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Books for raising readers: Part 2
Notes From the Reading Nook: September 5
In case you missed what I’m doing this week and last: I’m dipping into my back catalog to bring you most (though not all) of the titles I think of as “books for grownups” — that is, books that help you, the adult caregiver in whatever capacity, to support your readers no matter what stage they’re at. The how-to of raising readers, if you will.
I’ve published all of these reviews at one time or another already, but these books are all evergreen and ever-helpful. I’ve edited and updated them as needed.
(Also: this post is going out to all subscribers because — as I announced last Friday — I’m running an experiment where, for the next four months, Can we read? will no longer have a paywall; everything will be available to everyone and paid subscriptions will be a way to support this work and make sure it continues rather than a means to greater access. 🙏 A big thank you to everyone who left a comment, sent me an email, and/or became a new paid subscriber because of this announcement — your support exceeded my [emotionally protective] low expectations by miles, and I appreciate it so much.)
I hope you find some titles here that inspire you on your journey to raise readers and build a culture of reading in your home.
Games for Reading: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Read by Peggy Kaye (1984)
I wish I could tell you that during the year I homeschooled our daughter, then 6yo and in 1st grade (2020-21), I taught her to read easily and with great joy, that she became an effortless, skillful reader in a couple of months and without tears, but alas, that is not our story. If you need help with teaching the mechanics of reading, you’ll not find that here.
On the other hand, if you need honesty about the fact — and it is a fact — that kids learn to read at all different ages and paces and that’s entirely developmentally appropriate, and it’s okay if they’re not where you or anyone else think they “should” be, and that it’s possible to keep the love of reading alive while a child is learning to read, you’re in the right place. (You subscribe to this newsletter: keep reading it, keep reading aloud to your kiddos, keep putting good books in their hands.)
Still, if you want to help the process along a little bit — whether you’re the one doing all the instruction, solo (my heart is with you), or you’d simply like to supplement the instruction happening in a traditional classroom, Peggy Kaye is your lady.
This book is chock-full of, yes, playful, genuinely fun activities for kindergarten through 2nd grade (though you could start a little earlier and extend it a little longer, depending on your needs) that focus on games for the eye and the ear, games for understanding, games for making sense. Games like Consonant Box, Rabbit Sounds, and my personal favorite with my older daughter, Gift Words, run the gamut of skills, covering nearly everything a beginner reader needs to learn, and — as stated in the introduction — “draw on one skill all children have in abundance, the ability to play.”
What you’ll find here is simple and effective, and perhaps best of all, none of it requires special material beyond what you probably already have at home (index cards, a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper) or a ton of upfront work to assemble. It’s not “open and go,” but it’s not “open and spend two hours creating a game you’ll play for 10 minutes if your child is in a great mood,” either — in fact, many games are simply verbal and require no materials at all. It was written in 1984 and it has 1984 vibes — meaning, Pinterest did not exist, and these games (and anyone who uses this book) are all the better for it.
The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids by Sarah McKenzie (2018)
By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous Read-Aloud Revival, the umbrella under which falls all wonderful things Sarah Mackenzie — her podcast, her booklists, her paid community — that I have been enjoying and learning from for years. So when Mackenzie came out with a book in 2018, I bought it immediately.
If Jim Trelease’s iconical Read-Aloud Handbook — which I mentioned in Part 1 of books for raising readers — made a compelling, research- and data-based argument for the importance of reading aloud, Mackenzie takes the case even further, right into your living room, not only inspiring you to create a culture of reading aloud in your home but offering practical, actionable tips for how to do so. (Mackenzie is a Christian, and while it doesn’t come up often in her content, her beliefs do occasionally appear.)
Even after consuming all the information I can find on this topic, even after following her for years, I still learned things from this book: my favorite section is the second, which focuses hard on the “how-to” part of connecting with our kids through books, including her “ten questions,” which you can use to strike up both intentional and organic conversations and can be adapted for any age (side note: these questions work). The final four chapters are thoughtfully selected, robust booklists with tons of selections for birth to teenage-hood. If you’re knee-deep (or neck-deep, like me) in children’s literature, few of these titles will be new to you, but if you’re not, this is an excellent getting-started book in every sense.
I don’t know about you but the number one thing I hope to do with my one life is make meaningful and lasting connection with my kids — this book has truly helped me do this.
Storytelling with Children by Nancy Mellon (2000)
“Young children cause us to reach into our deepest selves to overcome resistance to expression; they want everyone to be lively creations like themselves. Your unique creative warmth, the playful light in your eyes, everything about you is potential grist for their growth. Your unique imagination is important to your child. If you go only to published sources for stories, you are teaching your children to do the same.” (page 53)
Listen: Mellon had me at hello.
What makes this book such a valuable resource — and I encourage you to think of it that way, as a supply of ideas and strategies to help you become a storyteller for the children in your life — is how actionable it all really is. You could sit down and read this straight through — and I do think that’s the way to get the most out of it — but it’s also entirely possible to read one chapter and learn a handful of techniques that will help you as you develop the storytelling skill and to support your children in what Thomas Moore writes in the introduction, “discovering how to be in this life with imagination.” (I just love that.)
