Raising Readers

Last night I was listening to a homeschooling talk, where I was once again given the much belabored advice; Read Aloud to Your Children.  Until you go hoarse and the dishes and laundry pile up around your ears.  The quintessential parental virtue.  Sadly, I do not have it.  For me, reading aloud is the equivalent of pulling teeth.  That and I can’t sit down.  I remember, early on, guilt would eventually gang up on me and I might have read books to my children.  But then I just owned the fact that I would rather die.  Or clean something.


My husband, on the other hand, is made of sterner stuff and will occasionally be found reading Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious to the mob.  But not any more than is strictly Christian.  Sometimes he tells them to stuff it.


And guess what?  My children are still all voracious readers, or readers in the making.  In spite of my bad parenting.  They go to bed with their books by their pillows, and when they wake up in the morning they roll over and start wherever they left off.  They read while they eat, while they’re supposed to be doing school, or any time you take their eyes off them for a second.  They can’t get in the car without at least three books.  They read in the grocery store, they read walking down the street, they read in trees, in forts, and in closets.  In fact, it might be a little unhealthy. IMG_2760

Looking back I can wonder if there was anything I did that helped make them this way.  But my suspicion is that it was because I married an Otto, and that’s just the way they come out.  It’s hard to tell.  But there are quite a few things I did try to do to influence the outcome.  It’s hard to tell if it actually worked, or if my kids are just all pansies by nature.  I’ll leave it up to you.


Here is my list:

  1. From the day they were born I never let any of my kids have super sensory toys.  Nothing that had batteries, flashed, beeped, sparkled, or was made of plastic in general.  I gave them blocks, wooden trains, puzzles, Lincoln logs, Legos, swords, tea sets, baby dolls, play food, and marble runs.  But no Transformers, Marvel action figures, Barbies, Poly Pockets, Little Petshop, or basically anything that I have to capitalize because it’s licensed.  That’s just how we’ve always done it.  You can decide if it made a difference.
  2. My kids have always been surrounded by books.  Going to the library has always been a weekly or bi-weekly event.  And let me tell you, we have paid our share of library fines.  We have also continued to build our own home library to the point where it’s an actual library.  Not having something to read is not an issue.
  3. We try to be selective in the books we check out for our children, as well as the books we buy.  My general standard for picking children’s books is the quality of illustrations.  If books have realistic and quality pictures they often turn out to be sensible and thoughtful reads.  We avoided the goofy books, sloppy books, as well as social conditioning books with a “message.”  Like sharing, or recycling, or believing in your dreams.  We don’t do any of that here.  But we did do a lot of fairy tales, Robin Hood, Greek myths, and King Arthur.
  4. I have never shied away from directing my children’s reading.  When my kids come up to me at the library with books I don’t like, and I tell them to put them back, I tend to do it in a guilty whisper when the librarians aren’t looking.  Because I’m probably the only person who says, “No, you may not read the 125th Boxcar Children, because that is not actually a book.”  There are soooo many books that my children never read.  Like, the whole children’s section.  And knowing Gideon, he totally could have.  But we drew the line.  Just because it’s a book, doesn’t mean it’s inherently good.  Instead, I have worked my way through book list after book list, putting countless books on hold or inter-library loan.  Little Women?  Call of the Wild?  Anne of Green Gables?  Huckleberry Finn?  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?  Lord of the Rings?  Name a classic, and odds are they’ve read it.  That doesn’t mean I never let them read modern books, or the occasional trashy one.  But I pace them.  Reading quality books is hard, but it also broadens you.  It makes you able to bear a greater weight of glory.  And that’s what I want them to do.  Read up.  I thought that if they read enough good books, their taste for cheap books would weaken.  Some day I won’t be able to tell what they can and can’t read.  My only hope is to instill in them a taste for what is good.  I also want them to be able to read old books without giving up.  So I sneak a few of those in there as well.  The ones with no shiny covers and funny words.  Gideon recently finished Mark Twain’s, The Prince and The Pauper.  If you crack it open your first impression is that you have no idea what these people are saying.  But if you stick it out that muscle grows, and by the end of the book you find yourself immersed in something that started out as foreign.  I try to keep challenging my children, but I do it without them noticing me hovering behind them with ten pound weights.  They’re just having fun.  But it is fun that is pointed somewhere.
  5. Just say no.  While I try to direct my children’s reading in a positive fashion, and within their interests, I still don’t balk at flat out telling them no.  There are some things we don’t do, and they don’t even ask.  The biggest example of this is our ban on comic books, excepting Calvin and Hobbes and Asterix and Obelix, and those occasionally.  Other than that, I don’t let graphic novels in the house.  But I do let them look at them in the library, and that’s what they usually do the whole time.  And I assure you, they are up on all their Super Heroes.  I didn’t want there to be some kind of moralistic ban on comics, I just didn’t want them taking up all their time.  If I let them, the boys would still be reading comic books and only comic books.  And secondly, I like to have a firm reservation on the right to say NO.  Period.  Because, if the juvenile section weren’t bad enough, it appears that the rest of the books in the library are all sex and space ships.  I’m surprised at how much adult literature is essentially man porn.  The rest is mommy porn.  With a whole bunch of artsy garbage in-between.  A good book, who can find?  My suspicion is that the goal of reading is to push you on to the greater realm of ideas.  To be making and living the things you’ve read.  At the end of your recreational reading career you need to have grown enough, in the love of the truth, to spread your own wings.  However, grown men still in the science fiction section, are people who appear to have never left the ground.  Because, in the end, living has to be better than reading.
  6. Limit technology.  Books can’t compete with TV.  What is hard doesn’t stand a chance with what comes easily.  Entropy always wins.  So turn it off.  We let our kids watch a movie Saturday night and Sunday is “iPad Day.”  The rest of the time they don’t even ask.  Because the answer is no.
  7. Create the kind of environment where reading is welcome.  I’ve observed this time and time again, but whenever the house is messy and chaos reigns, the children are less likely to read.  They are anxious and discontent.  But when the house is clean, and a piano sonata is playing in the background, they tend to melt quietly into different corners of the house with blankets and books.  I also make sure they get at least an hour of vigorous outside time, every day, to clear their minds.  And I find that they are inclined to read more, the busier they are.  When we were renovating this house and they had the whole day to read, they hardly read at all.  They just cried.  But when I am running them off their feet, doing school and doing chores, they are reading every spare second they can find.  It’s funny how that works.
  8. Last, lead a quiet life.  Stay home.  Deep thoughts need a deep pool to swim in.  I don’t know about you, but my kids love boundaries.  They love solidarity, predictability, security, peace and quiet.  This is where they thrive.  Sometimes I may sit down and read them a book or do a craft, but our home is my real gift to them.  And it is the most powerful one.

