Read to Your Big Kids

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Mother and two small children bundled up together reading
This is a picture of reading to your little kids in winter, heading an article about reading to your big kids in summer. THERE IS NO WRONG TIME, is the point.

It’s summertime again, and that means it’s time for people to continue to get summer reading wrong. I wrote last year about how to do summer reading correctly, but most of the world didn’t actually read that article, and I’ve seen people making the same mistakes.

Summer is a good time to ignore reading levels! Summer is a great time to let a kid read whatever interests them, no matter what the genre! Yes, magazines count! Yes, audiobooks count! Yes, for the last time, comics and graphic novels count!

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, especially with that last one, considering how many comics and graphic novels are reviewed on this site. But the word still apparently needs to get out.

There are many ways to read, and no way is more “real” reading than another! Read stories, read information, read pictures. Read big fat books, read newsprint pamphlets, read electronic screens both paper-imitative and shiny, read boxes, read signs. Read with your eyes, your ears, your fingers.

But I’ve said all that before. This time I want to focus on my family’s favorite way to read: listening to me read out loud.

A lot of people think reading aloud is something you do for kids who can’t read themselves. Just today a preschooler at one of my storytimes told me proudly, “I can’t read, so my mommy reads to me, instead!” “And that’s going to make it easier for you to learn to read when you DO learn!” I told him happily. Reading to your pre-readers is the number one way to develop Reading Readiness! But that’s not the only thing reading out loud does. Reading out loud also develops emotional bonds between the reader and listeners. It allows everyone to experience the story together and discuss it, allowing deeper connections to the story and characters and giving everyone a chance to learn from each other’s own experiences and knowledge. It exposes listeners to stories they might not have ever picked up on their own. People don’t outgrow the need for these benefits just because they’ve learned to decode words for themselves.

My kids are 12 and 10. Both of them test at a reading level several above their actual grade levels. But neither of them are apt to pick up a book to read on their own. As a(n at least former) bookworm, I don’t know why not. Maybe it’s because I’m obsessed with Story, but he’s obsessed with Mechanical Things and she’s obsessed with Visual Art, which also explains why when they DO pick up books of their own free will, he gravitates to the Applied Sciences Nonfiction (that’s the 600s in your Dewey-based library) and she to the Graphic Novels. Maybe it’s because they’re both ADHD-Combined Type and I’m just Inattentive Type so they have more trouble focusing on those pages of symbols long enough to enjoy getting meaning out of them than I do. That was actually the reason why I had trouble reading to them early on: they were too hyperactive to simply sit and listen. It wasn’t until I accepted that they HAD to keep their hands and eyes busy while they listened (at first I read to them in the bath; nowadays while I read, she draws and he plays video games) that our reading routine took hold. Now they protest if we miss an evening!

Read Your Big Kids The Books They Won’t Read Themselves

Some people, like my son, are nonfiction readers, and that’s valid reading. I don’t have a problem with him choosing nothing but nonfiction. But fiction has the benefit of building empathy by getting into the heads of fictional characters—when I read a fiction book to him, he gets that benefit. Some people, like my daughter, prefer highly illustrated reading, and that is not only valid reading, it’s in my personal experience even more difficult than reading plain text, let alone not “cheating” as too many people apparently still think. But when I read to her, she gets to relax and make up her own images in her head.

Fantasy adventure novels are what we most like to read together. But I can sneak in even more genres. My daughter didn’t want me to read about her late-19th-century redheaded Canadian doppelganger the other week, but I started to read and she couldn’t help listening, and soon she was infatuated. Last night she spotted a meme and pointed it out. “Look! It’s Anne, isn’t it?”

Like it or not, we ALL judge books by their covers. Sometimes it takes someone else to say, “This may not LOOK like your thing, but I think it is. I think we should read this.” One thing I actively work against at the library is people’s often unconscious tendency to see a book starring a character who doesn’t look like them and think, “that book is for people like Them, not like Me.” I’ve been able to expose my kids to so many more cultures than they’d ever experience in our white-family-in-rural-Pennsylvania day to day. We just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Warrior, a definite must-read of young-YA older-middle-grade fantasy lovers, but taking place in Nigeria instead the European-American-like place most fantasies inhabit. “Hey, let’s find these places on Google Earth!” I decided (to the eye rolls of my children) in the middle of the book’s central road trip. Which brings us to the next point.

Read to Your Big Kids and Introduce Discussion Topics

My kids are relatively sheltered white kids (perhaps a little less so than I was myself). Reading shows them that the world is bigger than what they know. Their hearts are in the right place—”That’s racist!” they protest when confronted with prejudice-by-color—but racial issues are much more complicated than they realize. In reading the Akata series we learned that “Akata” is actually an extremely rude word (so much so that the titles of the books are changed in some other countries) used by some Africans to describe Blacks not born in Africa (like, in this case, the main character, Sunny). Yes, sheltered white kids, Black is not a monolith—there are cultural interactions going on around the world that they will never experience themselves. When the book compares the cultures of Nigeria with the cultures of Black America, these kids of White America are learning about both. By discussing what is happening, we gain a better understanding of how racism is more than prejudice-by-color, and prejudice is more than racism, and the narrative of race in America is different from the rest of the world.

Now we’re halfway through one of my favorite new books of a couple years ago, Adam Gidwitz’s Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, which also addresses bigotry, but from a different angle in a completely different setting. In medieval France, characters may blink at the color of the boy of African descent, but they’re much more concerned with his religion than his color. He’s not Muslim? He’s fine then. But his Jewish friend on the other hand…! Here the lessons focus on the hypocrisy of learned intolerance, on classism and religious misunderstanding, on how a person can treat another person kindly and still somehow hold a hateful view of their people in general. Back to back, the two books are teaching us a lot about the ways people treat each other, and why.

But being able to discuss the book isn’t just about Deep Questions. Sometimes it’s good just to be able to gauge your child’s readiness for certain stories or concepts. “This next chapter is why I didn’t read this to you when I first read it two years ago,” I told them the other night before diving into a particularly gory (magical gory, but still, gory) passage. They reacted to the scene with wide eyes and shocked laughter, definitely with enough of a grip on reality now to appreciate it. But if they hadn’t? If they looked uncomfortable? We could have talked it out. I could have skipped some paragraphs.

My daughter’s a passionate shipper. I like to be able to discuss the ways characters in and out of relationships treat each other, what’s healthy and what’s not. She’s developed a pretty good instinct for it herself now. Although he’s not nearly as interested in these conversations as she is, I hope my son is picking up that instinct, too.

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to mourn a character together. You get to model for them that it’s okay to mourn, okay to cry or feel angry or that life’s just not fair. And when you’re reading together, you don’t have to mourn alone.

Read to Your Big Kids and Have Quality Time Together

My kids are preteens (an actual 12-year-old and a 10-going-on-16-year-old). They’ve reached that age where “How was school today?” only ever warrants vague one-syllable answers. They’ve started spending their spare time shut in their rooms messaging their friends. And to tell the truth, I’m an introvert, so I’m plenty content to just leave them there. But when it’s story time, we’re all together, focused on the same thing. We develop inside jokes based on what we’ve read, and share excitement over new releases by favorite authors. We talk about our lives in relation to the lives of the people on the page. We stay close, even when they’re far too big to sit on my lap anymore.

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