Choosing Books With Intention (and Why I Changed the Way I Was Doing It)

Dec 4, 2015

My oldest son, Aaron, is in second grade this year. We made it through the easy reader phase. Then the early chapter book phase. And during the last year or so, we've been settling into the chapter book (or middle grade or children's novel or whatever you want to call it) phase.

It's been a challenge.

I'm kind of surprised to hear myself admitting this, but it's true. Usually I love the book selection process, but it has not been easy with Aaron.

For one thing, he is totally impassive when it comes to books. Whatever I put into his hands, he will read. That should make it so easy, right? I could literally indoctrinate this kid with whatever I wanted, and he would just shrug his shoulders and go with it.

But it's not easy at all. I have nothing to gauge books off of. The only author he has ever admitted to liking without any prompting from me was Roald Dahl, and we all know Roald Dahl is in a class pretty much by himself.

I have never seen Aaron get so caught up in a book that he stays up late into the night because he can't wait to see what happens next. He never stops mid-chapter and says, "Mom, you have got to read this book!" He never tells me to get more of the books in a series or, alternatively, not to bring anymore of them home. If he comes to the library with me, he spends the entire time in the craft book section and just expects me to pick up something good for him.

For a long time, I selected his next book from book lists I felt I could trust. There are worse ways to pick a book for sure, but my method had one little flaw: I was trying to find books I had no interest in reading.

As you know, I read aloud to my kids a lot, and we've enjoyed dozens of excellent children's novels together (many of which Aaron has later reread). We've read the first books in many series (Paddington, Poppy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, etc.). These should be excellent jumping-off points for Aaron, but I have hoarded them rather selfishly. What if I want to make the next book in the series our next readaloud and he's already read it?

So instead I gave him Origami Yoda and Captain Awesome and The Clubhouse Mysteries--not necessarily bad books but definitely books that I knew I'd never have the desire to read aloud, so they were safe.

The problem was, I actually had no idea what was in those books, and Aaron is not the type that will give a complete plot summary just by asking, "So, what was the book about?" The more he read, the more disconnected I felt . . . even though I was the one choosing the books!

But then, several weeks ago, I was reading Honey For a Child's Heart, and it was like a switch was flipped, and I could finally see quite clearly the holes in my reasoning and the problems with my book selection process. What was I doing?! Something had to change, and fast.

Let me insert one thing before I go any further: like I said before, I really didn't have a problem with the books I mentioned above. If Aaron had shown even a spark of interest in reading on in any of those series, I know I would have encouraged it. However, the problem for me was that since I had no interest in those books, I couldn't really engage in any sort of discussion with Aaron about them. Something was missing. Reading had become a chore for him (and for me).

I made some immediate changes, which included: using the Honey For a Child's Heart book lists, choosing a book to read along with Aaron, printing off Sarah Mackenzie's quick start guide with discussion questions, and letting Aaron continue on with series we'd already started.

Let me talk about each of these in a little more detail:

Use the Honey for a Child's Heart book lists

I already talked about this a little bit when I reviewed Honey For a Child's Heart: Gladys Hunt's book lists focus on classic books that teach good morals and values. She doesn't really include any trendy (or, as some like to label them, "twaddley") books on her lists, which I appreciate since those are fairly easy to find on my own. Her lists are good just for simply reminding me of good books I've read that I could pass along to Aaron. However, I am a little wary of handing him books from the list I haven't read yet simply because I didn't always agree with her age recommendations for books I did know and also, I don't think she really has a problem with recommending boring books (not that such a thing would necessarily be a problem since, like I said before, Aaron will read pretty much anything I give him). However, what I'm really excited about with these book lists is how they will help me with the next change I'm making.

Read a book with Aaron

I'm not talking about reading aloud to Aaron (that's something we're already doing a lot of and will continue to do). Rather, I want to choose a book that we can both read separately but simultaneously.  (This would never have worked with my previous method because I don't think I could have gagged down Origami Yoda, but now that I've opened up our options, there are literally hundreds of great books I've been dying to read that he would probably enjoy too.) This is where Gladys Hunt's book lists will come in handy because we'll have more ideas than we could ever possibly get through. Also, since I'll be reading it along with him, if I run into one of the problems I mentioned in the section above (i.e., boring or too advanced), I won't make him suffer through it. (In the last couple of weeks, we actually already read one together (Sideways Stories From Wayside School), and I'll be talking more about that experience when I review it.) Mike has also agreed to read a book here and there along with Aaron. Right now, they're both reading, The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman.

Use Sarah Mackenzie's quick start guide

Part of what was missing with Aaron was just any type of meaningful discussion after reading a book. I usually just asked him, "Did you like it?" and he responded with, "Sure," and that was the end of it. (Ironically, this question works like a charm with Maxwell. That kid needs almost no encouragement when it comes to chatting with me about things.) Sarah Mackenzie's guide is thoughtful, and she gives five questions that are easily adapted to practically any book. (However, I've discovered the first three questions don't work very well if I don't have any knowledge of the plot, which is one more reason for me to do some reading along with Aaron.) My plan is to use these questions both with the books Aaron is reading solo and with the books we are reading aloud as a family. They can be used either while we're still in the middle of the story or after we're entirely finished. Right now, it feels a little scripted, but I think the more we engage in meaningful discussions, the more natural it will become.