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Even the baby has “issues.”

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Pack it in, pack it out.

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We check out, on average, 70 books every two weeks.  Yes, imagine the fines.  Library discipline is starting to sink in though, and I think we’re getting better.


We have a system.  It’s called the wrath of Daddy.



11 thoughts on “Raising Readers

  1. I am so thankful our library has a $10 cap on fees!!!! Granted we pay $10 every few months, plus the yearly $25 to use the library our of county (our in county library is pathetic). Love your tips. I can see that it is indeed a recipe for success. At least by my experience. My first half of kids I did the above. And then we had boys (our first 4 were girls), and a certain someone wanted them to have the super heros he never had, etc. Thankfully it wasn’t in excess, but still. Then the fact that the older kids had ‘graduated’ to more online time, and somehow I have done a terrible job keeping everyone in their age appropriate slots. Needless to say, my younger 4 are not as book inclined. I have been working on changing that because it NEEDS to change.

    I am assuming your librarians *know* you guys 🙂 Mine do. I didn’t really think about it much. I had this odd assumption that everyone brings their kids to the library…you know weekly. Apparently not. If I don’t pull my library card out quick enough, they say, “Oh, don’t worry, we know who you are.” I’m hoping that is a good thing! Ha, ha.

    My kids loved looking over my shoulder to see your pictures of your kids at the library. I think mine are having withdrawals, we’ve been sick…for weeks.


