(How) Can we read? Reading routines

Morning Time, bathtime, bedtime, and all the rest

For those of you have may have missed this last month, I’ve added a new portion to this newsletter. It’s called “(How) Can we read?” and will arrive on the second Friday of every month. You can read more about it in January’s issue, which was about storing books and reading nooks.

It’s not hard to find evidence that reading to kids matters — it’s hard to overstate the significance of the read-aloud experience. I believe this to my core and on some level (maybe the same level), you must too — you subscribe to this newsletter about children’s books and the magic of reading aloud, after all — but sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves just how important it is. (This is why I continue to read books about reading aloud — for every nugget of something new, I remember all the things I already know.)

This may be especially true if developing a reading routine, or reading aloud in any kind of consistent way, is a challenge for you. (Though it’s not for me — it’s my favorite part of parenting, bar none — I get it. I don’t always love reading aloud and occasionally I do have to goad myself into living up to the commitment I’ve made to my children.) If this is you, I encourage you to start small, wherever you are. It doesn’t matter if you read aloud for only five minutes a day, or ten minutes every other day. It doesn’t matter if you only have five books in your home. What matters is that you do it.

If you’ve got a good reading routine going but you’d like to tweak it here or there, or if you simply want a glimpse into what we do in our family, I hope the following helps.


Morning Time

Morning Time — also known as Morning Basket, Morning Meeting, Circle Time, Symposium, others I probably don’t know about — is a concept I stole from the homeschool world a long time ago (well before we starting COVID homeschooling last fall). There is a lot of information about it online, if you are interested. It is, like many homeschool things, at heart a nonsecular practice — as I have learned about it, developed our own way of doing it, and revised it again and again over the years, I have taken what I’ve liked (the ethos, the structure) and left the rest (the religious aspects, like Bible reading and hymns). The person I have learned the most from is Pam Barnhill — her website, podcast, and book, Better Together: Strengthen Your Family, Simplify Your Homeschool, and Savor the Subjects that Matter Most, are all robust, excellent resources on this topic. (She is Catholic and her approach to Morning Basket is religious, so you are aware.)

Okay, but why Morning Time?

Establishing Morning Time was at one point the only way I could absolutely ensure that I read to my children every day. When I had the littlest littles — a baby and a 2yo — we would eat breakfast together, and when I was finished with my food, they would continue eating (in theory) and I read aloud for about 20 minutes. About half the time I would prepare a stack of books the night before — pulled from the spot in our kitchen that I showed you last month, where I kept about 40 titles (our own mixed with library books, always), so the gathering didn’t take more than a minute, tops. This is where I kept any books I really wanted to make sure that we read (Hands Are Not For Hitting by Elizabeth Verdick; Teeth Are Not For Biting by Elizabeth Verdick; Your Sister Is Not For Screaming At, Pounding, or Taking Out Every Last One of Your Emotions On, an imaginary title I would still purchase today). I built in enough time in our pre-work-and-daycare day (yes, that meant getting up a few minutes early) so that when they inevitably asked for a couple more books, I could say yes, and they’d use this shelf to grab whatever they wanted. (They were also free to change up any of the books in the stack I prepared — I wasn’t rigid about any of it, the gathering-ahead-of-time was more about saving as many minutes as possible for actual reading.)

Years later this routine looks much the same except for a few variations: we have certain things we read on certain dates (we start the first of every month with that month’s poem from Around the Year by Elsa Beskow and Once Around the Sun by Bobbi Katz, for example), and we’ve added in chapter books (like Children of Noisy Village, which I reviewed earlier this week in issue No. 29). We still read picture books during Morning Time — I will do this for as long as they will let me — but instead of just random titles, they are more specifically chosen and planned: singing books, books I want to make sure we get to (Please Let’s All Work Hard to Regulate Our Emotions, another imaginary title I’d buy in a heartbeat and should probably just write myself), poetry, and some topics/things we need to cover for homeschool.

