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The Joy of Reading

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Babies and toddlers

What they love about books:

  • Open. Shut. Open. Shut. Openshut.
  • Bright colors
  • Cool pictures
  • Cardboard's good for chewing  -- not too hard, not too soft
  • Books mean pleasant, rhyme-y, happy voices
  • Book time is snuggle time

What they'll be learning:

  • How books work  -- we open them, the story is inside
  • We read from left to right
  • Books can tell a story
  • Stories have a beginning and an end
  • Books are a normal and expected part of life

What you can do:

Read aloud  -- to a point. It's just as important to let your baby play with books as he pleases. If he shows no interest, it's not a big deal.

Keep it brief. Little people have little attention spans, and ten minutes  -- even five minutes  -- is a long time.

Interact with the book and your child. Ask him to find simple things, like the baby's eyes or the pretty flower. "You're bringing what's happening off the page and into an interaction between the two of you," says Amy Flynn, director of the Bank Street Family Center at Bank Street College of Education, in New York.

Follow your child's lead. If your baby grabs the book from you to explore it on his own, let him  -- just hold him on your lap and cuddle with him as he looks. "Playing with books is a precursor to reading, just like playing with food is the first step for a child learning to feed himself," says Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children.

What to look for when choosing books for babies and toddlers:
Durability. Babies aren't going to treat books with care, and you don't want to try to make them. So buy tough board books. This is not the age for cute pop-ups and easily torn paper.

Options for exploration. Shiny surfaces, fur, textures, or elements that move or smell are ideal. Those kinds of bells and whistles may seem gimmicky, but babies and toddlers love them. Take your baby with you to a library or bookstore and show him board books with bold colors, squeaky buttons, and soft, fuzzy fabrics  -- seeing what captivates him can help you choose which ones to bring home.

Illustrations of real things. Young eyes (and brains) will delight in objects they recognize. Good choices are ones with photos of everyday items.

Not much plot. They simply don't need it and won't get it. (This also means you can skip reading the text entirely if it doesn't seem to be thrilling your child  -- or you.)

What to look for in first picture books:
Simple, clear illustrations. They needn't be realistic, though  -- a mouse in overalls is fine.

Straightforward but limited text. Many classic titles for toddlers, like Good Night, Gorilla and Hug, have little or no text, allowing you to tell the story behind the illustrations however you like and to speed along or slow down depending on your child's attention span.

Repetition  -- think books like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, says Flynn. Toddlers like to hear the same words or phrases over and over and love being able to memorize or say one or two along with you.

Barbara Rowley is a contributing editor of Parenting.

Preschoolers

What they love about books:
  • They can be propped open on the floor to be like a tunnel for a toy car or train, or a tent for a doll
  • They have pictures of their favorite things
  • If you pretend to read one, you'll look just like a grown-up
  • Book time is snuggle time

What they'll be learning:

  • Specific words make specific sounds
  • Words are made of letters
  • The words on the page are related to the pictures
  • Facts about their favorite things
  • The fun of stories
  • That they can be in charge of a book
  • Books are a normal and expected part of life

What you can do:
Be patient. Your child might want to hear the same book over and over and over  -- and it may very well be the dopiest book in the house. Just go with it.

Be flexible. Skipping pages, starting in the middle, rereading certain pages, stopping to discuss an illustration  -- all these requests signal interest in the book and are more important than reading all the pages in order.

Get longer books. By the time they're 3, most children are ready for story books with more text, an actual plot, and complex illustrations. The best picture books for this age often have pictures that make your child want to linger and take in every detail. At the same time, plot lines that make them laugh or anticipate what might happen next keep kids with short attention spans turning the pages.

Expand your collection. Nonfiction can act as a launching pad for investigations and activities, and books on your child's favorite topic du jour will keep her coming back for more. Issue and topic books about welcoming another baby, starting school, or everyday social dramas (like going to the dentist) can be pretty engrossing to a 4-year-old.

Ask questions. What do you think will happen next? Why did the bunny take the carrot? Do you think it was a good idea for him to lie to his father?

Go to the library. Librarians almost always have favorite books to recommend, so you can spice up the selection at home with fresh choices. Also, letting your child choose puts her in charge and will excite her about her picks.

Don't force it. Some kids will love to read a lot. Some won't. Encourage it, make books available, but don't turn it into a battle. Your child will learn to read eventually and may even grow into a bookworm.

Read yourself. If you don't like to read, why on earth will your child?

What to look for when choosing books:
Rhyming. The repetition of similar words subtly teaches kids the fundamentals of phonics, but mostly it's fun!

Pictures with lots to examine. There are few things more fun than poring over the illustrations in a book like The Yellow Balloon, by Charlotte Dematons, to find the tiny escaped balloon and the recurring items on every page. Timelessness. New books are great, but also seek out the classics of children's literature, like Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, or The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss. There's a reason these books are favorites.

Alternatives to TV-based books. Books based on favorite TV shows or characters are fine, but be sure to have books unrelated to other media. It feeds a child's imagination for a character to come to life only in the pages of a book and your child's mind, as opposed to the mind of an animator.

Kindergarten and Beyond


What they love about books:
  • Reading is fun
  • By reading the same books as their friends, they'll feel like part of a group, and be up on the latest heroes and fads of kid culture
  • There's a book on practically every single topic in the whole world
  • If you read every single book in a series you'll feel really cool
  • Book time is snuggle time

What they'll be learning:

  • How to read
  • How to follow a story from chapter to chapter
  • How to use their imaginations

What you can do:
Keep reading. Your child's attention span and capacity for understanding complex plots and language when you're reading outstrip his own ability to read. So until his literacy catches up with his intellect, keep reading to him.

Don't play teacher. You might take turns reading paragraphs, pages, or chapters if your child likes to do that. But not all kids will. So don't turn storytime into reading practice unless your child initiates it.

Embrace abundance. Keep plenty of chapter books, storybooks, and picture books around on lots of topics.

Accept antsiness. If he's super-squirmy, let him do some other activity while he listens. After all, you can listen to the radio and do the dishes at the same time. Drawing, hair brushing, fiddling with some doodad  -- all are fine.

Choose thoughtfully. Pick books that embrace the values that are important to your family, and then talk about them.Keep it light. Reading is fun  -- the last thing you want to do is make it feel like drudgery.

What to look for when picking books:
Pictures, still. They can provide visual clues to help decode what's in the text.

Short chapters. And short sentences. You'll keep a new reader motivated by letting him succeed  -- move through a book, finish chapters, get to the end.

Real stories. Older kids' sophistication about how the world works mean they're ready for more involved plots.

Your child's interests. A growing sense of self means books on his favorite topics will be compelling.

Books you liked when you were little. There's joy for both of you in turning your favorite memories into your child's exciting discovery. Which, in the end, is what you want reading to be about.

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