Friday, January 23, 2009

encouraging children to read good books

My older 2 children love easily digested books. Lizzy (10) can get through 3 Rainbow Magic books a night. Benny (8) spends hours browsing through his Pokemon Diamond and Pearl Pokedex. Left to themselves, they wouldn't do much serious reading.

For a long time, I've comforted myself with the thought that at least they're reading. I exclaim perkily (and proudly) to the librarian as I borrow yet another enormous pile of books, "Oh, yes, my daughter will read all those!" I'm glad Ben enjoys filling his head with facts, even if they are often limited to an alternate universe filled with bizarre, small creatures.

But I want my children to read good books. And there are many old favourites I'd love to share with them! I read to them fairly regularly: Lizzy and I are about to finish Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, and Ben and I are up to the second book in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series. But I'd also like them to learn the discipline of reading more challenging books for themselves.

It occurred to me recently that there's a very simple solution. I've set them a nightly reading task. When they read their Bibles, which they do every night after dinner, they're now expected to read a chapter of a book as well. I'm sure this approach isn't for everyone, but it's working really well for us at the moment. They're enjoying it - they just needed that little bit of extra prodding!

Lizzy (10) is half way through CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Benny (8) has started Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. When they've finished, I'll encourage them to choose another good chapter book from our shelves or the library. I'd like to share my list of favourite books for independent readers with you soon.

If you have children who are independent readers, I'm interested to hear how you encourage them to read. When and how do they read? When and how do you read to them? How do you (or they!) choose which books they'll read?

image is by Novelist from flickr


Lucy said...

Ooooh good choices Jean :) The Little house books and the Narnia books were some of my favourites growing up. Some of my happiest memories as a child are my parents reading the Narnia books aloud - I remember always begging for another chapter and making poor dad keep reading!

Bec said...

I have been blessed with early readers, my oldest reading novels at 4 - so my main problem has been holding back reading (though it does remind me of my youth when he is found reading a book by torchlight when he is supposed to be asleep)! He too will devour 'easy reading' material, or 'junk books' as I call them, but has recently read some Colin Thiele, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books and is going through some Famous Fives at the moment. I've found one of the biggest encouragers to be books that either my husband has read, or when he reads them after my son and then they can discuss them. He really likes asking his dad, "Have you read this yet? Are you up to here?" etc.

Sometimes, with my son and with my 5 year old daughter who is just venturing into 'skinny' novels, they just have to be MADE to read something - and after all their complaining that they don't like that sort of book, and so on, they always finish it and always love it. When will they ever learn that Mom and Dad do know best...

As for favourite books/authors - too many to list! You just can't go past the good old-fashioned classics (even some of the 'girly' ones like Pollyanna for young boys - if their mates don't know). We have loved Enid Blyton for young readers as even though the vocabulary is challenging the content is innocent. It can be a struggle to find appropriate material for very young readers!

I've rambled long enough...
Bec :-)

Valori said...

I know not a lot of people in Australia home-school, but if you can get your hands on a Sonlight Curriculum catalog (actually, you can go online and either order a free catalog or check the lists right there), they have a lot of great books for each grade under the readers and the read-alouds. (In case you are unfamiliar with it, Sonlight is a home-school curriculum that was originally put together to serve missionary families.)

Jean said...

Thanks, girls!

Valori, my friend (who doesn't homeschool but knows mums who do) has also used the Sonlight Curriculum to choose good books for her kids. Thanks for the suggestion!

Pam said...


I was going to recommend the Sonlight Curriculum catalogue too! (We do homeschool and there are a goodly number of us who do.) There are great choices in there. I might try to pick some of the ones we've loved over the next week, if I get time.

Actually, there's another homeschooling resource that might be helpful now I think of it. Google "1000 good books" and you should come up with a list made by some hsing mothers which should keep you busy for ages. It is divided by ages.

Oh dear, I'm on a roll now- is a local homeschooling business (Sydney). Mary has some good recommendations in her catalogue-print and online- which include some good Australian books.

Something that has enticed our older two to read is giving them booklights. There's something about reading a book by booklight which makes it seem more grown up or something.

