I don’t read to my babies.

When Bub was born, I immediately started reading him books of all sorts. I read aloud from my own books while he was nursing. I read board books, novels, and picture books. I’ve read to him almost every day of his life. In his first year, he heard Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, Beatrix Potter, E.B. White, John Klassen, and maybe even a little Jane Austen. One day I pulled out every children’s book we owned and tried reading through them one by one. I read because I loved books. I read because I knew the importance of reading to language development. I read because I knew it was a powerful bonding experience for parent and child. I would spend as much time as possible reading with my baby, and surely would with all my babies!

It’s never too early for The Lord of the Rings.

Fast-forward to baby number two, and I wasn’t. I was still reading to two-year-old Bub lots every day, but reading to Jaybird took a backseat. I had two kids to care for, which made it harder to sit down with a baby and read, what with a toddler running around tackling cats. Being a baby and all, he never brought me books himself like his older brother did, so I often didn’t even think of it. He was a very active, antsy baby. When I did sit down determined to read to him, it never went well. He’d squirm away or grab the book and throw it, or some other gesture of total disinterest.

I felt horrid. I love books. I love reading to my children. I believe in the amazing power of reading aloud to all ages. Here I was, dutifully reading to one child, while another’s reading life was woefully neglected. I worried he’d never love reading like his brother, because I wasn’t making it happen. I worried I was delaying his language development and neglecting and important bonding experience. I worried I was not being a good mom.

Jaybird not cooperating.

Then one day, around fourteen months, he started bringing me books. And then he kept bringing me books. He asked for one book after another, he asked for his favorites again and again. We went through a huge pile of books every day. I might have been annoyed at how much time it was taking if I weren’t so ecstatic that I hadn’t ruined his reading life after all. When Grama would visit, he would monopolize her whole visit with reading. When friends would visit, he would crawl into their laps with a book – even if he’d never met them before. When Dad was getting ready to go in the morning, he would insist one more book. He was a man obsessed, and he still is.

Make a home where books are part of life

A book can’t solve every problem, but it can make anything just a little better. Jaybird picked up on this without any baby reading regimen. He did not need me to force him to sit through books when what he wanted to do was move and explore. He didn’t need me to teach him to love books or feel driven to learn. He needed a home where books were part of life. He needed an environment where books were available whenever he was ready, on shelves he could reach himself. He needed an atmosphere where reading was a delight, not a chore or an item on a developmental checklist. And, of course, he needed parents who were available, so whenever he was ready, he knew he could toddler over with a book and be welcomed with open arms. Babies are always paying attention: environment, atmosphere, and availability go a long way.

Babies love to do what the family does, so when reading is something the family does, babies will join in – when they’re ready. Though baby Jaybird wasn’t sitting down with a book often, books were woven into the fabric of his daily life. He was paying attention, and what he learned is that reading is joyful, loving, and ubiquitous. He saw Mom and Dad reading for their own pleasure, he visited the library, he saw books in every room of his home, he heard countless books as we read aloud to his older brother, he got books for gifts at birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. He got the message – reading is just another part of life, and a pretty good one at that. When he was ready, of course he wanted to join the party.

Changing his tune.

I’m not saying I won’t or don’t ever read to my babies. If your baby loves to read, by all means, READ! But if your baby, like Jaybird and Pantsa-Pantsa after him, squirms away or throws the book across the room, please don’t sweat it. If you aren’t finding time to read (or even remembering to try!) amid the errands, chores, and endless tasks of motherhood, give yourself a break. Give your baby the environment, atmosphere, and availability they need to grow into reading. Your baby is paying attention. When books are valued, your baby will learn to value them too.

Pantsa-Pantsa is just over one year old now. Sometimes she’ll bring me a book, but usually after a page or two she rips it out of my hands and goes about her business. It’s okay. She’s okay. Books are part of her daily life, and she is paying attention.

A Very Tardy Winter Reading Roundup

The first few months of 2021 were the best reading season I’ve had in a long time. My biggest goal for the year was to enjoy the reading experience and stop worrying about how many books or pages I’ve racked up. That has made such a difference in my reading life, and on top of that I’ve found some incredible books. The reading habit that has been working for me this season? Simply reading whatever the heck I feel like reading at any given time. That has meant I have 7+ books in progress most of the time, and my willingness to pick up what strikes my fancy has lead to some unusual choices for me, which my list below reflects. You’ll find significantly more non-fiction than I usually imbibe as well as some children’s books that I’d happily recommend to kids and adults alike.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This is my new go-to recommendation for anyone who asks (and many who don’t). It is pure delight from cover to cover – so funny, insightful, and fresh that I was shocked to learn it was first published in 1956. It follows the author’s adventures as an animal-loving child in Corfu, Greece where he lived with his eccentric British family. (If you’ve read any Lawrence Durrell, you’ll be intrigued to see him as a bratty twenty-something mouthing off to his mother) I’ve since enjoyed the follow-ups Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. (Looks like this one is free to read on Kindle with Amazon Prime!)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. This was such a surprise. I added this to my TBR after hearing about it on an episode of What Should I Read Next? podcast. By the time my hold came through on Libby, I had lost interest, but I had somewhere to drive and nothing else to listen to, so I turned it on. A novel in verse about twelve-year-old Josh Bell, his relationships with twin brother JB and their father, and their shared love of basketball. What I thought would be a Disney Channel original movie -esque sports story turned out to be a unique and stunning look at brotherhood, fathers and sons, and grief. This Newbury Medal winner is one of the finest coming-of-age stories I’ve read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I could not put down this middle grade adventure that reminded me so much of the early Harry Potter books. It had the same combination of quality writing, lovable characters, and absorbing plot that made me want to read and read. Reynie Muldoon is an orphan seeking a better life when a mysterious ad in the paper leads him to join a secret society of brilliant children assembled by the eccentric Mr. Benedict. Reynie and new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance Contraire are sent on an undercover mission where they’ll rely on their unique talents and each other to, you know, save the world. I fell in love with these characters instantly, and enjoyed the fun and unexpected twists throughout the book. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This is fairly well known as a selection for Reese’s Book Club. It was on the lucky day shelf on Libby, so I picked up the audio and it was just wonderful. This book combines the fascinating story of the 1986 library fire in L.A. with a history of libraries and a peek into the lives of librarians. The audio, read by the author, felt a lot like listening to a great, in-depth NPR story.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. This book is all charm and atmosphere. A collection of letters from a plucky American author and a British bookseller starting in 1949 and continuing for 20 years. Book lovers will relate to Helene’s bookish dilemmas, history lovers will love the window into post-war London, Anglophiles will love all the Britishness. You can read this in one afternoon, or savor it a bit at a time.

