It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday! We started reading chapter books to our son when he was 2 years 9 months old. Two years later, they’re an important part of his daily life. I read to him every day on the bus going to and from preschool, almost always from chapter books because they’re more convenient: more story for the weight, less frequent decisions about what to read, and more interesting for me! He also chooses chapter books for some of the other times Daniel or I read to him, like at bedtime.
Chapter books encourage a longer attention span than picture books and help to develop long-term memory (because you have to remember what was happening in the story in between reading sessions). Because there are fewer pictures or none at all, the child has to use his imagination to picture the scenes. The vocabulary tends to be more advanced than picture books. There are few chapter books about very young children, but stories about older people give a young child opportunities to think, from a very safe perspective, about situations he may face in the future.
We’ve read a couple of random books Nicholas chose from the library or yard sales, but for the most part we read him books that we enjoyed as children. This builds on my fond memories of my father reading me The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island and my grandmother reading me The Wizard of Oz and its sequels: Not only are we sharing the experience of the story now, but my son is connecting with my childhood self and, through some of the books, his grandparents’ and/or great-grandparents’ childhood selves as well. When he told a seventysomething friend at church about how Pooh fell into a Heffalump trap and landed on Piglet, her eyes lit up, and she said, “I know that story, too!” We’d much rather build these connections for our child than hook him up with all the hyper-marketed TV shows and movies the kids at school are watching! (He does get to see some of that stuff. We just limit it to the new, trendy shows we think are pretty good, like “Bob the Builder”.) Anyway, here are some of the books Nicholas has enjoyed so far:
Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s stories of pioneer life were the first chapter books that really grabbed him. Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek are his favorites. Plum Creek includes a description of the grasshopper plague that is one of the most impressively vivid pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered, as well as the heart-wrenching chapter in which Laura is forced to give her treasured rag doll Charlotte to a younger neighbor and later finds Charlotte mutilated and discarded in a frozen puddle–no matter how many times I read it, I always end up in tears! Another great thing about these books is the detailed descriptions and illustrations of how things were made.
Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequels by A.A. Milne are pleasant and very funny. They’re very different from the Disney version, and I like them a lot better. That story about the Heffalump trap, mentioned above, was one Nicholas had to hear every day for a while, and still whenever he happens to think of it he starts laughing uncontrollably! A.A. Milne’s poetry books are very good, too.
The Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel is intended for beginning readers but is great for reading aloud, too. Each book contains five very short stories that somehow combine simple, honest life lessons with hilariousness. I particularly like the one in which Toad’s to-do list blows away and he can’t chase it because “running after my list is not one of the things I put on my list of things to do!”–I know just how he feels!
Beverly Cleary wrote many excellent children’s books. Our favorites are the ones about Ramona Quimby, who gets into such funny predicaments but is really a very kind and vulnerable person. I love the way Cleary gets inside Ramona’s mind and tells us just what she thinks and feels; all her poor decisions make sense, and all her feelings are so real. Cleary’s series about Henry Huggins and her book Otis Spofford are lots of fun, too. I like the way these books from the 1950s depict elementary-school kids as competent and able to get along in the world, even as they have a few mishaps.
Speaking of past eras, the Melendy series by Elizabeth Enright is set in the 1940s when it was written, and these four beautifully written books deserve “classic” status every bit as much as the ones I’ve already mentioned. Every scene evokes a time, a place, a moment with exquisite clarity. The four books are
- The Saturdays, in which the four Melendy siblings agree to pool their allowances so each of them can have a Saturday to take all the money and do something really special in New York City, where they live
- The Four-Story Mistake, in which the Melendys move to the country and discover many wonderful places and people
- Then There Were Five, in which the Melendys meet a neighbor boy who’s having a rough life and bring him into their family
- Spiderweb for Two, in which the older kids are away at boarding school and the youngest two are swept into a mystery of finding poems that are clues, each leading to the next.
The first three books focus on the three older kids (ages 10, 12, and 13 in the first book), with little brother Oliver mostly just kind of along for the ride, and by the last book he’s older . . . so you might think these are books for older kids. But I first read them when I was 6 or 7 and loved them, so I tried them on Nicholas when he was 3. Sure enough, the chapter of The Saturdays that he wanted to hear over and over again was the one in which 6-year-old Oliver sneaks out and goes alone to the circus! (He gets lost on the way home, he gets sick to his stomach from the junk food, and his family is frantic with worry–it’s quite an adventure!) But he did listen eagerly to all four books, and as he gets older they’ll mean more and more to him with every reading. [UPDATE: By age 6 he was loving all of these books, especially Spiderweb for Two, which inspired him to write a series of rhyming clues for Daddy to follow!]
Recently, we’ve been reading a lot of Ruth Chew‘s books, which are written on about a third-grade level and are all about magic and all set in Brooklyn. There’s also a sameness to the main characters, which are different in every book but usually a sister-brother pair with very ordinary names and few distinctive personality traits. The good thing about this sameness is that it makes the books run together in my memory, so I can’t recall how each plot works out or which magical items are in which book, and that makes them surprising enough that I read all the ones I owned about once a year all through elementary school. The magical parts are quite inventive–gadgets like a stepladder that when you fold it becomes small enough to drop into your pocket and when you unfold it is full-sized and will take you wherever you wish you were as you’re climbing it! I have to mention, for today’s parents, that these books include many instances of children (age unspecified, but around 8-12 years old) going places by themselves, sometimes sneaking out of the house, talking with strangers and often going places with them, and in one book letting a strange man (a wizard who escaped from their air-freshener bottle) live in their house hidden from their parents. It’s a little disturbing! When I read these books as a kid, I figured it was all part of the fantasy; I knew that in real life you have to tell your parents where you’re going and be cautious with strangers. I’ll explain more about these things to Nicholas as he gets older and considers himself more like the kids in the stories.
