Raising Readers: Selecting Books

A week or so ago, I wrote about how my spouse and I accidentally created a Reading Culture at our house, and then accidentally inculcated our children into it.

Today, I wanted to write about how our kids get books into their hands. Do they read just what they’re assigned to read by parents and teachers, or do they read only what they pick for themselves? Do my spouse and I limit what they are allowed to read, or do we let them  read whatever printed materials they get their hands on?

In our house, the short answer to both questions is: It’s something in between.

Making use of our local library

As I mentioned in my Reading Culture post, we visit the library once a week (at least). As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to dedicate an entire day of the week to visiting the library, and so we do. Wednesday is Library Day, and woe betide me if we get to Wednesday bedtime and have not visited a library (or had a friend visit for us as we did last week when my daughter was sick).

Before we go to the library, I go to the library’s online catalog. Here in central Massachusetts, our town library is part of the larger C/W MARS (Central and Western Massachusetts something something) system. I can look up a book online, and if it’s anywhere in the C/W MARS system, I can request it and have it delivered to our town library for pickup one Library Day. So I collect my kids’ history, science, and writing curricula, and I put on hold books that relate to chapters we’re going to address in the coming weeks. Most weeks I get carried away and there are twenty or more books behind the library’s circulation desk for us to pick up. But since most weeks we also drop off a couple dozen books, it all evens out.

These supplemental books we keep in baskets to read aloud together in whole or in part, or the kids to pick them out and read them on their own. Most often, it’s some combination of those two.

What kind of books?

11089When the kids were younger, we used Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook for ideas for books to read with them. Trelease’s reviews were especially helpful for finding books that were at a high enough reading and sophistication level to interest the reading-aloud adults while addressing issues in a manner appropriate to the ages of our young listeners.

As the kids have gotten older, we have begun to rely more our writing curriculum for ideas. The Complete Writer: Writing with Ease curriculum by Susan Wise Bauer has introduced us to some great books I never knew about as a child, like the Moffats series by Eleanor Estes, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, Edward Eager’s Tales of Magic series, Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn, and E. Nesbit’s The Complete Book of Dragons and The Railway Children.

42337Then for science, there are the wonderful books about Earth and space (we especially like those by Seymour Simon), and for history, there are countless picture books, novels, and storybooks we’ve enjoyed, like the tales retold by Roger Lancelyn Green and Geraldine McCaughrean.

In addition, we belong to a homeschool book club, for which we read a fiction book a month. Last month was Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, and this month we’re reading Matilda by Roald Dahl.

My kids have the books I pick out and share with them, but they also get to pick out whatever it is they want to read. My daughter’s preference has long been nonfiction. When she was a toddler, we spent all of our time in the “digger” section of the children’s department. Who knew there were so many books about heavy equipment? The last several years have been all about animals. After she exhausted the supply of books in our library’s children’s department, she moved up to the grown-ups’ nonfiction section. (We recently noticed that the books about animals and the cookbooks are on the same aisle at our library. This seems strange—but also very convenient.)

My son has always been more into the fiction picture books, but he’s recently started becoming more interested in the nonfiction section as he wants to learn more about arms and armor and Star Wars and LEGO and dinosaurs and insects of various sorts.

Sometimes they ask me a question about something, and rather than try and cobble together an answer from my own memory, I help them look up the topic in the library catalog, and we find some books about the subject. That way, their research/library skills get some practice, and I don’t have to do my own research about Bronze Age weaponry or how long Deinonychus was (up to 3.4 meters, according to my six-year-old’s research).

I’m trying to get my daughter accustomed to asking the reference librarians for help finding information, but so far she’s a little reticent about talking to the upstairs librarians. It’s taken her nearly five years to be able to ask questions of the children’s librarians, and soon she’ll need to talk with the teen librarians if she wants to join the teen writing club (which she says she does). So, we get to work on communication skills as well as research skills.

Restrictions: How many?

822658I used to let them check out the same number of books as their age, but since my ten-year-old checks out much bigger books as she gets older (Jane Goodall’s 673-page Chimpanzees of Gombe is a frequent visitor at our house), it doesn’t make sense to have her total grow as she gets older. When we walk to the library, the rule is that they have to carry their own books in their backpacks, and that keeps the number of books down. But when we drive, I take everything in a rolling tote, and I’ve not quite figured out how to put a limit on the number of books they check out in that situation. As long as they read them and don’t lose them or damage them and I don’t injure myself taking the tote into and out of the trunk of the car, it doesn’t much matter to me how many there are.

Restrictions: Any off-limits books?

As far as content goes, pretty much anything goes. I do try and steer them towards better-written books, and even my six-year-old has started to recognize the difference. “Mom, this book doesn’t have many details about dinosaurs, and the drawings are kind of like cartoons,” he said the other day of a book he’d added to his stack to check out. I helped him locate some more involved dinosaur books upstairs, and he was happier.

We also talk about what makes a series formulaic. My kids went through a pretty intense Magic Tree House phase that still rears its head occasionally. Just this morning we were doing a science lesson about space travel, and my son said, “Jack and Annie wore space suits like that! They needed special boots to walk on the moon.”

I do not have a problem with the content of the Magic Tree House books, and I really appreciate that Mary Pope Osborne is trying to combine history with relatable child characters. It just so happens that her books are also very good for teaching my children about the formulas authors sometimes use when they’re writing series with lots of books in them. “Do you notice how each book starts and ends?” I’ll ask. “Where do you hear some of the same words repeated in each book?” I don’t say that using a formula is bad or good, just that it happens. I want them to be able to recognize those patterns as they read books on their own. What they like and dislike is up to them.

To pre-read or not to pre-read?