It started when we wanted to give our oldest the chance to read at night but he shared a room with his brother. Voila, a privilege was born. And then, of course, when his brother got old enough he wanted one, too.

who is supposed to be doing one of her least favourite things- selling some homeschool books so we can afford to buy some more for the next year. How I hate sending out parcels!

Sharon said...

Hi Jean,

How are you going with The Secret Garden? I read it to myself a few years ago and decided not to read it to my kids until they were a fair bit older, and then Anna got an abridged version for a present and Jeff read it to her. But I was very glad she wasn't reading it alone (not that she could, yet) because it presents a very pagan view of a resolution to the problem of human sinfulness. My daughter was really critical of the girl's attitude - and even wanted to pray after the first few chapters that she would learn to be friendlier!

A few weeks ago I posted a list of our favourite read alouds from 2008: Almost all the titles are hyperlinked, usually to Aust bookstores if I could. There are a few picture books in there but mostly novels, quite long as read alouds (although my kids are all under school age - for a few more weeks) but there are some absolute treasures on this list. We had a fabulous year of reading together, and I hope 2009 is even better!

~ Sharon

Jean said...

Hi, Sharon! Your question about "The secret garden" sparked off a whole long ramble, sorry!

My daughter's not reading "The secret garden", but "The little princess". The girl in that is actually a good model of courage in suffering, generosity and loyalty - not all the Christian virtues, but some of them! There's some nastiness between the girls at the school, certainly some pride, and perhaps not much forgiveness (although a lot of patient forbearance), but it's a wonderful book all the same.

My daughter has read "The secret garden" - actually, I've read it to her. Like you, the pagan elements disturbed me. The girl is certainly an unpleasant character at the start, but very human! By the end of the book, of course, she's been transformed (not by Christ, but by the garden and by some vague spirituality) into a loving little creature. Like you, I took the time to explain them to Lizzy, in fact it gave us a chance to talk about issues we mightn't have otherwise discussed. I think it's great that you and your husband are reading the good old books with your kids, and discussing them with them.

*Beginning of ramble*

Now here's the ramble, which you can skip if you like, just me getting my thoughts in order, really!

I know Christian parents have different views on what their kids should be exposed to, but I don't mind my children reading books which include some pagan values. Rather than protect my children, Steve and I would rather teach them how to respond to these things. I know some parents are uncomfortable with their kids reading fairy tales or fantasy, but I want my kids to know and enjoy these stories, but to read them through a Christian world view, and I help them to do that as we read and discuss them together.

I'd like my children to be able to appreciate wonderful writing, our literary heritage, the beauty of the world, and characteristics like courage and nobility, without excluding books which display pagan values as well as these things. Of course, above all I want them to read Christian books which display all these qualities and Christian values too - like Narnia and Patricia M. St. John - but I don't want to limit their reading to these.

I read books like "The secret garden" as a child and the values I absorbed were from my parents and the Bible, not from the books, because I knew the Bible was true, and my parents taught me to use it to critique the books, not the other way around. The values I did absorb from the non-Christian books I read were those which supported a Christian value system: love, loyalty, faithfulness, beauty, nobility etc.

Of course, some of the books my kids devour (e.g. Rainbow Magic) are probably full of things I'd be uncomfortable with, although I think their message is mostly "be a good friend" or probably (much more unhelpfully!) "believe in yourself". I don't allow Lizzy to read the more obviously unhelpful books e.g. about boyfriends and girlfriends. I know I should be more careful about reading and responding to the books she reads - but it's hard to keep up with her reading! Which isn't an excuse: I need to change my behaviour in this area, with God's help.

We do discuss the values she gets from her school, society and no doubt some of these books - e.g. "believe in yourself" - so she is learning to respond to them from a Christian standpoint. Again, looking back, I only adopted pagan ways of thinking from my books and school when they were supported by my parents and not when they weren't.

These are complicated issues, and parents will decide as differently on this as on home-schooling, which is fine, as these are issues of freedom.

*End of ramble*

Thanks for your list, I'm going to take a look later - I need to go and do something for my son now! :)

Jean said...

Oops ... I mean "A little princess"!

Jean said...