    • Oh wow. I wish they would cap our fees. “That’s all right Ottos, you’ve given us enough money.” We’ve paid up to $80 at a time in fines. Crazy. I was once considering budgeting our library fine money to buy books instead of checking them out. But my husband said, “Why don’t you just learn to not be irresponsible?” Like it’s so easy.

  2. Love this, Miranda, even though I fall into the “I-wish-I-could-read-aloud-to-my-kids-all-day-long” camp, mostly because I love new stories so much myself. I never thought of it as part of homemaking until I read Edith Schaeffer’s “The Hidden Art of Homemaking” and she talks about it being an art form of sorts, like narrative theater; although I pretty much refuse to do accents and voices, I do put my heart into reading expressively. Anyway, I have a great friend up here who also isn’t into reading aloud, but she makes a clean, well-decorated home for her bookish kids to enjoy. And hey, you can always get some audio books until the kids can read to themselves, right? My weakest homemaking thing is decorating; if I manage to get all the essentials done, I’m like, “what else can I bake?” or “now we can fit in another story!” and my walls remain mostly bare, and I have no clue how to better arrange the furniture. Sigh!

    • It is such a personality thing. Cuz I think you’re crazy. 😉 I imagine I would try harder if I didn’t have my husband picking up my slack. But I’m the one who TEACHES them read, so I say that’s good enough. Bob Books are the equivalent of hard time in purgatory. And probably anyone who is invested in books and reading is going to successfully transmit that to their children, whatever their method. I remember my dad, if cajoled enough to actually attempt reading to us, could only make it in a half of a paragraph before he was distracted and reading to himself in his head. I tested him on this, for old time’s sake, with one of my own children. I said, “Here Grandad, read to Gideon.” And he literally made it half a sentence before he was in space. That’s the way I grew up, and I turned out fine. 😉

      P.S. I think you have it right there, with the baking at the expense of decorating. Husbands everywhere applaud you, I’m sure. 😉

  3. Great post! I have seven bookworms, myself, with another on the way, and I identify with nearly all of your practices regarding screens, fresh air, etc.

    My one dissent is this comment, and it may be silly that it jumped out at me, but it shows ignorance about excellent literature. You write, “However, grown men still in the science fiction section, are people who appear to have never left the ground. ” People who aren’t familiar with science fiction beyond pulp and slick t.v. series spin-offs (i.e. Star Trek novels…why?) seem to discount s.f. as valuable literature, when in fact, it, like any other artificially imposed genre, contains both dross and gems. My husband and I both received our degrees in literature, are steeped in “fine” literature of all kinds and periods, and still read huge reams of science fiction. I grew up reading virtually only classic literature, and my tastes are not twaddly. You also write, “My suspicion is that the goal of reading is to push you on to the greater realm of ideas. To be making and living the things you’ve read. At the end of your recreational reading career you need to have grown enough, in the love of the truth, to spread your own wings.” Amen to that. Why is it that we read The Lord of the Rings? It is not needful for literature to be grounded in only what we daily see around us in order to challenge us, inspire us, provoke us toward thought and action, to chase us toward Truth. Similarly, science fiction can be a birthing ground of so many greater realms of ideas. Gene Wolfe, a devout Catholic and one of my favorite s.f. authors, is a brilliant man regarded by critics as one of the greatest living American authors. Why then are so relatively few adults who love to read aware of him? Simple answer. He’s been relegated to science fiction shelves, which is enough to make those who spurn those shelves miss out entirely.

    R.A. Lafferty is another one, and the winsomeness and inimitable jollity of his writing don’t alter the fact that philosophical interplay and Overwhelmingly Large Thoughts undergird each story. Lafferty is another truly brilliant man, erudite and fluent in many languages, well-read, with a strong Catholic faith, highly respected by fellow authors who encounter him…and virtually unknown. Why? That rotten science fiction stigma.

