Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight by Jennie Nash

May 31, 2013

To say I was a little excited by the prospect of Aaron learning to read would be the vastest of understatements. Just before he turned two, I read a book called How to Teach Your Baby to Read by Glenn Doman (no, really, I'm serious). Although I didn't fully subscribe to his method, I did teach Aaron to read a big stack of sight words (much to the delight and amazement of the person sitting in the pew behind us at church). When Aaron was three-and-a-half, I just couldn't stand it any longer and began "formal" reading lessons using the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

As a mother, I don't know that there's any other single thing that has brought me more joy and filled me with more excitement than watching all three of my children develop a love of reading. (First steps? First words? So overrated.) 

I picked up Raising a Reader simply because the title caught my eye. I usually don't go for subtitles, but this one--A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight--described my own emotions so perfectly that I felt compelled to see what was inside.

It is a memoir of sorts: a memoir of reading. Doesn't that just sound lovely? It is broken into sixteen short chapters, each one of them focusing on a different attribute (characteristic? quality? element?) of reading. For example, in the chapter entitled "Obsession," there is a somewhat humorous and (for me) all-too-relatable story about the first time Jennie's oldest daughter tore the page of a book (out of frustration and spite). In her own words, Jennie "yelped" and drastically brought two large boxes into her daughter's room and began packing away all of her books. This story was meant to illustrate what can happen when we become a little too obsessed with our passions (although I think it made such an impression on her daughter that she never mistreated books again).
Through these different topics (abundance, delight, arrogance, togetherness, etc.), Jennie explores what reading has done for her family.

This will not be a five-star book for everyone. In fact, it probably won't be a five-star book for most people. But it definitely is a five-star book for me, for the simple reason that this is my story. Yes, I'm aware that I have three sons instead of two daughters and that I'm not a professional writer and that I do not live in California. But those things are all beside the point.

The point is, I have tried before to describe why I love reading so much and why I am so completely obsessed with guiding (a much better word than "forcing") my children to love it, but I haven't been able to find the right words. Jennie Nash found them.

When she said that their trips to the library weren't just about "getting something good to read at bedtime, it was about feeling like we were getting away with something too good to be true [my emphasis]," I knew exactly what she was talking about. (I currently have 55 items checked out from my library. That's hundreds of dollars worth of literature! You tell me that's not too good to be true.)

When she said they would bring "home fifteen, seventeen, twenty books, and pile them at the end of the girls' beds where they could, almost literally, wallow in them [my emphasis]," I looked at the state of my own bed and saw our own wallowing pile (which Mike sighs about almost every night as he's stacking up book after book to make room for himself).

When she told the story about the little girl in her daughter's class who was absolutely brilliant, and she realized that "a talent like Alexandra's [the classmate] that had obviously sprung fully formed seemed so much more pure than a talent like Carlyn's [her daughter] that had been coddled, nurtured, and maybe even tricked into fruition [my emphasis]," I recognized my own silly pride in Aaron's success with reading.

It was these examples and more that made this book cross the bridge for me from something that was just an enjoyable read to something that spoke to my soul. Her words resonated with my own ambition, passion, and interest. It's always nice to know that someone else, even if you don't know that someone else, understands exactly the way that you feel. It's even better when she can put those feelings into perfect words.

I will say that if you're looking for a book to actually help you "raise a reader," this is probably not the book you want. Although Jennie does give little tips or ideas at the end of every chapter (things like word games you can play or how much of a chance you should give a book before giving up), it is less a step-by-step guide and more just a recounting of one family's journey with books. Inspiring for sure, but maybe not very hands-on-helpful.

Also, even though it was written in 2003 (which really does not seem that long ago to me), some of it already feels dated. For example, her suggestion to keep a "What to Read" file where you can write down the names of future books you want to read. Um, ever heard of Goodreads?

If you find yourself reading this blog and thinking you and I might be kindred spirits, then chances are you will love this book, too. I think I'm just going to buy my own copy (since it's going for cheap on Amazon), so I can revisit a chapter here and there whenever I feel like it...or whenever I need a little reassurance that there are other people in this world who are as obsessed with books as I am.


  1. Oh cool, I'm going to go write this one in my Want To Read file... Err I mean, put it on Goodreads!! Great review.

  2. Sounds like me too.
    SO going to get this one.

    I had a book baby shower.
    My kiddo owns more books then me.
    I keep them by her bedside.
    I stow them away.
    I keep some in the living room.
    I joke that I'm a book pusher.

    I read somewhere, before she was born, that the trick to fostering a love of books was to make them accessible alll the time.

    I've been working it ever since.

    I also remember one of my fondest memories being my sick days when I was growing up. I wasn't allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio when I was home sick. But I was allowed to read. My mom use to go to the library, grab a pile of paperbacks, and bring them to me. It was awesome and what really got me to fall in love with books.

    Great review.

  3. Hi, Amy! As you know, I am passionate about reading, as well, and have raised two children who also love to read. Yes, I did all the right things when it came to reading—other things, not as much :)—, but I actually think that it was in their DNA (so I don't feel that smug about it).

    I'm happy to have found your blog through your visiting mine—you have a natural charm that comes through in your writing.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean--I feel like I've definitely provided them with a strong reading foundation (I mean so far...my oldest is only four!!!), but there are many other aspects of their upbringing that I'm not as diligent about.

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you stopped by!

  4. I feel a little foolish that I actually do keep a TBR spreadsheet on my computer and frequently update it. I tried Goodreads for about three days before realizing that if I got into it, I'd get obsessively into it, and I didn't want to devote that kind of time when I could spend it actually reading instead! So it's the old-school way for me. :-)

    In all seriousness, though, this sounds like a lovely and useful book. I'm glad you found it, and I'm glad it's reaffirmed your own delight in teaching your sons. I wonder if you'd consider putting together an official series on teaching them to read, with some of your tips and tricks?

    1. Samantha - while I do use Goodreads, I am totally old-school about many other things...our budget for example: I like to be able to actually record (with a pencil) the way our money comes in and goes out. It's much easier for me to see. So I don't think it's strange at all that you don't use Goodreads. I do think it's a great tool, but I definitely waste too much time looking up books.

      I've actually thought about doing a little reading series, so maybe your encouragement will be just the push I need! :-)

    2. Oh good, I hope you will! Not only do you have great experience - and are also continually trying to learn more, as reading and reviewing books like this shows - but many of your posts not explicitly about teaching reading still resonate with that theme. I wonder if an official series would help draw people trying to teach their own kids (and they could then enjoy so many of your other posts that celebrate reading with them).

  5. Looks like a fun one!

    I just saw that you're reading Rabbit Hill right now--so are we! That's so funny, because I dialed your number a few days ago to tell you that you must read Edward, Hoppy, and Joe (another Robert Lawson book)--it's been one of our favorites yet. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I have Rabbit Hill so far. I had never heard of either of them, so I thought maybe you might not have either. I suggested to N that he start writing back and forth with Aaron about books. Maybe I'll help him get started on that this week.

    Another side note--I'm finishing up John Holt's Learning all the Time. I need to go back to your post about that and compare notes :).

  6. How cool that you've already taught your three-year-old to read, even just a little bit! That's my goal when I have kids -- to teach them early to love books. :)

  7. I'd love to borrow your copy of this book when you get it. It sounds like one I would love too.


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