Today we are spending a tremendous amount of energy debating which children's books should be cancelled and which ones should be celebrated. Although content is surely important, I personally believe that teaching our children how to read books is even more important than curating their selections. Here are five practices we use when reading books aloud to our young children (ages 5 and under) that we believe are helping them become independent thinkers capable of making sound judgments for themselves.
1. First, we always read the title of the book, and the names of the author and illustrator.
Even little children should be aware that there are human beings behind the words, ideas, and art they consume. We have enjoyed watching our kids develop affection for particular authors and illustrators (Julia Donaldson and Tomie dePaola are their current favorites), and they have also begun noticing themes amongst certain artists. This casual and easy practice of pointing out the authors of the books teaches kids early that literature is the work of human beings, work that they are free to embrace, reject, or critique.
2. While reading aloud, we often pause to ask our children questions about the book’s content.
Not only does this encourage reading comprehension, but asking a child to verbalize what’s happening in the book is the first step to empowering her to think critically about its content. Some examples of questions are:
Wait, what happened again?
Why did the character do that?
What did that character mean when he said ...?
What do you think will happen next?
It's okay to ask questions your kids don't know the answers to--it'll get their brains working! And don't forget to give them lots of time to answer (since young brains need extra processing time) and give lots of positive feedback no matter what they say, even if it's technically wrong. (E.g. "that's a good guess, but..." or "I can see why you said that. But..."). Think “conversation” not “pop quiz.”
3. We try to ignite curiosity about the author and illustrator's intent.
If your kids are old enough, they can begin to form connections between the authorship and the content in the books. The best way to do this is to ask them exploratory, open-ended questions. Examples are:
"Why do you think the illustrator drew that person in the background?"
"What color are the pictures? Do you think they're grey and blue because that makes you sad?"
"Why do you think the book ended that way?"
You can also express your own opinions throughout the book, making comments like:
"Gosh, I've noticed that Papa Bear is always making mistakes in these books. I wonder if the authors are trying to make the daddies laugh when they're reading aloud."
"I just love how Tomie dePaola give us so many little details about the way Tommy's little sister looked when she came home from the hospital."
Reading a book is to establish a relationship between the reader and the author, and even very young children are capable of grasping this!
4. We use books to build empathy and emotional awareness.
First, books can be a wonderful way to teach our children empathy, because we can talk about the characters in the books freely. Examples of questions that build empathy include:
"How would you feel if you were Oliver in this story?"
"Do you think Lilly is feeling happy, sad, or something else?".
If there’s something unjust happening in the plot of a book, that’s a great time to pause and ask, “Is that right?” or “What would you do about that if you noticed that happening?”
Relatedly, books are a great way of teaching our children emotional awareness--which is key, since in the current media climate, it’s likely they will eventually be confronted by unhealthy content. I like to ask my kids questions like, “how did you feel after reading this book?” and “does this part make you sad or happy?” and “would you like to read this book many times, or is once enough?”
5. Finally, we encourage our kids to agree or disagree with elements of the books, including the characters’ actions, the plot, the ending, or anything else.
We like to ask our kids questions like, "if you were that character, what would you do differently?" and “Do you think that character made good choices,” or even, “do you think that character made God’s heart happy when he did that?”
Some of our favorite books are the Little Critter series by Mercer Mayer, and the Alexander collection of books by Judith Voirst. The protagonists in both series, Little Critter and Alexander, can both be fairly negative, and they often have bad attitudes. But it’s actually because of the characters’ flaws--not in spite of them--that we enjoy the books together so much, since it gives us so much to talk and laugh about and disagree with.
For young children, I believe that these critical-thinking and emotional awareness skills are more important than the content itself. As they grow older, they’ll be able to ask more adult questions about the content of what they are consuming, including questions like, “is it likely that the author has the background to speak authoritatively about this subject?,” “what hidden messages is the author sending me with her use of examples and anecdotes,” and “does the way I feel right now resonate with what I know to be good, true, and beautiful?”
Like most things, the most critical question about children’s literature turns out not to be what they consume, but how they consume it--and the best how is in relationship with their parents, their primary influencers. In relationship, we can be sure our kids build the intellectual and emotional skills they need to navigate a vast array of content they’ll ultimately be free to choose from themselves.