What reading with children has taught me

It can be hard to read with young kids around. Snatches of paragraphs between screams and snack times. Reading e-books from the library one-handed while the baby sleeps in my arms. Listening to audiobooks in the car, which can seem like the only way to finish that novel.

I have had to develop more discipline: piling books by priority and keeping a list. Spare time, now more precious, leads to a greater sense of urgency, scooping up as many words as I can as quickly as possible.

My daughter, freshly 1 year old, loves to hold books in her hands but won’t let you read them. Instead, she gazes at the pictures, turns the pages, flips them upside down. She is discovering the world of books as objects, endlessly fascinated by the windows they become into things she has not yet seen herself.

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With children, reading can also be easy. My son, now 2 and a half, loves Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin. He’s memorized chunks of Dr. Seuss and pretty much any other book he’s heard a few times. He stares at Richard Scarry books well past bedtime, hunting down Goldbug like an old friend. He stacks the books he’s read each day into towers as tall as he is — “big to small,” he is learning. He is endlessly delighted by these objects piled on overcrowded bookcases in every room of the house, already learning to turn the pages of our “grown-up” books carefully, never tempted to rip them to shreds.

When you are surrounded by children most of the time, your book selections become more careful. I’ve had to think quite deliberately about which books are safe to listen to in the car with young ears in the back that will repeat whatever they hear. “Wise Blood” and “The Heart of the Matter” were turned off within minutes; “Brighton Rock” only occupied the air while my children slept. Even a potty-training book had some language I wouldn’t want my children repeating in public.

Children make us more aware of things. They make us look again at things we thought we knew. One week, I played a T.S. Eliot poetry collection, complete with his original recordings alongside various contemporary narrators. Jorie Graham read “Ash Wednesday,” and by the time it was over, I could not remember if I’d never heard it before or was simply hearing it fresh — either way, I was changed. I could have listened over and over again, and I did not want it to end.

It is in these days of constant parenting that I am learning one of the keys to reading well: slowing down. It can sometimes be too tempting to stay in the literal, tethered to text without feeling inspired to encourage questions or exploration. On days when my son’s book piles lean well into the teens, asking once again for one more book before lunch, I get lazy, ignoring the larger blocks of text in favor of a simple story. In my better moments, though, he inspires me with his curiosity — the way he leans in close, gazing at every detail and soaking up everything he can.

How many times have we read “Goodnight, Gorilla” without ever getting tired of it? I fall in love all over again with my husband every time he starts a conversation, “I noticed something else new in ‘Goodnight, Gorilla’ last night.” How can a book with so few words evoke such wonder? I feel a similar kind of joy for “Hippos Go Berserk” for reasons that are hard to explain: the catchy rhyme? The whimsical illustrations? It’s anyone’s guess, but it’s forever a personal favorite.

During the early stages of my second pregnancy, too exhausted to get up and play with my first baby, I would occasionally begin reciting my son’s favorite books from memory while lying face-down on the couch. To my surprise one day, upon hearing “One hippo all alone …,” he immediately crawled toward the Boynton book and flipped eagerly through the pages. Shocked, I tried the same trick with a few other books and discovered he had been listening more closely than I’d thought could be possible. The older he gets, the more he thrills us with his growing capacity to learn and remember: poring over Mother Goose and learning nursery rhymes, mixing and matching them as he makes up his own. As my daughter dives into toddlerhood, I see her picking up the same habits as her brother, finding fascination in these little books that will continue to make up so much of her life. Maybe soon, she’ll follow his lead as she discovers that the letters on the Eric Carle rug match the letter puzzle pieces scattered all over the house. What a delight it is to read with someone who sees words for what they are: a channel of grace.

Of the many things I hope to instill in my children — a love of God, of family, of the stranger — planting a love for words in them feels like a particularly sacred responsibility. Learning to read alongside them has made me further appreciate the many ways that books can serve as a collective source of wisdom for our faith and for how to build a meaningful life for our whole family. Whether reading with my nieces or revisiting an old personal “grown-up” favorite book on my own, seeing the wonder of words through my children’s eyes makes me take their power more seriously in all the reading I do.

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