The Read Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie. I got so much out of this book by Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival podcast. It covers the why and the how of reading aloud with children of all ages. It is chock full of ideas for incorporating books into your family culture, encouraging a love of reading, talking about books with your kids, and finding new books to enjoy with your family. MacKenzie will not only inspire you to read aloud more, but also blow up your TBR with tons of amazing book recommendations. I’d recommend this to any parent, teacher, nanny, grandparent – anyone who spends time with kids. (This is currently very cheap on Kindle!)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’ve read this several times, but this was my first time in audio. Listening really brought out Austen’s humor. I love this free Librivox recording from my favorite reader, Elizabeth Klett. There are few books as perfectly crafted as Pride and Prejudice and it is a delight every time.

Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk. A friend recommended this book for learning better housekeeping skills. It was such a help in the midst of spring cleaning. Rapinchuk (of Clean Mama) offers a manageable, comprehensive plan for getting your house in order and maintaining it in just a few minutes a day – simple challenges and checklists make her plan unintimidating and easy to stick with. I got my house cleaner than it’s ever been and I’ve been able to maintain it, just as she promises, in just ten minutes a day. She inspired me to switch from a daunting weekly laundry day to a small daily load and, wow, that has been life-changing.

Find more joy in reading to your kids

Before becoming a parent, I already knew I wanted books to be a big part of my children’s lives. I wanted them to grow up surrounded by great books, reading with us, and reading on their own. Knowing I’m a huge book lover, both sides of the family independently came up with the same baby shower idea – instead of a card, bring your favorite children’s book – and sent almost identical invitations that looked like cute, old-fashioned library checkout cards. I can’t think of a single book I received at these showers that I did not love.

I also was the happy recipient of whole collections of baby and toddler books from friends whose children had outgrown them. This also got me so many wonderful books. But it yielded some of the most awful books I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking poorly written books with computer graphic illustrations that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I saw my son toddling over with them; books I shoved under the couch when Bub wasn’t looking; books I threw across the room when I was done reading them just so he would have to spend at least a few seconds retrieving it before I was subjected to the torture of reading it again. (Yes, I seriously did that.)

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Jaybird reads about animals in a favorite hand-me-down book we received at a baby shower.

These terrible books made up at least half of the collections I’d received from friends. I felt sure the friends who gave these books did not like them either. These are the same friends who gave me wonderful books at my baby showers. They have great taste. So, why did they keep these awful books throughout their child’s early years? Why was I keeping them? I think my friends and I wanted our children to have access to lots of books, and believed that children’s books are just like that. I mean, won’t we hate anything we’ve had to read 27 times in one day?

But amid these little horrors I was reluctantly reading, there were also books I really enjoyed. Timeless, memorable, charming. Books I could read 27 times in one day without hating them. These weren’t just the classics–these were old and new books, well-known and obscure, longer and shorter…I even found some baby vocabulary books that were fun to read. I was slowly learning what C.S. Lewis already knew, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” One day, I looked through all our children’s books and did something I never expected myself to do: I got rid of most of them.

Looking at a donate stack as tall as the keep stack can make a book-loving parent nervous – isn’t it better to have more books for my kids? Not if those books are a huge drag for parents. Kids are very perceptive. They know if you’re not enjoying yourself, even if you’re trying your darnedest to cover it up. You child’s attitude toward reading will mimic yours–loving reading yourself is so valuable to your child’s reading life. If you hate reading a book, let it go. Even if your kid likes it (I mean, I wouldn’t take a book they carry around like Linus’ blanket or anything, but you get the idea). It’s okay. It will not hurt your child to have fewer books. I believe it will help them love reading when you are finding more joy in reading to them.

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Reading a family favorite, The Giving Tree, with Bub and a coffee machine.

I donated more than half our children’s books, and our collection is much better for it. Some of our books are timeless classics and Caldecott winners, but some are forgettable books that we just enjoy reading. Some I will give to my grandchildren someday. Some will leave us when my kids get older. I’m sure some I just haven’t seen enough of yet to hate. The important thing is, my kids love reading these books over and over, I love reading these books to them, and I have stopped shoving books under the couch in despair.

I was going to round out this post with some guidance on weeding your children’s books, but I realized it’s really a personal thing. There’s no magic formula for a collection your family will love. My advice is simply this: if you don’t like it, let it go. Your child’s reading life will be better if you find more joy in reading together.

PS – Starting next week, I will be sharing short, weekly posts featuring my family’s favorite children’s books. I would love to hear all about your family favorites as well!