Today’s #RaisingReaders post comes from the fabulous Emma Bland Smith, whom I met through our mutual (and equally fabulous) literary agent Essie White at Storm Literary. I like to think that, even without that connection, Emma and I would have somehow found each other. The universe has wonderful ways of bringing like-minded people together against all odds. I love that Emma still reads to her kids – even though they are more than capable of reading independently. And when she agreed to write about it for the blog, I was thrilled. More about Emma after this:
Think you can finally give up the bedtime stories now that your kids are reading on their own? Well, yes, you can. But you shouldn’t!
We’ve all heard about the benefits of reading to young children. (This recent NY Times article brings up some new discoveries.) But I’ve found that reading to older kids, even those who may be devouring thick novels in their spare time, can be just as beneficial and enjoyable. Here are my own highly personal, subjective reasons why you should make time to read to your big kids as well as your little ones.
It’s an amazing way to bond. I don’t really play. I don’t wrestle or throw kids up in the air. I groan inwardly (or outwardly) when asked to play Barbies or hide-and-seek. But I can read aloud for hours. It’s become my mom thing, the thing I do to connect with my kids. And because it requires concentration and defies multi-tasking, it’s the one time when I’m focusing completely and not going over my to-do list in my head.
Both kids love it, but the effect is most striking with my son. At ten, he’s reached the age of budding independence—he no longer wants or needs me to pick out his clothes, make his snacks, put on a Bandaid. But most nights, right before bed, he’ll poke his head shyly into my room, and ask, “Mom? Will you read to me?” No matter how late it is, or how much I was looking forward to reading my own book, I jump at the chance. “It’s okay if you’re too tired,” he’ll often add hurriedly, not wanting to appear over-eager for something as babyish as your mom reading to you. Too tired to spend some rare, seriously high-quality time with my tween son? Never.
It’s a great way to engage reluctant readers. My son is the pickiest reader. It’s got to grab him right away, or he won’t put in the effort. Reading aloud every day is my way of resting assured that good books are part of his daily routine. And often, having me begin a book aloud makes him a convert. (That’s what happened with Harry Potter. We read the first five aloud, and then he took over, tearing through the last two.) Maybe one day he’ll become an insatiable reader. In the meantime, I’ll let him enjoy his graphic novels and Calvin and Hobbes, and listen to me read the meatier stuff.
They can get more out of the books when you read aloud. Or maybe they just get things in a different way. I know there are five-year-olds who can, mechanically, read Harry Potter. But are they understanding it? Far be it from me to discourage a child from reading above their age level, but when I read novels aloud, I’ll often stop and explain when we get to a tricky bit, define a new word, and encourage the kids to ask questions. I use tone to help get the meaning across and break up long, dry passages. (I am not, however, good at voices and accents. Sorry, guys, that’s just too much work!)
You can read things to them they’d never read on their own. Yes, I still read my daughter the occasional Magic Treehouse or other similarly easy-to-consume chapter book. But more often than not, I make an effort to pick out classics that I know the kids would find too dry, long, or foreign to read on their own. This is how we worked through the first two Greene Knowe books, which I remember from my childhood and are set in an old English mansion. We also read some Edward Eager (Half Magic, Knight’s Castle), The Mysterious Benedict Society (a whopper at 485 dense pages), E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, and the first two in the Wrinkle in Time series (spoiler alert: the second one is not nearly as good and kind of killed the series for us). Picture books also fall under this category: Both my son and daughter tend to eschew picture books when selecting their own reading material, but love to hear them read aloud, and I like knowing they’re still receiving the benefits that come from enjoying this special literary form.
You’re teaching good reading habits. When you make time in your busy schedule to sit down and read aloud, you’re showing in a powerful, tangible way that reading matters. It’s interesting to see how kids take that lesson and incorporate it into their lives. My daughter has become fastidious about her reading habits. If she starts a series on her own, she will not allow me to read one of the series to her. Likewise, if I start a series, she won’t read any of them to herself. My son, on the other hand, will happily go back and forth, even within a single book. I find it fascinating to watch their reading personalities evolve, and feel fortunate to be part of the process.
And lastly… you get to read great kids’ books yourself! Why let kids have all the fun? There is some fantastic middle grade literature out there—not just the dusty classics, but recent hits, too. (There are too many to name here, but Google “great middle grade books” and you’ll find some excellent lists.)
So don’t give up the read-aloud habit. I plan to drag it out as long as I possibly can! Do teenagers still let their parents read aloud? I’m going to find out!
Emma Bland Smith is a writer and librarian living in San Francisco with her husband and two kids. Her debut picture book, Journey: The Most Famous Wolf in the West, comes out fall 2016 from Sasquatch Books. You can connect with Emma via Twitter (@emmablandsmith) or on her website, emmabsmith.com.