What I’ve learned about Morning Time over the years is two-fold: one, it is an incredibly valuable practice. By doing just a little bit every day you can build something substantial and nourishing to you all. Two, start small. And (okay, three) accept that it’s never going to look exactly how you envision it. As a homeschooler this year I’ve had more elaborate plans than ever before, and more than half the the time we’ve ended up chucking them to read Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. This is okay. Morning Time — all reading-together time — is, to me, first and foremost about relationship. I’m going to repeat that because it’s the single most important thing I want to convey: reading-together time is about relationship. It’s easy (I mean REALLY EASY) for me to get caught up in the checking off of a to-do list — I’m Type A and a Virgo and I have approximately 1230800 balls in my life to keep in the air — but the minute I approach Morning Time with the attitude that We Are Going To Get It All Done is the moment it all falls apart. I have to remind myself that my goal — in every aspect of our life — is to infuse my children with the sense and the knowledge that they are loved and they are important. If along the way we also manage to cultivate thinking people who love to read and learn and thus have the tools with which to live a purposeful and rich life: great. It is more than enough.

I have found pairing breakfast with reading aloud to be not only a consistent and dependable way to get some reading time in every day (for us it’s about 20 minutes on average), but also a lovely way to start our day together. It calms me, it calms my kids, it sends us all out the door with a starting point of beauty, love, and togetherness. It is such a part of our routine that we do it even on weekends (to be clear: even when I don’t feel like it). I hope when they think back on their childhoods they remember the dark mornings we ate oatmeal and drank tea, with a candle lit, reading aloud together.

Some of our favorite Morning Time books over the years:

  • All of Me by Molly Bang (I reviewed this in issue No. 12)

  • Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson

  • Native American Animal Stories by Joseph Bruchac

  • Old Mother West Wind (I reviewed this in issue No. 23); The Adventures of Peter Cottontail; The Adventures of Sammy Jay, all by Thornton Burgess

  • Tell Me a Story: Stories from the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, editor Louise DeForest (I reviewed this in issue No. 10)

  • The Earth is Good: A Chant in Praise of Nature by Michael Demunn

  • Juniper Tree Puppets seasonal resource books by Suzanne Down (all of them)

  • A Child’s Book of Poems by Gyo Fujikawa

  • Pass It On by Sophie Henn

  • The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and Jan Brett

  • Out and About: A First Book of Poems by Shirley Hughes

  • Grimms’ Fairy Tales translated by E.V. Lucas, Lucy Crane, and Marian Edwards

  • Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children by Susan Perrow

  • Mother Goose by Alice and Martin Provensen

  • Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer

  • Ten Little Mummies: An Egyptian Counting Book by Philip Yates


Bath time

I started reading to my eldest in the bathtub pretty much as soon as she could sit up safely on her own. Toward the end of her bath, after she’d had time to splash and play, I’d pick 2-3 titles, sit with my back against the tub, and take a few minutes to read them to her before getting her out. I can’t quite remember why I did this — possibly because for a little while there she didn’t like the water, probably because I just wanted to read to her more, who knows. For awhile I focused on titles that had big, graphic images she could easily see — I Love Bugs! by Emma Dodd was our #1 favorite — but when I realized that this was a time of maximum captive audience, I branched out to books I thought she might not sit through otherwise. Enter poetry (what else were you expecting? 😊 )

Bath time was really our poetry gateway. And that’s not to say I read poetry straight from an old college textbook — no, I made sure to choose poetry picture books that were enjoyable and visually interesting — but I intentionally tried to expand beyond quotidian storytelling to the experience of beautiful language for beautiful language’s sake.

Some of our favorite bath time books over the years:

  • Bubbles, Bubbles by Kathy Appelt

  • When the Sun Rose by Barbara Helen Berger (I reviewed this in issue No. 13)

  • The Kingfisher Treasury of Witch and Wizard Stories edited by David Bennett

  • The Kingfisher Treasury of Stories for Four Year Olds by Edward and Nancy Blishen (this is a truly excellent series — I recommend any of the Kingfisher Treasury titles, which are available both by age and subject)

  • Maisy Takes a Bath by Lucy Cousins (reprinted as Maisy’s Bathtime; they’re the same book)

  • Turtle Splash! Countdown at the Pond by Cathryn Falwell

  • Bathwater’s Hot by Shirley Hughes (probably our favorite bath-time book of all time)

  • The Moon’s Almost Here by Patricia MacLachlan

  • The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash (I reviewed this in issue No. 22)

  • Mouse of My Heart: A Treasury of Sense and Nonsense by Margaret Wise Brown

  • King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub by Audrey Wood

This was never — and is still not — a rigid routine. Sometimes I read for 30 minutes, sometimes not at all. If they just want to play, they play. If they ask to read, we read. The key to routines that don’t become a burden (for any of you) is to go with the flow of however you’re feeling. (And the challenge is often when all the feelings don’t line up. I try very hard to say yes to the question, “Can we read?,” even when I am tired or cranky or need a break from whatever we’re reading repetitively. Sometimes it takes me a minute to get it together but I never, ever regret it.)


