I’m a bookworm – reading is my superpower.
Whenever I tackle a new task, I turn to books. When I took up gardening, I cleared out our public library. When my husband and I were catechumens, we read every Orthodox book we could get. (This was pre-Amazon days, but our small college library was uncommonly well-stocked.) And when I became a parent, I naturally read a ton, too.
I was ecstatic that my superpower was just as effective for my kids as it was for me. They learned to identify zebras and name colors by sitting on my lap as I read books to them. Is it any wonder that kids who are read to regularly have a big advantage in school?
What kids learn from books
Kids learn just as much from fiction as nonfiction books. The learn a surprising amount from stories – even in subjects you might not expect, like math. My friend, Dr. David Purpura, has done a series of experiments to show that preschoolers learn a lot of early math from the stories they hear at circle time.
Books also teach kids about the bigger, harder-to-teach things like love and compassion and dealing with bullies. The writing coach Lisa Cron explains that when we read a book, we step into the place of the main character. We experience the highs and lows alongside them because, in a sense, we become them.
For kids, that means that they get to practice tackling tough topics and difficult situations. And they do it from the safety of home with a loving parent as backup.
This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part: research shows that kids who read the Harry Potter novels were less prejudiced. They felt the effects of bullying and prejudice along with Harry and Hermione and didn’t like what they felt. They even got to practice fighting against it when Harry did. The result: kids who are more compassionate and loving to others.
Leveraging this superpower
As every superhero knows, having superpowers is not enough. You also need to know how and when to use them.
In addition to being a writer, I’m a parent and a homeschooling mother. Reading books is one of the best tools in my parenting toolbox. I’ve used books to deal with behavioral issues like learning to share (Llama Llama Time to Share) and manners (Do Unto Otters).
I’ve also used books as an educational tool. There are books that teach everything from the alphabet (AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First) to plant growth and decay (Sophie’s Squash) to the origin of the Olympic games (Hour of the Olympics).
And children’s books can be used to shape children’s faith and morals. Books with heavy-handed moral teaching get old very fast. Instead, I prefer the wider variety of books where positive themes are woven naturally into an engaging story. Lucky for me, these themes are everywhere in children’s literature.
Honestly, I think it would be hard to find kids books that don’t have some underlying positive message. Whether it’s about the nature of friendship (Nerdy Birdy Tweets) or sibling love (Wolfie The Bunny) or being kind to others (Be Kind) – nearly everything you would want to teach a child is in a book and nearly every book has something of value to teach.
This is also what I aspire to in my own writing – to create a wonderful story that children will choose again and again. It just so happens to mirror my Orthodox faith. Goodnight Jesus is at its heart a bedtime story grounded in love. But unlike most, it shows this through a child’s loving kiss for Jesus, His saints, and his family.
In my new book, I Pray Today a child travels through a day that most would encounter: waking, mealtimes, playtimes, and bedtime. There are the usual bumps along the way: skinned knees and arguments over sharing blocks. Unlike most books, it highlights Orthodox prayer life by greeting each event and each bump with a uniquely Orthodox prayer: Lord have Mercy.
Using the books
Kids will get more from a book if you get them thinking and reflecting on it.
It’s easiest if you’re reading with your child. Stop periodically and ask them questions. For instance, you could ask:
- What will happen next?
- What would they do in this situation?
- What is the character feeling?
- How would they feel in the situation?
All of these questions are designed to get kids thinking about the story: What will happen if Max throws a temper tantrum? How does Matilda feel when Mrs. Trunchbull bullies her? How would you make up after a fight with a friend?
Use questions sparingly: too many ruins the story’s flow and frustrates everyone. One or two questions in a picture book is a good amount. And you shouldn’t ask questions about every book either – getting kids to love reading for it’s own sake, will get them far in life.
Your questions should gently guide children to notice the ideas or morals you want them to learn.
For instance, let’s say you’re getting a puppy for Christmas and you’re afraid your loving but rambunctious preschooler will be more of a hindrance than a help. Read an engaging picture book together such as 15 Things Not to Do with a Puppy. Laugh at the silliness of taking a puppy hang gliding or teaching them to play tuba. Then ask if there are other things a puppy shouldn’t do. (Use your toothbrush! Swim in the toilet!) And maybe insert your own ideas: don’t throw the puppy in the air or drag them by the leash. Keep it lighthearted and short. When the book is done, your child will be giggly and happy from time spent with you. They’ll also have a better idea of how to treat a new puppy.
Another example: your kids have been squabbling and your last nerve just snapped. Force a chipper smile, gather up the kids at bedtime story time and read a book like Starring Carmen. It’s charming and fun. It also shows Carmen coming to appreciate her brother and choosing to include him in her play. Stop and say “Hmm. What do you think he’s feeling?” (Lonely. Sad. Left out.) Whatever they say, they’re practicing seeing the world from another person’s perspective and exercising their muscles of compassion. Perhaps you can even get them to volunteer times they’ve felt that way or come up with ideas for how Carmen could help her brother feel better. Just make sure when you get to the end that you point out how happy Carmen and her brother both look playing together. (Hint hint.)
Just because your child can read on their own doesn’t mean you should stop reading to them. Many older kids still love to cuddle with a parent and listen to a book. They get benefits from it just the same as the younger kids: better academic performance, building relationships with parents, and a chance to learn about the world and their place in it.
Older kids can also learn just as much out of reading with parents. Last night I finished the novel The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl with my 8-year-old and 5-year-old. We read a chapter or two a night over the course of about a month. The book was wonderful – so much so that I stayed up late one night to finish it because I just couldn’t wait. And it gave us lots of opportunities to discuss – what would you do if you were being bullied like the main character? What if you were betrayed by your best friend like she was – would you forgive your friend? We didn’t discuss it every night, but those short conversations stack up over the course of a childhood.
I didn’t choose this book looking for those topics, but it’s become a habit to point out issues and provoke discussion. Like I said, nearly every children’s book has a positive message you can pull out, once you develop the habit.
It can be harder to check books for appropriateness with older readers. Picture books rarely have inappropriate content. Even if there’s a question, you can flip through a 32-page book in under a minute to check it out. That’s much harder to do with a novel. I have a post on my own blog that covers how to use online resources to check if a book is appropriate for a child.
Hopefully, I’ve done my job and convinced you of the virtues of reading to children. The next question is how to find books that teach what you need. I’ve sprinkled this post with some books that touch on many common issues. But maybe you need more books, or you want to teach about a topic that I haven’t mentioned. Here are some resources to get you started.
- A librarian. Public librarians are knowledgeable and eager to help. Head to the children’s section and ask if they have a book on your topic. (Bonus: libraries have free books!)
- My Book Recommendation page on Pinterest Many book-loving bloggers like to gather together lists of children’s books on specific topics. I catalog many of these posts on this Pinterest board. Try scrolling through and see if anything fits what you need.
- Google Search A good old google search can sometimes be the key. Try the phrase “children’s books about…..” and include your topic and age range. It pays to be specific on age range: a middle-grade book (4th-6th grade) about friendship won’t be appropriate for a preschooler and vice versa.
Reading is my superpower – and now it’s yours, too.
This post is part of a blog tour in celebration of Angie’s new children’s book, I Pray Today. Each day this week she’ll be blogging around the internet.
- Monday, September 24: Raising Saints: What parenting taught me about a life of prayer
- Tuesday, September 25: Orthodox Motherhood: Building a habit of family prayer
- Wednesday, September 26: Time Eternal: Time and children’s books
- Thursday, September 27: Charlotte’s blog: Teaching children with children’s books
- Friday, September 28: Angela’s blog