Rx for Reading- reading tips for all ages!
Why should I read to a baby?
It seems a little silly, doesn't it? Reading to a baby who can barely sit up, let alone focus on the page in front of them? Do not miss this opportunity. Reading to a baby leads to bonding and intellectual development. Babies respond to language. The sing-song way we all seem to talk to babies helps them learn key social and communication skills. Babies' brains develop best when they are exposed to live language, directed at them. This means that television, tablets, audiobooks and recordings do not count- it needs to be your voice, in real time. Reading to a baby makes a connection that books are fun and relaxing, a way to learn and play. This is a great lesson to learn while the brain is still developing!
How do I read to a baby?
At this age, the book does not matter. Your voice does! Read anything you want. The baby will respond to the rhythm of the language, not the subject material.
I once, in a moment of needing some quiet time, read my newborn son a cooking magazine. It was relaxing and he enjoyed it too. Read anything you like- what is important is the time with you, hearing new words and the way your voice shapes them. Sing the words, point to pictures, ad lib- it's all good. This does not need to be a chore. Your baby will pick up on your tone if you are frustrated, bored, or in a rush. Pick a time each day to read for pleasure, and simply include your baby in that ritual.
My baby just chews the books! Is that ok?
Yes! The baby has good taste. Reading at this age is a full body experience. Let your child flip the pages, throw the book, look at the pictures out of order. What is important is that they are manipulating the book- at this age, any interaction with a book counts as reading. Babies and toddlers explore with their mouths, so it is natural that books will get. . .a little damp. Choose books with textured or mirrored pages to allow them to engage all their senses!
What should I look for in a good book for a baby?
Durability is key- a book should be able to take a beating (or a chewing!) Board books are your best bet. Look for books with simple, bright pictures. Babies relate best to familiar objects, so books with faces, household items, animals, nature images, cars, and food will be most appealing. These books build language skills by helping them label objects and make connections from pictures to words. Books with flaps, "peek-a-boo" elements, textures pages, mirrored pages, and Velcro make reading an engaging experience
I would avoid books that make noise or light up. First off, as a parent, these books are annoying. When the batteries die, these books will make noise and light up, unprompted and without warning. This always happens in the middle of the night, just as you have gotten a fussy baby to sleep. My husband loves to tell the story of how a "lion" roaring at 3:00 in the morning woke us all up, including the dog. More importantly, books that light up and make noise turn reading into a show. You are the center of this baby's life. Your voice is exciting enough! Allow your voice and time with you to be the star- no special effects needed.
Why should I read to a toddler?
Because it's fun!! Kids at this age are sponges and books are an opportunity to expand their world. Any topic or interest is digestible at this age, so you can expose your toddler to everything. This is your chance to broaden their horizons- show them the world and beyond. Go to space! Talk to animals! See something you have never seen before! A child in the tropics can still love a book about snow. Reading is also a routine that is enriching and soothing. Want to boost your child's language, emotional, and social development? Share a book together!
How do I read to a toddler?
What should I look for in a good book for a toddler?
A toddler’s mind is WIDE open. They are flexible and understanding. This is the best time to introduce books that develop empathy, humor, and strength. There are two kinds of books to focus on right now:
1- mirrors! Books that reflect the child’s own experience- characters that look like them, live where they live, and do the things they do. Representation is of the utmost importance. Children value themselves when they see themselves in books.
2- windows! Books that give the child the opportunity to see into someone else’s life. If mirror books teach children to value themselves, window books teach them to value and respect everyone.
Most importantly, reading together at this age shows the child that books to be enjoyed. Pick books that are silly; books that the child wants to read over and over. Look for diverse characters, including animals, that can help teach universal themes (caring, problem solving, sharing, love). If the child has a beloved TV character, I am sure there is no shortage of books about it. Maybe use one or two to get the ball rolling on reading, but branch out! There are too many exceptional books out there to enjoy.
Early Independent Readers
My five year old is not reading. What's wrong?