    That’s all. End of rant. 🙂

    • Hello Joy! It kind of pains me to say it, but my taste in literature is totally twaddly. 😉 Ha, sorry. But I’m right there with you on Gene Wolfe. He might just be my husband’s favorite. I think my comment was more directed at people who use science fiction, or romance novels for that matter, as a means of escapism. Sci-fi can provide you with one hell of a ride. It’s just kind of ironic that the pasty white man sandwiched in the library, reading about the guy who saves the world and gets the girl, hasn’t gotten much. That’s what I want to particularly be on guard against. When reading starts to overshadow life. And sci-fi seems more susceptible to this than other genres, judging by series length alone. Personally, I love not having to come up for air. 😉 But no, I’m not against science fiction in general. Which reminds me, my husband recently read some of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was published around 1912. I never read it myself, but we both enjoyed the unhampered display of old school gender stereotypes, run-a-muck in a sci-fi novel. They took it all for-granted back then. John Carter, an all around man’s man, basically spent the whole series rescuing his well rounded woman. Of course, when they made the movie they gave her a sword, so it wasn’t quite the same. I will let my husband know about R.A. Lafferty.

  4. We also generally avoid comics, but we love Tintin and The Action Bible. We’ve only checked out one Asterix, and I guess we need to discover Calvin and Hobbes, shame on us. 🙂
    Do you have some links to the book lists you use? Also, what movies do you spend your precious screen time on? I’m always on the prowl for new recommendations. Here are some online book lists, catalogues, and blogs we’ve gleaned from:

    • I almost forgot those! Yes, we do Tintin. But I try to limit those as well. I am amazed at how many times a kid can re-read a comic book. But, naturally, I let them read the Action Bible to pieces. And they have. Twice. Marc’s brother bought our family the complete Calvin & Hobbes for a Christmas present. I think it’s one of the best presents we’ve ever got. Mackenzie says she doesn’t let her kids read Calvin, since he’s an insubordinate brat. So you have to consider that. But we love it. Plus, we have low standards. Considering how the kids’ favorite movies are Transformers and Star Wars. Followed by Ponyo, Song of the Sea, and The Secret of Kells. They also enjoyed Earth to Echo, Ernest and Celestine, The Penguins of Madagascar, and (everything) Mr. Bean! Then I slip in some of the old school stuff, like Princess Bride, The Goonies, Overboard, Major Payne, and Home Alone. I don’t mind action, moderately foul language, and very short shorts. Or, I should say, I mind Dolphin Tale and We Bought a Zoo more. We avidly avoid all family “heartfelt” dramas as well as the larger slice of kid movies, a la Happy Feet, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Rio, Madagascar, Despicable Me, and the rest of them. As well as the more classic Disney abominations like Brave or Tangled. But it doesn’t matter because they seem to end up watching them all at Grandma’s house anyways. Like I said, I refuse to be moralistic about it, only strategic. And thanks for the book lists. I needed that. I use The Book Tree, as well as the book lists found at Classical Christian Homeschooling, Veritas, and the Logos reading list. Thanks*M

  5. You are as always, a breath of fresh air. I’ve had an awakening of sorts – been a long time in the making, but the last three years was doing serious homework, and with each passing day til current – I was growing increasingly more aware of the urgency in which I need to do it. Still struggling as the whole kit and kaboodle is a LOT to wrap one’s noodle around. People like me SO very much appreciate people like you. And this post is fanstastic and I will be going through our bookshelves and collecting all those junk books and getting them OUT. However, my kids are pretty young…. Other than getting rid of the obvious cartoonish yuck – any tips on GOOD books for them…. I can’t see Zanna sitting through me reading her something like Lord of the Rings… etc…. Any tips let me know, please!

    • Oops, I see through the above convo with responses, you have listed a few – but any that would be good for a 2 year old specifically, and then how far can I push themes and such, lack of picture with me reading at night to a 5 year old, and good books for him to be tackling on his own. He can’t read just yet, but is close….

    • Kamber! I was so excited to see you on here. I hope you are doing well. 🙂 I couldn’t think of any books off the top of my head, I have been meaning to ask the boys. I do know that they loved the Thomas the Train books by the original author. We got the complete collection and they made us read the cover off it and they are still reading it. In fact, I noticed they both re-read it earlier this month. I will try to get back to you as others pop into my head. And do you yard sale? I think half our library is from yard sales. The other half is from friends. You almost can’t go to yard sales without coming away with a pile of books. Collateral damage. 😉

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