28187I used to pre-read everything my daughter read, but when she got to the Percy Jackson books a couple of years ago, I just couldn’t keep up anymore. That kid can fly through books, and if I try to keep up with her, I won’t be able to read anything on my own to-read list. So, I just make sure that we have detailed conversations about the books we read together so that she gets in the habit of analyzing things she reads on her own. As she moves deeper into the YA section, however, I might have to reinstitute the pre-read practice.

In general, my philosophy is that reading quality literature helps tune the mind towards more complex reasoning and deeper thinking. To me, that’s a good thing that I like to promote in my children (and myself) as much as possible. But with that foundation, I don’t worry too much about the more fluffy books they might pick up. Fluffy fiction is great for a treat, but much as sugar isn’t as appealing when your tastebuds are used to nutrient-dense, natural-state foods, fluffy books aren’t going to satisfy if you’re used to more substantial fare.

So, there’s how we do books at our house.

How about you? What’s your reading philosophy? How do you choose books for yourself and—if you have kids—for your kids? Are there any books that are off-limits?

13 Replies to “Raising Readers: Selecting Books”

  1. For the longest time, graphic novels were (and are still) off limits with me. Every once in a while I allow them to get one, but by now they have been well trained to choose “regular” books.

    And when I only had two or three kids, it was easier to skim through what they were taking off the shelves, and I was much stricter about what they were ingesting on their own; but now I cannot keep up. (Like you said: I’d never have time to read my own books.) My kids tell me about what they read, and we discuss the books afterward. That’s fine.

    I also like to get books for them about ideas or topics that they have showed interest in lately. For example, if someone was talking about worms one day, during the next visit, I would have them take out books on worms.

    We have a total of four library cards, and we max them out almost every time. And when we get home, they dump out the books on the floor and sit for several hours reading them all.

    P.S. We are like you guys: since we homeschool, I try to designate one day a week or every two weeks for library visit. : )


    1. Oh, yes. Graphic novels. I feel a little bad about my scroogey distaste for graphic novels. The closest we generally get is Brian Selznick, and those we read together. My kids have tried a couple of graphic novels, but luckily they’ve not shown much interest so far. My daughter once checked out a graphic novel based on the Warriors series (which would be on the chopping block anyway were I in a banning frame of mind), and she just seemed to find the format unsatisfying. If either child starts to like them, I’m going to have to make a decision about how hard to put my foot down about the genre. I don’t want them to be forbidden fruit, but neither do I want them to take the place of more in-depth books. At the same time, I recognize that there are some very well-done graphic novels that use the medium to its full advantage. I’ll probably need to make myself do some pre-reading to find the better ones, just in case.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Graphic novels are generally fast reads, if you limited them to one per week (if your kids became interested) they would hardly replace other books.


      2. My 8yo has become interested in graphic novels since I wrote this post, and so far they’ve not gotten close to replacing non-graphic books. He likes that they’re fast reads. He usually finishes one or two at the library during our weekly visit, and then checks out non-graphic books for more savoring at home. It seems like a good balance so far.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Our children have been encouraged read since birth. At first I picked their reads, then I pre-read their reads, then I checked their reads, and now we are at a middle ground. Anything new – hot YA that is about to made into a movie – is definitely pre-read by mom; most everything else I quick check. (It helps that I generally like YA reads, but also prevents anything too crazy from coming into the house as quite a few YA reads are a bit dark and mature for my taste.)

    I do not limit the amount of reads they check out. We average about 100 books per week for all five of us. They all get read, sometimes re-read; then returned each Friday afternoon. We read a mix of non-fiction, biography, and fiction. Occasionally our reads include selections which dig deeper into science and history lessons; others which offer beautiful classic literature; and always a small mix of modern literature.

    If we’re ever short for ideas (ha, ha) there are wonderful books such as “Honey For a Child’s Heart” which has lovely suggestions. But, thankfully, we don’t seem to have this issue very often. Thus far, the only books off limits have been anything by Judy Bloom – I really do not like her books, absolute twaddle – and the “Golden Compass” series.

    Great post (and good questions)!


    1. Thanks for your comment! I would so love not to worry about how many books my kids check out. We have three cards with a checkout limit of 50 on each, and it feels ridiculous that I should have to worry about hitting the limit on one or more cards, but without some serious juggling, that’s what happens.

      Your assessment of Judy Blume’s books is interesting. We’ve only read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which we liked okay but not enough to rush out and pick up the second in the series. I’m not familiar with any of the rest of Blume’s books (except Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which I read when I was in fifth grade and mostly remember because although I read all kinds of vampire stories and Edgar Allan Poe that year, this was the only book that my teacher felt compelled to contact my parents about).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wish our cards let us check out 5o each. We’re at 25 each, with five cards! So, we often are playing the juggling game. It’s amazing how quickly 125 books can add up.

        My issue with books of the Judy Bloom like is their poor taste in vocabulary and their juvenile humor. I wish to edify our children, not teach them what life would have been like had I left them in public school.


      2. Poor language is one of the things I disliked about Clementine, which my kids and I read together last week. There were other things I did like, but not enough to interest us in continuing with the series.

        (Guilty homeschooler confession: I kind of like my kids to read books about kids having awful experiences in school. Luckily, there are many of those around.)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I admit,, I have them pick out one science, one history/bio and the rest is a free for all πŸ™‚ I take out books that suppliment our curriculm, and we review them. I don’t preread, but I get a lot of feedback on good books from librianians, friends, my doctor, ect…. I just don’t have the time to preread and enjoy my own books. Ok, one exception, I am prereading Howls Moving Castle, but honestly I wanted to read it anyhow!


    1. I love when “pre-reading” overlaps with what I wanted to read anyway. Howl’s Moving Castle is on our list, too. (I think I’m more interested in reading it than the kids are.)


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