Nothing at all. There is so much pressure in the US to have a child reading by kindergarten, but it is not necessary. Focus on enjoying books together. Make sure your child knows that, even when they begin to read alone, you can still have story time together. Treat books as a pleasure- a time to relax together. Independent reading will come!
Ok, you say not to worry, but I really think something is wrong!
If you are worried about your child’s literacy and learning, talk to your child’s teacher and your pediatrician. If your child is showing red flags in reading development, we will typically make sure there is no issue with vision, hearing, processing speed, and attention. Most schools have psychologists or reading experts that can provide quality interventions to help your child thrive. If you are worried, call. You have nothing to lose and your child has everything to gain.
How can I get my child excited about reading when it is hard for them?
Celebrate reading in your house. Ask about what your child is reading the same way you ask about how school was that day, or how their friends are doing. Allow your child to see you reading for pleasure- a stack of books on the nightstand or bringing a book into the bathroom instead of your phone. Make special trips to the library and allow the child to choose their own selections- consider getting them their own library card. Finally, if there is an author your child seems to like, check out their website! Most authors have fun facts, contact information (they often write back to fans!), and since the COVID 19 pandemic, virtual visits and activities to enjoy.
What kinds of books should I offer my early reader?
There are so many choices right now! Comics and graphic novels are a wonderful way to get kids excited to read. With just a few words per pane and lots of illustrations to help tell the story, these books are less intimidating to early readers. Keep offering picture books, especially ones with clever wordplay or hidden jokes. Kids still need pictures at this stage- they provide a break from the work of reading and also build visual literacy, which is an important skill. Rhyming books help your child recognize rhythm and predict the words that will come next. Poetry is also fantastic at this age! You can also read some of the classics you grew up on, together. These books will stretch your child’s vocabulary and help them think about a different time- before computers, cell phones, and google!
My kid is reading independently and enjoys it! Is my job done?
No- one of the best parts is starting! Support your child’s independent reading by making time each day for pleasure reading. Keep asking your child about the books they read- what are their favorite parts? What do they think is going to happen? Consider reading a book your child recommends to you, and then talking about it afterwards. Many kids are interested in series at this age- surprise them with a big stack from the library of the books that come next. Most of all- keep reading, keep reading, keep reading! If you want to cultivate a lifelong love of books in your child, never stop showing them that adults read too. Pack books on vacation, toss a book in your bag if you are going to be waiting in a long line, talk about what you are reading at dinner- keep books a part of the conversation. My kids know I get excited for the American Library awards, the best books of the year lists, the Pulitzer, and Man Booker Prize, etc. Help them create their own “want to read” lists as well, to build anticipation and excitement around the next book they will discover.
Does middle grade mean middle school?
Nope! This is very confusing. Middle grade means “not super easy but not too teenager-y!” These are books for readers aged 8(ish) to 12(ish). This category is rich with novels for kids that embrace moving stories, plot twists, complex ideas, and big emotions BUT do not include the more adult themes one might expect in YA literature. That treasured book you read in childhood? Probably a middle grade novel!
This is a wide age range! How do I know what to choose for my child?
No question- there is a lot of development from age 8 to age 13! This category of books spans a wide gap of varying maturity. Feel free to preview books on your own- many will not take long to read. You will know if they are appropriate for your child, not just at maturity level, but also their personality. Perhaps they cannot handle books that are scary, or too sad, or have a pet die as a plot point. You know your child best, and can weed out books that are a no-go. Plus, if you read the book, you can discuss it with them! Other options include this site- I always list recommended ages at the end of my reviews. Publisher’s websites offer similar information, and Common Sense Media is a website with accurate recommendations and reviews. Also, never turn down the opportunity to ask a librarian, independent bookseller, or middle school English teacher. They will not lead you astray!
How can I get my 8-12 year old to read?