Bedtime

Interestingly, though reading at bedtime is the routine most common to families, it is not the best one in our house. Over the years this has changed as our needs have varied and different seasons of our lives have come and gone, but, real talk: I am often absolutely done at bedtime. It is the hardest time of day for me as a mother, and I have zero energy for deviation from our routine. I need to keep it simple so I can stay loving, therefore this structure is predetermined and almost always inflexible (by which I mean, there is no negotiation): we read two titles (neither one of which takes more than 20 minutes — I am looking at you, Bill Peet books), and we don’t fight about it if someone doesn’t like a title someone else picked.

Fun fact: when fathers do the bedtime reading routine, kids benefit. In the eighth edition of Jim Trelease’s famous title, The Read-Aloud Handbook, Cyndi Georgies offers an entire (fascinating) chapter on “The Importance of Dads,” writing:

“The time a father spends with his child is one of the most consistent links to the development of literacy skills throughout the child’s schooling. Fathers have a profound impact on their child’s desire for reading and their success in doing so… bedtime read-alouds create one of the strongest bonding times, especially between fathers and sons. This positive influence is also experienced by their daughters.”

(So if you are a mother who is carrying around any guilt about letting your child/ren’s father do the bedtime reading routine: let that shit go. It’s good for everyone.)

On my Bookshop.org storefront, I have a list called “Books for a beautiful goodnight.” It is of course nowhere near exhaustive (my all-time favorite bedtime book, The Midnight Farm by Reeve Lindbergh, which I reviewed in issue No. 14, is out of print but worth tracking down used) — merely a collection of books I have loved reading to my children at bedtime.


Other times

Potty training

I highly recommend a basket of books next to the tiny training potty, wherever that is in your house (ours lived for a minute in our front hallway before moving to the bathroom for an extended period of time), and a basket of books next to the toilet from then on. (I often found myself thinking, as I sat on a small stool in front of my child reading the fifth picture book while waiting for something to happen, “Well, this is a part of parenthood no one told me about.”) Hands up if you read in the bathroom ✋ Exactly. If you want to raise a reader, remember that reading can (and does) happen anywhere.

Waiting

For various reasons (my eldest child had surgery with long-term maintenance at two days old; I’ve had at least one kid in daycare-aka-germ-central for 6.5 years) we’ve spent a LOT of time in the waiting room of doctor’s offices. I don’t have to tell you it’s the worst.

So, read your way through it.

Generally I don’t care for treasuries — collections of either one author’s work, or several, printed in one volume — because they tend to be bulkier than stand-alone titles and thus difficult (even painful) to hold. But treasuries are priceless for waiting rooms of any kind, because you only have to tote along the one book, and they’re long enough to outlast the practitioner that is running heinously behind.

Our favorite waiting room titles:

  • Thornton Burgess Animal Stories by Thornton Burgess (this is the title I mean — it’s out of print but still available if you’re willing to look and wait a bit)

  • James Herriot’s Treasury for Children by James Herriot (I reviewed this in issue No. 22)

  • Frog and Toad Storybook Favorites by Arnold Lobel

  • The Helen Oxenbury Nursery Collection by Helen Oxenbury

  • The Jump at the Sun Treasury: An African American Picture Book Collection by various authors, published by Hyperion Books for Children (I reviewed this earlier this week in issue No. 29)

Traveling

This section is two-fold:

There is the daily travel we do (or used to do, in the Before Times) to daycare, family, the library, the grocery store, swimming lessons. Even before my babies faced forward, I have always kept a small box of books between their carseats. I try to switch these out every month or so, for freshness’ sake.

There is also the long-distance car travel we engage in several times a year. My husband’s family lives 400+ miles south of us, which means trying to keep two small children reasonably occupied for at least eight hours. Packing a huge bag of books is always part of our routine. I aim for 99% of them to be titles my kids haven’t seen before, whether from our own shelves or the library. A few days before we leave I go to the library alone and look for the most visually interesting titles (seek-and-finds, which are getting better and better, are great for this). I also toss magazines into the book bag — Babybug magazine is my favorite for the littlest littles; its sister publications from Cricket Media, Ladybug and Click, appeal to progressively older kids and are also superb. Ditto Nat Geo Little Kids and Nat Geo Kids, and Highlights (re: the latter, there is something really pleasant about magazines I read as a kid that are still in existence). Sometimes my children have subscriptions to these, sometimes they don’t — I’ve been able to check out a pile of all of them from our library regardless.