And Pam, thanks for your suggestions. Again I'll check them all out later, when I have time. It's wonderful to have so many excellent resources!

Lara said...

You've got me thinking now about how I did get into reading as a kid! I don't remember exactly, but I know I loved reading from the time I was quite small. At pre-school we were only allowed one book during nap time, and I remember trying to sneak in more! I think it helped for me that my mother was a teacher and later a teacher-librarian. She always knew what the good books were - classics and new ones. She's often meet authors at special events and buy me books. Some of my favourites were the John Marsden books, Libby Hawthorn (Thunderwith, I think), Libby Gleeson (loved Eleanor, Elizabeth). I also loved Colin Thiele's Jodie's Journey (that was Thiele, right?!)

Also, do you remember those Ashton-Scholastic book catalogues we'd get at school? My parents would usually let us buy a book or two, and generally they'd have input into that, to make sure we got decent books. I guess that's not always possible if money is tight, but buying new books, or ordering them and waiting for them to arrive, is always exciting!

I was always a good reader, though I read my share of junk. In primary school it was the Babysitters' Club. I started high school obsessed with Agatha Christie, but then somehow I switched to Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams! Not good.

Wendy said...

Another resource for good books, which is designed especially for those you want to read to your children (as they are good 'read-aloud' books) is the 'Read-Aloud Handbook' by Jim Trelease (I reviewed it briefly last year -
It includes an extensive list of all types of books to read to children of all ages. There have been many editions published and a local library will have one.

He also updates the list on his
own website -

I guess almost any book that is good to read aloud will also be good to read alone!

Sharon said...

Hi Jean,

Sorry for my ditzy comment thinking you were writing about The Secret Garden. Can you tell I read far too fast and just focussed on the author's name?

And thanks for the ramble as well. I agree with much of what you wrote. I guess my position was more along the lines that if I am ever recommending a book that I think someone might have issues with, I like to let them know what the issues (that I have identified, anyway) are, so they have a "heads up". The other factor, of course, is that my daughter is only four!

It is wonderful that you were able to take aboard your parents' biblical world view and accept or reject the ideas presented in books from that basis. What a wonderful skill to pass on to the next generation! Unfortunately, in my family, my father is a non-Christian, and a lot of things about Christian world view just weren't discussed openly enough for me to develop this framework for wise criticism. At times I was conscious of the dichotomy between what I knew was the Christian (or intellectual) perspective and what I was being presented with in the text, but at other times I was not nearly so observant. My teenage foray into the Sweet Valley High series is an example - I critiqued the pathetically limited vocabulary and repetitive, one-dimensional plot, as well as the characters' willingness to be quite promiscuous, but I still unquestioningly absorbed the idea that a teen girl's value is only found in her relationship with her boyfriend. And this led to no end of problems in my late teens and early 20s!

I hope my husband and I are able to better teach this skill to our children. Partly this will be through modelling (as in the discussions of elements of our family read alouds), but also through direct instruction in identifying fallacies and other critical/logical thinking skills. I think it is probably a good idea in general to exercise greater censorship over one's children's independent reading choices than over the family's read alouds. When we read a chapter aloud together, we have the chance to discuss it and any issues it brings up together. When a child, particularly a young one, reads something on their own, they may not be astute enough to identify ideas to discuss with their elders. So from this perspective, I'd much rather read A Secret Garden together with my daughter, or have her read the Rainbow Magic books aloud to me (when she can read that well of course) than have her read either of them alone. She can read Milly-Molly-Mandy on her own how ever many times she likes! Of course, there's not always time to do everything we want to do, is there?

Jeff was talking the other day about taking up Mark Driscoll's idea (from his Confessions) of church movie nights (secular movies) to be followed by a critical discussion of the movie's world view and conflicts/connections with a Christian world view. I know that I often take on board the values promoted in movies without thinking, and this sort of modelling of Christian wisdom at work is a good idea for our children's generation who are growing up in an environment which is so saturated with a succession of images and ideas with very little - or no - time for personal assessment before they are bombarded with the next.

Thanks for the food for thought!

~ Sharon

Jean said...

Thanks, Sharon, for your helpful reflections. Lots of food for thought there!