Take the pressure off. This is an instruction both to you and to your reader. If your intent is to raise a life-long reader, one who reads for pleasure, do not make it feel like a chore. Keep offering picture books! Many are aimed at older readers these days, with humor and wordplay that your older child will find engaging. Additionally, reading picture books feels less like work to the reader, even if the vocabulary and concepts are more complex than a simple chapter book. Also, keep reading to your child even when they are old enough to read independently. Some kids are reluctant to read alone because they fear being read to- and all the warmth and connection and security that goes with it- will disappear. Finally, if you want your child to read, they need to see you reading. I cannot say this enough. Practice what you teach!
Should I be focused on "the classics?" Are graphic novels ok?
Classics are wonderful and a great launch point for discussions- the world has changed quite a bit since they were written. It was eye-opening reading Little House on the Prairie with my boys. We had some heavy bedtime chats! At the same time, there is so much more out there for kids now. Any reading is reading. I will say it again- it bears repeating- any reading is reading. Graphic novels are complex, intricate art forms that spark reading interest. Comic books are reading. Non-fiction is reading. Joke books are reading. Magazines are reading. Trivia books are reading. Support your child reading, in however they find that joy.
My kid is so screen oriented. How can a book compete?
It can’t. A book is never going to be as alluring as a screen (to most people. I am. . .a bit odd)
That being said, there is still hope. In our house, we do not allow our boys to bring tablets or our phones into their bedrooms. It helps to have a “screen-free space”, especially when reading is part of the bedtime routine. We are also conscious of how often we have our phones in hand. My kids are just as likely to catch me thumbing through a few pages at the kitchen table as they are to see me scrolling through Twitter. We also have reading dates, where we set devices aside and pile onto the couch or someone’s bed and all read our own books. I should note that reading dates were our middle child’s idea. I think he wanted to carve out special alone time with me, and thought offering reading time would do the trick. He was right!
What exactly is YA?
YA is “young adult literature” and it is real literature. Many readers of YA are adults because the books are so good. This is not the Sweet Valley High of my youth. These books are sensitive, complicated, and sometimes even sexy. The language used can be edgy. The characters in YA books are real teenagers, with real problems to work through. This means these books can delve into adolescent behavior, which is sometimes troubling. We are naïve if we think our children will never hear of sex, violence, drug use, or rebellion in real life, so it should not surprise us that these topics arise in YA books. I think that reading books that address these themes help teen readers process an experience without having to actually experience it, and can provide context to talk about these issues with the trusted adults in their lives.
That scares me a little. Why should my teen read YA?
Your teen should read YA because your teen should read, and YA is the natural progression from middle grade novels. It should be noted that YA authors are serious about their intentions. Look at any YA author website or on social media. This is a group of people passionate about literature who fully understand their responsibility in writing for young adults. For many, a YA book is the first time they will encounter serious issues. They could encounter serious issues in real life anywhere, at any time. To me, a book seems like the ideal environment. And bonus? These books are great. You might like them as much as your teen and reading together might open up a world of discussion.
My teen still needs some guidance- how do I know what is appropriate?
I understand. Much like middle grade, there are “young” teens and there are “older” teens. Not every YA book deals with sex, violence, or themes that we would consider “adult”. Your best bet to check a trusted source. Any book reviewed here, even in the YA category, has a recommended age range. Publisher’s websites have recommended age ranges as well. You can also ask your local library- there is often a dedicated youth librarian- or a local independent bookseller. As for online resources, Common Sense Media, is a place to get reliable reviews and evaluation of content.
How can I support my teen's reading?
Let them read alone. I do not mean end the family reading dates- I just mean not to barge in on their taste. Try not to question their choices- this is a time to experiment and rebel. If you are concerned, talk about it. For example, if your teen is gravitating toward dystopian themes, you can say- “these books make me uncomfortable as a reader and I am afraid you will view the future as dark or dangerous. Tell me how you feel about these books”. You may discover your reader just likes a certain author, or is connecting with a theme is a particular way. Reading a string of books with gay or trans characters may be helping them through questions of their own identity, and asking them about this trend in their reading might open the door for them to know they can trust you.
