Engaging Young Readers: Building a Healthy Diet of Good Books

Few things create anticipation and excitement in my youngest child quite like a monthly book order. In his pre-school mind, the opportunity to choose a book from the flyer is the highest form of reward.  He lights up at the sight of the order form, carefully combs it over through numerous viewings, carries it around with him for days, and then asks with increasing urgency when the coveted book(s) will arrive. At first observation, this is delightful; we’re happy our son has such an interest in books at a young age!  The only problem is that a large number of the pictured books are based entirely on television show scripts and characters. Children plead for them because they recognize familiar titles and characters, but the books themselves leave something to be desired.  The stories are flat, the characters lack depth, and the word choice and descriptive language found in the best of children’s literature is all but absent. What was meant for a colorful, fast-paced, animated viewing has been transposed onto paper—and it isn’t as good in print.

So what is a parent to do? How do we encourage fledgling readers without filling our bookshelves with Disney princess stories and transcribed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes?  Will we relegate our children to becoming “non-readers” if we don’t cave to the recent pre-school (or grade school) craze?  I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out, but here are a few suggestions for filling the bulk of your youngster’s bookshelf with quality reads:

  1. Familiarize yourself with classic children’s literature. Perhaps this is the first place for you to start.  If your child is in school, start with authors he or she is exposed to there. What other books have those authors written?  Does the teacher have suggestions?  You can also seek out recommended book lists for your child’s age/grade.  Visit ReadBrightly.comfor a list of classic books for 3 to 5-year-olds, www.thegospelcoalition.comfor a reading list for grade school children (taken from a classical Christian school reading list), and www.circeinstitute.orgfor book lists for older children.
  2. Consider factors like character depth, story line, and overall beauty when choosing books for your child. It doesn’t take long to pre-read a book aimed at pre-school aged children.  Read it for yourself!  It may be simple (after all, the target audience is 3 to 5 years old), but are the characters appealing?  Is the story good? Are the illustrations captivating?  Reading is about more than phonemic awareness; good literature builds imagination, promotes perspective, and offers the reader a taste of the Greater Story of which we are all a small part.  Don’t be afraid to seek truth, beauty, and goodness in the books you choose for your children—even little ones benefit from our pursuit of these things!
  3. Listen to your favorite stories on audiobooks. There are so many wonderful resources available for listening to your favorite children’s books.  This doesn’t mean a droning adult voice pounding out sentences into a microphone (although it can…so choose your orator wisely!).  Numerous websites and publishers are now releasing countless classic children’s books in audio format.  Many of these are even created in the “radio theater” style in which background noises, multiple character voices, and music add drama to the reading. These dramatic retellings often help children learn to love the characters from good literature just as much as their favorite television cartoons!  Our family has enjoyed the Narniaseries, Wind in the Willows, The Reluctant Dragon,The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and the better part of The Ramona Quimby Collection. It’s also worth noting that younger children often absorb stories targeting older children, and vice versa.  Our family includes children ages 3-12, and the entire group was quiet for stories about Ramona during summer travels this year!
  4. Build a healthy diet of children’s literature, but allow for occasional “junk”. Encouraging your child to love good literature doesn’t mean that he should never set eyes on a printed episode of PAW Patrol; it simply means we should make an effort to not let his entire diet of literature be comprised of such books. Like most healthy habits, nutritious intake should be the norm, and the occasional “junk” should be the exception. In a world of advertisements and marketing, our children will have plenty of reasons to ask for the “junk”. It’s up to us to provide compelling reasons for them to choose something else.  One strategy aimed at achieving this balance might be to allow your child to check out library books related to her favorite television show, but to only purchase books that you’d want her to read time and time again.

Like most challenging issues in parenting, there isn’t a black-and-white formula for how to engage young readers.  However, there are some practical steps we can take in an effort to make good literature appealing.  What strategies do you have for encouraging young children to love goodliterature?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

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