A book bag in the car while traveling is good for at least an hour of no one crying. It is also sometimes the only fix if things are going sideways and people are losing it (not always the children, necessarily) — I’ll crawl in the back and wedge myself between the carseats and read aloud.

Poetry teatime

Poetry teatime is another thing I stole from the homeschool world years ago. I first heard about it from the creator of a wonderful writing and language arts program and author Julie Bogart, but it’s not rocket science. You sit down with your kids (at the kitchen table, in front of the fireplace, on a picnic blanket outside), a pot of tea (or any other beverage you want) and some treats (baked from scratch, out of a box, or store bought) and a stack of poetry books (they don’t even have to be poetry books), and you read them out loud. That’s it.

If it sounds really simple, that’s because it is.

If you wonder how it can be special: try it and see.

We manage about one Poetry Teatime every month. Sometimes they’re themed (in issue No. 17 I shared a photo of our bedtime Poetry Teatime for Halloween), more often we decide to have one spontaneously. (My favorites have been the ones we’ve done when I arrive home after a few days of traveling for work. It’s a lovely way to be together, anytime.)


Lastly, a note on organization

In last month’s issue of “(How) Can we read?” I wrote about storing and managing books (and creating reading nooks), which may be worth revisiting as you reflect on your reading routines. Organization isn’t the most important thing by any means, but it’s definitely a load-bearing wall in the structure of routines that are consistent, easy, and low on the energy-sucking spectrum for you (I need everything in my life to be as low on the energy-sucking spectrum as possible). If you have a gorgeous tidy bookcase with titles organized by rainbow color, good for you. That’s not for me, but only because I have my own (messy, unknowable-to-anyone-else) system, spread across my whole dang house. Organization is about being prepared — so that if you find yourself with ten spare minutes or a child melting down, you can seize the moment (or take a moment) and read aloud. This is especially helpful if you struggle with a reading routine, if you have good intentions but just can’t seem to make it work on a regular basis. This isn’t meant to be a source of stress for you — it’s meant to be the opposite. So organize in whatever way makes sense for your family — keep books wherever they will get read, even if that’s a weird spot. Set yourself up for success.


Today’s takeaways, or some things to consider:

Think about your reading routines (or one/s you’d like to establish)…

  • Are they working (happening with consistency, resulting in bonding and pleasure)? Why or why not?

  • Do you have any goals for your reading routines (e.g., a feeling of togetherness before you start your day, a peaceful goodnight, etc.)? What changes, if any, can you make to your current routine/s to better serve your goals?

  • Do/es your child/ren ask you to read? How often do you say yes to this request? If not, why do you think that is? Do they have access to appealing titles?

  • Is there an unconventional time or moment in your day or lives in which you could create a new routine?

  • Does your system of organization (or lack thereof) support your reading routines? How can you make it all easier on yourself?

Ultimately, when all is said and done, I read to my children not only because I want to raise readers (and reap the multitudinous benefits that go along with that) but because I want to be with them, connect with them, love them. In her terrific book, The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections With Your Kids, founder of Read-Aloud Revival Sarah McKenzie writes:

“Reading aloud, as simple and quiet and insignificant as it may seem, is a way for us to pause, enjoy, and delight in these kids, in this day… When my head hits the pillow each night, I want to know that I have done the one most important thing: I have fostered warm, happy memories and created lifelong bonds with my kids — even when the rest of life feels hard. These are moments we will never regret. Even better, these are moments are kids will treasure for the rest of their lives.”

Kind of amazing that reading together can deliver all that, but it can. And a routine helps you make it happen.


Next up: March’s issue of (How) Can we read? will be an AMA — Ask Me Anything. I’ve gotten a couple questions lately that deserve public answers here, so let’s do it. If you have a question for me — something, anything you’re wondering about as it pertains to children’s books, reading aloud, building a culture of reading in your home — please reply to this email and I’ll answer it to the benefit of all on the second Friday of March 😊


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