Other ways to support their reading is to continue to offer books, or give gift cards to books stores as presents. Many YA authors, as I mentioned, have a thriving presence on social media. Encourage your teen to check out their favorite author’s website or find a social media group about the books they enjoy. Continue to ask your teen what they are reading and if they would recommend the book to you. If they take a break from reading, do not panic. You have laid a strong foundation. They will come back.
Miscellaneous Reading Questions
Can I trust any book with a special sticker on the cover? Who gives those out, anyway?
Some shiny stickers are marketing ploys and some hold true distinction. The American Library Association (ALA) is the gold standard and the awards given out annually by the ALA are considered to be the most prestigious in the country. Here is a rundown of stickers you can trust to be solid recommendations:
- Newbery Medal- awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Runners-up each year are called Newbery Honor books and are also likely to be excellent picks
- Caldecott Medal- awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Runners-up are called Caldecott Honor books and are always sure-fire hits.
- Coretta Scott King Award- awarded to recognize outstanding books for children and young adults by African American authors and illustrators that reflect the African American experience
- Pura Belpre Award- awarded to the Latino/Latina writer and/or illustrator whose work of literature for youth best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience
- Michael L Printz Award- awarded for literary excellence in YA literature
- Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal- given to the most distinguished informational book for children, published in English. This can be a picture book or a longer book, heavier on text.
- Schneider Family Book Award- given to an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for a child or adolescent. This is awarded in three separate categories: teen, middle grade, and younger children
- Theodor Seuss Geisel Award- awarded to the author and illustrator of the most distinguished beginning reader book. Runners-up are called Geisel Honor books and are outstanding choices for emerging readers
- Odyssey Award- awarded to the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults
Many outstanding books do not win awards or end up on “best of lists”- they are still worth reading! This is just meant to be a guide to help you determine what indicates a highly recommended pick.
Books are expensive. How can I get them for free?
- Libraries!! Want to find a library near you? Use this library finder!
- Little Free Libraries These adorable little libraries are all over the planet, with books free to borrow. Find one near you here!
- Dolly Parton Imagination Library- started in 1995, this program gives a new book every month to enrolled children in participating communities. The books arrive in the mail, addressed to the child, until the child turns five years old. Children can be registered at birth or if they move into the community. Are you eligible? Check here!
- Reach Out and Read- ask your pediatrician if they participate in ROAR. This program trains pediatric providers about the importance of reading and how to engage parents and patients alike with a book. Participating providers give a free book to a child at every well child visit from age six months to five years. Find a ROAR pediatrician here (spoiler alert, one of them is me!)
- Look online! While I love print books, sometimes online books are easier to access, especially in remote areas or during a pandemic. Ask your child’s teacher or school librarian if they have access to Epic! This is a digital reading platform for kids 0-12 years old, free to educators. There are thousands of books and fun literacy based learning activities on the site. Similar apps include Caribu and RazKids. Subscriptions are often subsidized through schools. You can also check out the International Children’s Digital Library and the Library of Congress for free digital books. The ICDL offers books in 50+ languages.
What does my library offer?
Books! Free story time! Free computer access (often with kid-friendly, age appropriate, bet-you-didn’t-realize-you-were-learning-just-now games!) STEM events and activities! Summer reading programs with enticing incentives! Holiday theme crafts! School break activities! Knitting circles! Clubs! Teen activities! Movie nights! Quiet places to read and play! Toys and games! Bakeware! This is true- my library lets you check out cake pans, so you can make an Elmo cake for one birthday and move on
You get the point- the library today is more than just books, it’s a community gathering place. Some have elaborate play spaces and activities happening all the time. Plus, it’s a place to ask reading questions to the best people in the business. Check out your library website- you will be amazed.
I want to support independent booksellers. How do I find them?
Thank you for supporting indies! Spending your book dollars here helps authors, illustrators, and booksellers thrive. Buying books from people who love books and actually care about your purchase makes a world of difference. You can find a local independent bookstore OR shop online while supporting ALL independent bookstores, by shopping at bookshop.org