Chapter topics run the gamut — from “the storyteller’s treasure trove” of memory, imagination, and play, to stories for specific times, ages, seasons, and rhythms. This is not so much a book of stories — if you’re looking for that, I recommend Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children by Susan Perrow, which I reviewed in issue No. 33 — but rather about them: the what, how, when and why of them.
The back of this book states:
These methods, exercises and tips will enable you to:
Create a listening space
Use the day’s events and rhythms to make stories
Transform old stories and make up new ones
Bring your personal and family stories to life
Learn stories by heart using pictures, inner theatre, walk about
Build your own rich storycupboard
Indeed, it does all these things (and isn’t “storycupboard” just the best word?) as a manual, if you will, as well as encourages the nervous grownup to release perfectionism and to keep trying. Storytelling is an art that can be learned.
(If you’re curious about what this looks like in my life, check out my post, Storytelling as a family.)
Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight by Jennie Nash (2003)
“…reading suffers when we turn it into a high-anxiety, competitive activity. The process suffers, our kids suffer, and we suffer along with them. I know this, not because I have any expertise in teaching reading beyond my own experience as a parent, but because during the years in which my two children learned how to read, there were many times when my desire for them to succeed strayed into desperation, my hope morphed into obsession, and instead of helping pass on my passion, my resolve got in the way. The magic moments — the ones in which my own love of reading was naturally passed on — came in their own sweet time, through the blessing of being together in the presence of good books and by the grace needed to see each of my children as individuals separate from me.
Like so many of the things we do as parents, raising readers happens in bursts of delight and desperation, in the push and pull of digging in and letting go, day in and day out, both because of and in spite of our efforts.”
Full disclosure: the night I read these two paragraphs in the introduction on the second page on this book, I cried. I was at the tail end of that year of homeschooling I already mentioned, trying to teach my daughter, who in 1st grade was definitely supposed to learn to read, and preferably read well.
In anticipation of this grand Covid-motivated experiment wherein we unenrolled our child from the school district so she wouldn’t have to sit on Zoom 6+ hours a day and took on the responsibility of her education all by our lonesome, I researched and bought a reading curriculum — an excellent one, an expensive one, one that worked for us insofar as any kind of reading curriculum “works,” which is to say by May my daughter understood phonics to a greater degree than she did in kindergarten, could recognize more sight words, and could hobble her way through several sentences, sort of, most days.
But she couldn’t read with any kind of fluency or comfort — and remained entirely unenthusiastic about learning how — until just this past spring, at nearly 9yo, in the second half of 3rd grade.
Why do I tell you this? Well, to recommend this title for one thing, but also to admit that I don’t have it all together. I write a newsletter about children’s books and creating a culture of reading in your home — you know this because you’re consuming it right now — and yet this is the truth for me: I built an incredible launchpad for learning to read in all the ways I knew how and it still took years beyond what I expected for her to take off.
Cue the most enormous imposter syndrome.
And my desire definitely “strayed into desperation.”
I went through every shade of emotion over this: patience, determination, frustration, pretended unconcern, fury, sadness, comparison to my friends whose 1st (and then 2nd and then 3rd) graders were not only reading but gobbling up chapter books like we dreamed they would (so much comparison and comparison-related pain), despair, and finally, to the best of my ability, surrender.
This is all to say: Nash has written a short, genuine book full of stories about raising her own two readers — including the misadventures, magic moments, small and big wins alike, major mistakes, her own tearful nights, practical tips, and even a handful of short booklists — that is so honest and so welcome for anyone in a similar (or even sort of adjacent) situation.
I finished this book in one fell swoop (it’s just a bit over 100 pages) lying there in bed that night because I urgently needed a balm for my sore heart. I needed the reminders that: reading matters to me so much because it’s a way to connect with my kids. And my then-7yo was learning to read at her own pace, within absolutely normal developmental range (and my stress over it was just that — mine, not hers). And lastly, this, which Nash writes at the very end:
“The passion a parent feels for something can show up anywhere in the child’s life. It’s not the object of the passion that matters, but the passion itself. My children will know by my example the value inherent in loving something, in believing in it, and in throwing yourself into it whole hog.”
If you’ve already navigated, successfully or otherwise, the murky waters (or roiling seas) of teaching a child to read, this probably isn’t the book for you (unless, I don’t know, you want to be reminded of how lucky you are that it was easy, or how you made it through if it was not?) If, on the other hand, you could benefit from the reassurance that “raising readers happens in bursts of delight and desperation,” don’t miss this one. It might save you tears. Or it might help wipe them away.
Want more like this?
🛍️ Check out my list on Bookshop.org, “Resource books for raising readers” — I have read them all and found them useful time and again. If you make a purchase from that list — or any of my others — I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
🗄️ Or, tap into my archives for issues that take a deep dive into the nitty-gritty details of how to raise readers:
Thanks for reading today and every week. If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, please pass it on! 💌