Let Aaron continue on with a series we have already started

Guess what? There are a lot of great books in this world. So many, in fact, that I am not going to have the time to read all of them out loud. That is the sad truth I have come to accept over the last few weeks. So even though I'd like to read all of the books in the Tales of Dimwood Forest or The Chronicles of Narnia, it might not be logistically possible. But just because I can't finish them all with my kids doesn't mean Aaron shouldn't have the chance to find out what happens. Now that I've loosened up my hold, we have so many more options, and I can keep him well supplied in books I already know I approve of (and having a discussion is much easier because I'm already familiar with the characters). And if I decide I really want to read a book aloud that he's already read, I know he's not going to mind listening to it again.

I'm curious: How do you choose books for your kids to read on their own? Or are they opinionated enough that you don't get much of a choice? Where do you go to find good books?


  1. This is so interesting. Both my kids are very proactive about choosing their own books but it is like pulling teeth sometimes to get my oldest to tell me the plot. He's getting better (or maybe my tactics are getting better) about that but I've also noticed that neither of them mind if they read a book first. They still want to listen to me read it aloud.

    1. Erica, your example was actually one of the ones that most inspired me to read the same books as my kids. When it comes to children's literature (both classic and contemporary), you are prolific, and because of that, you know exactly how to get the right books into the hands of your kids.

      Also, you are totally right about rereads. My kids have absolutely no problems with hearing (or reading) the same book again. In fact, my five-year-old, as you know, will listen to the same audiobook a dozen times before returning it to the library.

  2. I think you are on to something. Reading the same book and sharing the parts you loved is a wonderful way to engage with your kids and they adore it when parents like and enjoy the same things they do. I am just always wary of my kids thinking I am going to quiz them on a book. There is no way to kill the joy of reading for pleasure faster than thinking your parents are going to "quiz" you on the plot or what you liked. They get enough of that in school and reading at home should simply be for the joy of it. Best of luck.

    1. Totally! I maybe came across sounding like I wanted to read the same books as my kids just so I could quiz them, but quite the contrary! When my son and I both read Sideways Stories from Wayside School, it was so fun to be able to casually ask him, "What part are you at now?" and he would do the same with me. We laughed about our favorite parts and reminisced about the best characters. They were easy conversations to have because we were both thinking about and reading the book at the same time.

  3. I have so many books that I loved in childhood (many of which I've held on to), that usually I just go to my shelves.(For example, all of the books Aaron is holding in the picture). I've also had really good luck with the Cybils lists.

    He does know that Rufus M. is not the first book in the series, right? And if he likes Cricket in Times Square, there are a bunch of sequels that are not timeless classics of children's literature, but actually might have more kid appeal?

    But on a fundamental level, I know what you are talking about, the feeling you get when your kids read things that you have not. There's a loss of control, and a feeling that they can get lost. I deal with the control thing, and I suspect I have a wider comfort level on what my kids read than you do (well, obviously now, since my kids are in high school, but probably earlier). But I like the idea of staying interested in what your kid reads.

    I think I've mentioned that my family still does a "family book club" where we all read the same book and then talk about it. I started it where we'd go out to eat together as a special treat, and it was really popular. I've even got the extended family in on it -- when we get together at Christmas and in the summer I tell them all the book (kids and adults) and on my turn for dinner we talk about it (depending on my wallet, we either go out or I do something at home). We started years ago with Megan Whelan Turner's "The Thief" and this year it's The Martian (because for the extended family I let people like Gramma get away with seeing the movie). Anyway, that's kind of what you are doing with Aaron right now :-)

    1. Yes, no worries, we know that Rufus M. is third in the series! Also, Tucker's Countryside was actually one of the first sequels I handed to him after I changed my strategy. He liked it (at least, as much as he admits to liking any book :-)).

      Yes, you get it! And it's not even so much that I feel a need to control exactly what he ingests as much as I just want to be able to connect with him over books, and that can only happen if we both start from the same point.

      I think this is probably the first step towards something like a family book club. As my other kids get older, I think it will morph into something like that.

    2. Yes -- control sounds so, um, controlling, but I don't mean it in a bad way. It's just one of the ways they are growing up, which is great, but I don't want them to grow away, or to think that I'm not interested in what they are reading/doing. There's also a special joy in your child finding a great book and recommending it to you, which you can't get if you've read everything first.

      Of course, there are the times they don't love one of my favorite books, and then I threaten to disinherit them, but that's a separate issue... Actually, I've given up on them reading 19th century novels by themselves; I'll have to be content with the few I read to them.

  4. "However, the problem for me was that since I had no interest in those books, I couldn't really engage in any sort of discussion with Aaron about them. Something was missing."
    Oh Bingo, that's gold that sentence!!
    Oh my kids are all very opinionated about what they will and won't read. After years of reading good booklists (still read them) we have thousands of books on our shelves. So I just wander the shelves with the child, throwing books at them, they flip through, toss a heap back and stagger off with a pile.

    Love, love Beth's family book club!!

    1. Erin, that right there is exactly why I think a home library (in addition to a public library) is so vital to helping kids read good books. When the best books are easily accessible because they "live" at your house, your kids will never go wrong when picking what to read next!

  5. I've often wondered how you are able to have such direct control over what your boys read. My boy is young yet, but he definitely has STRONG opinions about what we read, and I rarely get the chance to choose (or even suggest) the books for our daily reading time (I hope as he gets older he'll be a little more open to suggestion). I suppose both sides come with their problems, but it's so wonderful to read about the deep thinking and strategizing you put into helping your boys love reading.


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