Please tell us about your book.
You know— when I first started writing it, I thought I was writing a manifesto on reading aloud. What it ended up being was what I hope will be both a wake-up call and a practical companion— a call to focus on what matters most in the lives of our kids, as well as a resource loaded with strategies for doing just that in today’s noisy world.
Parents today feel pulled in so many directions. I know this because I’m a parent of six kids ages preschool to high school, and because I feel that pressure every bit as much as the next parent. But it turns out that the very best gift we can give our kids of any age— even to kids who can read for themselves— is to be fully present and share a meaningful connection with them. That is done most simply and effectively by reading aloud— with small kids and preschoolers, yes. But also with older kids and even teens.
For this book I pulled in research that demonstrates how reading aloud is the best way we can prepare our kids academically, inspire them to live as heroes in their own stories, and help them grow in empathy and compassion for others who live differently than they do. Reading aloud does all of that while it also nurtures an incredibly close bond within the family.
I wanted the book to be innately practical to the busy parent of today, so the second part of the book tackles how busy parents can find time to read aloud even amid work schedules, extracurricular activities, homework, dinner dishes, and all the other pressures of an ordinary day.
And then— my favorite part! The booklists! The last four chapters are booklists divided up by age covering a wide variety of excellent read-alouds. I’ve recommended nearly 400 books in The Read-Aloud Family, have read them all front to back, and carefully chose books that would make not just great reads, but great read-alouds. I can’t wait for families to get their hands on those lists.
How (and when) did reading aloud become such an important part of your family life?
I first stumbled across The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease when my oldest daughter was just a baby, but I didn’t really go all-in on it until many years later when I heard a talk at a conference. The speaker talked about how the best thing we can do to help our kids become good writers and communicators is to read aloud to them. I was pretty inspired, so I decided to give it a whirl in our home— we had three kids at the time and I began reading aloud a lot to them— much more than we had ever done before.
What I witnessed as a result of that changed my family’s life forever. Not only did they become better writers and communicators, but they became hungry for books and stories, their vocabularies exploded, and my favorite part— we were all forming new and meaningful bonds with each other.
Reading aloud became something like glue for us. It became a part of how we identified ourselves within the family and, to some extent, how our family identified itself within the world.
Books can provide readers with a safe way to explore the world, including experiences they haven’t yet encountered or (we hope) never will encounter. Can you share a time where reading with your children helped them to more clearly understand the world around them?
Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl, a memoir of China’s Cultural Revolution under the Communist leader Mao Zedong, comes to mind. My oldest daughter and I both read that one. Afterward, we had some great conversations about how evil rulers rise to power and the pressures a community can have on the individuals within it.
See, what Jiang’s book does so well— what every story can do that a news report cannot— is help us see life from a point of view that we have never considered. When we read that memoir, we were led to consider what it might be like to be raised under Communist power in a culture quite different from our own. We got to slip into Ji-Li’s shoes and see the world with a new pair of eyes.
What I love so much about reading with my kids is that we never end in the same place we began. We’re always changed at the end of a good story. Stories help us fall a little more in love with the world and the people in it. And goodness knows we need more love in the world right now!
I loved reading picture books by Lisa Wheeler and Phyllis Root with my boys when they were young. The words were such fun to hear and say! What books have you read with your children that were a pleasure to share aloud? What illustrators do you find yourself returning to again and again?
Oh gosh, so many! The hardest part of writing The Read-Aloud Family was keeping the booklist from getting too long. Even with nearly 400 titles, there were still so many others I would have loved to put in the book.
I think Candace Fleming’s picture books read aloud particularly well– she’s got a gift for lyrical text that is just so fun to read out loud. My favorites are probably Oh No! and Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!
I also love pretty much anything by Tomie dePaola. His Strega Nona books get read aloud every single week at our house.
One of my current favorite illustrators is Chris Van Dusen— he illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson books, of course, but he also has some spectacular picture books that he both wrote and illustrated. The Circus Ship and King Hugo’s Huge Ego are so much fun to read aloud, and we never get tired of the pictures.
Have you read Maryrose Wood’s series, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place? It’s a middle-grade series that starts with The Mysterious Howling and is just ridiculously delightful to either read aloud or listen to on audio. Those books are among my all-time favorites. I love them for kids about age 7 and up— and my 16-year-old loves them just as much as my younger kids do!
And then a trilogy that far too few people know about is The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers. The first is The Bark of the Bog Owl, and this is one of those circumstances where I think the less you know about the book in advance, the better. I’m just going to say it was one of my very favorite books to read last year, and I’d read it aloud to kids of any age, though kids age 10 and up will probably enjoy it most.
Most parents would agree it’s good to read to our children, but many stop once their kids can read on their own. Why is it important we continue to read aloud to our children after they’re reading independently?
The research is pretty clear on this— reading aloud is the best thing we can do as parents for our kids’ academic success. If you want to make sure your parental time and energy will make the biggest difference on your child’s academic life, look no further than the closest bookshelf.
No matter what age a child is, being read to gives them increased vocabulary and highly sophisticated language patterns coming in through their ears. They also practice the art of making connections (which is really just a plain way of saying they improve in their own reading comprehension), and they develop an incredibly powerful fondness for books, which goes a long way toward academic success.
There are some really unique advantages to kids hearing sophisticated language patterns through their ears. Books read-aloud are really the only place they’re going to get these sophisticated language patterns. They aren’t going to get them from their conversations with their peers, or even from their conversations with adults. They’re certainly not getting their from TV or other media. Reading aloud is such a simple and powerful way to fill our children’s ears with solid, sophisticated language patterns.
When it comes right down to it, I don’t think any parent will look back on their active parenting years and say, “Dang, I really wish I had prioritized my time differently and spent less time reading to my kids.”
We’ll be glad and grateful for any time we spent filling their ears with beautiful language and forming those connections with them in the process. Although many days certainly feel long, the time we have to parent our kids at home is short, and reading aloud is a powerful and meaningful way to make the most of this time with our kids.
You touch on elements of faith in The Read-Aloud Family. How have your beliefs helped shape your read-aloud philosophy?
My read-aloud philosophy has been formed primarily by a desire to help my kids learn to love God and love people better. That’s why stories matter so much to me, because I think they uniquely shape our ability to love others. They help us see life from someone else’s point of view and to grow in compassion. That compassion is the first step toward loving well. I’m a Christian, and I think that’s pretty obvious in the book. However, regardless of our various faith traditions, we can all recognize story’s power to help us learn to be kind, compassionate, and noble human beings. Stories are what bind us to one another as humans– regardless of whether we share the same sets of beliefs or not. That’s part of their beauty, too!