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?
When 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.
Then 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.
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?
I 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?
I 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?