began reading aloud to us. He chose Thurber's comical tale about Muggs, his Airedale terrier who "thought I wasn't one of the family. There was a slight advantage in being one of the family, for he didn't bite the family as often as he bit strangers." To his delight we were completely entertained and, as narrator, he was the center of attention for the remainder of the ride.

If you are trying to read in little snippets of time, it is very helpful to have reading material suited to this sort of endeavor. Books with a number of brief stories; poems; and books for very young children all lend themselves to reading within a set timeframe. Have a look at the book list following this essay for some ideas.

Taking the opportunity to fill the nooks and crannies of the day with reading stories does require changing what may be firmly established habits, but it pays off in spades. It is sometimes hard to remember how much children enjoy and value time spent with a parent doing something enjoyable together. Reading is just such an activity. When you are in the habit of sharing a book together on a regular basis, a child will have very positive emotional associations with reading and will carry those over into other reading related activities - whether they are with you or not.

Wishing you many companionable hours of reading!!

The following list of books is principally selected based on the brevity of the individual stories (usually requiring five to fifteen mintues to read), but also on the fact that our kids enjoyed them. While the individual stories are short, they are well told. Many of them have a (not too obvious) moral which can lead to some fun conversations. We found our children enjoyed them so much they often asked us for the next story.

Picture Books

Thomas' Engine Shed by Rev. W. Awdry - While expensive ($175) this is by far the best set of Thomas stories you can have. It is the complete collection of 26 Thomas books (usually with two or three separate stories in each book) written by Awdry, with the original illustrators and in the compact format best suited for young hands. This edition has been unavailable in the US for many years and I am delighted that it is available again (due out in September but can be back-ordered) as I believe the original versions of the stories to be markedly superior to the numerous simplified and re-illustrated versions that have proliferated in recent years.

In the understandable circumstance that you might not want to take a steep plunge without trying individual stories first, following are some reasonably true-to-the- original individual titles that are available.

Thomas the Tank Engine Story Collection by Rev. W. Awdry and illustrated by C. Reginald Dalby and John T. Kenney

Gordon the Big Engine by Rev. W. Awdry and illustrated by C. Reginald Dalby

The Railway Series by Rev. W. Awdry

Reading With Dad by Richard Jorgenson and illustrated by Warren Hanson

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Jan Brett

The Milly Molly Mandy Storybook by Joyce Lankester Brisley and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

The Children's Book of Heroes by William Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague

The Children's Book of America by William Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague

The Children's Book of Virtues by William Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague

The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris and illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Read Aloud

My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards and illustrated by Shirley Hughes

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

The Favorite Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris - This is in the original dialect which, if you are not familiar with or are uncomfortable reading dialect stories, might be hard slogging for some. For those of you more theatrically inclined, it is a gold mine.


There are two superior collections of poems that cover the range from nursery rhymes to engaging longer ballads and folktales in rhyme but unfortunately they are both out of print at the moment. Keep your eyes open in used bookstores for Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury of Poetry and for Eric Kinkaid's The Children's Book of Rhyme and Verse.

Rhymes for Annie Rose by Shirley Hughes

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein

When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson

The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America by Donald Hall

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems by Donald Hall

The Oxford Treasury Of Classic Poems by Michael Harrison

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