Adventures in Reading Aloud

I’ve spent many hours reading aloud to my kids before bed. It is not the most exciting or my favorite thing in the world, but I have come to appreciate it, particularly as my son has gotten older and the books have gotten more interesting. As someone who works a lot, it has been refreshing to spend this time with the kids at the end of the day.

Initially, I was over ambitious about my son’s reading proclivities. To a bouncing two year old, I attempted to read story books when all that he wanted to point at things on the page and try to say words. I soon realized that the many story books that I had bought him were not what we needed and put them away in favor of thick cardboard “board books” that he could throw and jump on without care when we were done.

After my son grew out of the board book phase, we moved on to a couple years of Little Critters and the Berenstain Bears with the occasional Curious George. From my perspective, this was an improvement from the board books because there was at least some narrative to follow. However, I soon learned that my son was not interested in variety when it came to books. He found one that he liked an I had to read it every night until he got bored with it. I soon noticed that the longer the story, the more likely that he would want me to read it every night. It did not take long for story time to become a tedious affair and I had to eventually inject some originality for my own sanity.

By the time that my son started kindergarten, I was able to introduce some chapter books. We started by reading a well written and illustrated Catholic Bible for Little Children. He was a little confused at first why we couldn’t read the whole thing in a sitting, but once he figured out how chapter books worked, he was sold. We read a number of books from the Jack and Annie series, which he and I both enjoyed.

In first grade, his teacher had the students maintain a book list where they had to read a certain number of books every week or two. As a result, I started having him read me books before bed. In retrospect, this was a mistake. We were both tired at the end of the day and, thus, it was hard for him to read and it was equally hard for me to listen. We got through it, but it almost ended our read aloud routine.

Then a Disney vacation got us back on track. At Walt Disney World, there is a surprisingly educational area called Tom Sawyer Island. You take a motorized raft across a little lagoon and get to experience a number of mock ups of screens from Mark Twain’s masterpiece. My son and I loved this area because it is little boy heaven complete with and old time fort (which I don’t recall from the book) and Injun’ Joe’s Cave. You don’t have to have read the book to appreciate the awesomeness of this place, but familiarity with the story is icing on the cake.

After having an amazing time on Tom Sawyer Island, I flippantly told my son that we would read Tom Sawyer together so that he could learn about what he saw on the Island. By the time we got home, I had forgotten about my promise, but he had not. And as is the strategy of any seven year old, he bugged the hell out of me until I made good on my promise. I downloaded a free copy of Tom Sawyer from iBooks and got started.

Much to my relief, Tom Sawyer’s chapters were reasonable in length and, as I remembered from school, it was no boring for a minute. My son understood it all with the occasional interjection of commentary from me. It was a blast and we looked forward to reading every night. After wrapping up Tom Sawyer we moved on to superb Treasure Island and learned that Long John Silver was not just a fast food restaurant. I appreciated to excuse my son gave me to revisit some of my childhood favorites while teaching my son to love reading. Before long, he was inseparable from his little story books and was bugging us to go to the library.

It turns out that I am not the only one who sees great value in reading aloud to even older kids. I stumbled upon a book called the Read Aloud Handbook, which is a tremendous asset for a parent who reads to a child. The book begins by giving some excellent tips for reading to a child, many of them I had learned the hard way, and provides some research justification for reading aloud to children of all ages. This is a book that should be in the home of any parent of a small child.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of the Read Aloud Handbook is its appendix of a thousand suggested books to read. The books are catalogued by their age suitably and genres. A short description gives enough information to see if it is of interest. My son and I quickly identified a few dozen books that should keep us busy for the foreseeable future.

As my son and I continue down the road of reading more advanced books, one piece of advice hit home: if two kids are too big to share underwear, then they are two different in age to share the same stories. So now I have two read aloud sessions: one for my son and one for my two year old daughter. It is back to the board books that I started with, but at least I know how to do it right this time and my daughter will have the benefit of many years of excellent books.

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