Speaking of magic, Daniel began reading bits of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien to Nicholas soon after birth and continued to try it every so often until, one night when Nicholas was almost 4, the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” really appealed to him. Then they went back and started from the beginning, and Nicholas became so enthralled that it was the only story he wanted for a while, so I was reading it to him on the bus as well. (Luckily, I’d read it several times, so I didn’t mind picking up the story after missing the part Daniel had read him the night before.) It’s a very elaborate story, told in complicated language. Sure, he’ll get more out of it later–but why wait, when he can get something out of it now and read it again later? This book has no female characters, which might bother me, except that I’ve been reading my son gobs of books with girls as strong main characters, some of which are pretty low on male characters, so it balances out!
Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage is a wonderful story of two cousins who don’t want to spend the summer together in the rural mountains but bond after they accidentally turn a dust-mop into a sort of person and then lose the magical power with which they created her and have to figure out how to hide her from the adults and tolerate her annoying personality.
The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey is science fiction told in first person by a robot. He was a companion to a boy living on a moon of Jupiter, but now the family is going back to Earth and can’t bring him. He and the boy hatch various plots to stay together and have lots of adventures. Another one with no females (well, none of any importance), but I don’t care–I love this book! Nicholas liked the idea of a companion robot but intermittently lost interest in the story. He’ll probably like it better in a year or two. [UPDATE: We read it again when he was almost six, and he loved it! He wanted me to pretend to be his robot for weeks.]
Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol is a book of short mysteries (and there’s a whole series of these books) with the solutions printed separately at the end of the book so that you can try to solve the mysteries yourself. I just recently tried this book with Nicholas, and although he was not able to deduce the correct solution to any of the mysteries, he did enjoy thinking about them!
Folktales from the Japanese Countryside by Hiroko Fujita is not exactly a chapter book–it’s an anthology of stories–but I just have to mention it because of the many hours of reading pleasure it’s given my family! It also happens to have been written by a dear family friend and edited by my mother. These stories are for everyone, not just little children; in fact, some of them are too creepy for many little children, so I recommend that parents read it themselves first and choose appropriate stories to read to their kids! Nicholas loves creepy stories, so this is one of his favorite books. It also includes many other kinds of stories: funny ones, cute ones, clever ones, and insightful tales of how things came to be. Along the way, there are lots of insights into Japanese culture and what it’s like when Buddhism is the ordinary religion of the area (rather than an intellectual fringe subculture). There are some sections of educational material as well as the stories.
Finally, don’t forget about “the greatest story ever told”! I never would have predicted that my preschooler would beg me to read the Bible to him, but sometimes he does! We’ve found that the New International Version is pretty clearly written, although I do have to explain some words. My dad used to read me the Good News Bible, which is in very plain language too. These are the stories Nicholas has enjoyed so far:
- Creation (Genesis 1)
- Noah and the flood (Genesis 6)
- How Esau sold Jacob his inheritance for a bowl of lentils (Genesis 25) [This is the first Bible story we read. Part of it had been read in church, and afterward Nicholas asked me, “What was that story about lentils?” and I didn’t know it well enough to tell it, so I convinced him to give the Bible a try.]
- 1 Kings [He said, “Is it true there are stories of kings in the Bible?” and I figured this was the place to look! We stopped at the point just after King Solomon had asked the Lord for wisdom. Nicholas grumbled, “I hope when he gets his wisdom, he’ll use words instead of sending that guy to kill everybody with a sword!” We have since read a little more, but I think he’s not so impressed with these kings.]
- Jonah [Here’s the story of why I read Jonah. After learning what an interesting, concise story it is, I read it to Nicholas.]
- Job [Here’s the story of why we read Job.]
- “The story of Jesus” is one I was telling him, throwing in whichever bits of the Gospels came to mind each time, but when I first tried to read it to him he wouldn’t have it. After he’d heard several of the above stories, one night he asked to hear “the book of Jesus,” and when I explained that there are actually four versions of the story of Jesus in the Bible, he was fascinated and wanted to hear them all. We’ve read all of Matthew now and part of Mark.
I cannot promise that other preschoolers will tolerate being read adult versions of the Bible, but if you want to try it, here’s the approach that worked for me: Tell your child Bible stories you know well, bring your child to services with readings from the Bible, and wait for something to spark his/her interest like the lentils did for Nicholas. (We eat a lot of yummy lentils in our family!) Then offer to read that story from the Bible. Once your child has enjoyed a Bible story, offer others from time to time. You might even try (as I have) saying, “It’s past your bedtime. I will not read you a story…except the Bible.” There are no pictures to keep sleepy eyes open, you won’t run out of reading material before the kid falls asleep, and it’s good for both of you!
For book recommendations for adults and older kids, see Books That Blew My Mind.
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