What to Read When
The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child--and All the Best Times to Read TThem
Read Pam Allyn's posts on the Penguin Blog
The books to read aloud to children at the important moments in their lives.
In What to Read When, award-winning educator Pam Allyn celebrates the power of reading aloud with children. In many ways, books provide the first opportunity for children to begin to reflectively engage with and understand the world around them. Not only can parents entertain their child and convey the beauty of language through books, they can also share their values and create lasting connections.
Here, Allyn offers parents and caregivers essential advice on choosing appropriate titles for their children—taking into account a child’s age, attention ability, gender, and interests— along with techniques for reading aloud effectively. But what sets this book apart is the extraordinary, annotated list of more than three hundred titles suitable for the pivotal moments in a child’s life. With category themes ranging from friendship and journeys to thankfulness, separations, silliness, and spirituality, What to Read When is a one-of-a-kind guide to how parents can best inspire children through reading together. In addition, Pam Allyn includes an indispensable “Reader’s Ladder” section, with recommendations for children at every stage from birth to age ten. With the author’s warm and engaging voice throughout, discussion questions to encourage in-depth conversations, as well as advice on helping kids make the transition to independent reading, this book will help shape thoughtful, creative, and curious children, imparting a love of reading that will last a lifetime.
These Penguin Young Reader's Books are referenced in What to Read When
My strongest memory from childhood is the sound of my mother’s voice reading Blueberries for Sal. Little Sal is walking with her pail, and because she is eating so many of the berries, the ones she does manage to save enter her pail with a kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk. I loved the way my mother formed those words as she said them. There was something immensely satisfying in her reading of that book to me. It was a combination of the way she spoke and the nature of the story itself: terrifically scary but at the same time tremendously comforting. One rainy day after school, my mother sat next to me on the couch and read that book to me for probably the hundredth time. I can still remember from that particular day the sound of the rain on the windowpane and the sound of her voice forming the words: kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk. Sal is happily oblivious to the bear cub nearby and yet we know that mother is also nearby. Nothing will happen to Sal. Nothing will happen to the cub. Something in Robert McCloskey’s telling makes you sure.
Years later, it is nighttime, and I am holding one of my daughters, Charlotte, in my arms. She cannot sleep, and so we are sitting together; the chair goes back and forth; her hair smells like milk. We are under the window where the glimmer of a full moon glints down upon us. She reaches her hand up, and it looks to my tired eyes as if she is literally holding the moon inside it. “Good night, moon,” she whispers. She is not yet two. “Good night, room,” I whisper back. “Good night, old lady,” she whispers back to me, and it looks like she winks at me as her hand falls to my shoulder, and she drifts, finally, off to sleep.
The power of reading aloud to draw you and your child near is profound. As Goodnight Moon proves millions of bedtimes over, and as Blueberries for Sal proved unmistakably to me, the sound of the human voice can reach across the gulf of age, of all the things that keep us apart, and create a bridge that lasts a lifetime and extends through generations. Through books and stories that are designed to be read aloud, we convey to our children the beauty of language and the joys of rhythm and rhyme; and in the books we choose to read and the way we read them, we also convey the values we hold dear. Every day as you pack a lunch, wave good-bye to a school bus, tie a shoelace, braid a ponytail, the words you want to say to your child hum inside: I love you, be safe, I love you, be free. I love you, I love you, I love you, let the world treat you kindly, come back to me. Here are the values of my life, our family, here is what I hope for you, here is what I dream for you. And yet, for most of us, too many moments slip by and we’re lucky to get an “I love you” in edgewise. The good news, wondrously, is that the world is full of literature written by people who know you are longing to make connections and are striving to put a voice to them. This book is your guide to making lasting connections with your child through reading. It is also an essential resource for all the best books to read to your child and all the right times to read them.
Children’s literature has long held a cherished place in our culture as a conveyor of values, of belief systems that will give our children courage and help them through a hard day. In Victorian times, children’s books were used to convey a strong sense of morals and discipline. Generations later, writers such as Margaret Wise Brown and Maurice Sendak changed the paradigm of children’s literature by giving voice to the real lives of children, with their many worries and delights. Through these radically new narratives, the “here and now,” as Margaret Wise Brown called them, children were given the opportunity to explore a sometimes confusing universe with a moral compass. How and where will your own child find the human center in an often overwhelming world? Begin the conversation with books that resonate and give you both a point of reference. Whatever the issue at hand—a lost toy, a new sibling, a scary shadow—books and the time spent together reading them can help. There has never been a better time to read aloud to your child. Libraries and bookstores are full of beautiful, astonishing collections that continue to break new ground in their confluence of art and language and depth of feeling. The millions of books available to us also offer an opportunity to redefine childhood in our wired and overprogrammed times, helping us to slow down and reconnect with something timeless and universal. At the same time, the breadth of books with subtle emotion allows us to connect with our children in new and intensely meaningful ways.
And yet, for many of us, there has never been a more confusing time to shop for a book. It’s possible to go to a bookstore and stand for what feels like hours in front of rows and rows of books and not know how to choose. They all look beautiful, but who knows what’s inside? We know we trust the old favorites, the ones we all remember. But what about the books that speak to the sorrows and the joys of childhood as it is in today’s world? These too must be added to our canon. And yet there are thousands. How does a busy parent, grandparent, or caregiver search for the just right book? What is just the right book?
The same way we choose foods to suit our moods—hot soup on a cold winter’s night, spicy ribs for a family picnic—we long to choose the “just right” books that will match the moments we find ourselves in with our children. With all those books out there, certainly there must be a book for every moment: a book to mark the moment of leaving, of coming, of newness, of sameness, of change. As adults, we connect with our reading of books in different ways at different times. So what, then, are the books that are right for our children at very particular times in their lives? How can we match the time, place, and circumstances of our lives with just the right book? What to Read When will help you find the perfect books for the perfect times. This is the work of parenting no one told you about when you left the hospital or walked through the front door with your newly adopted child. At all life-cycle moments, we adults hunger to capture the moment in words: we read poems to each other at weddings, we tell stories of a beloved friend at a funeral service. It is humanity’s greatest gift to be able to see the power of storytelling to pin down experience, to capture it, and render it timeless. What to Read When is a guide to the life-cycle moments of childhood—the occasions big and small when you want to bond most with your children—and the books, words, and pictures that will bring both clarity and connection to those moments.
When your child is small, and you turn the pages of Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, by Charlotte Zolotow, and the two of you can nearly feel the texture of the fruits he so lovingly chooses for his mother, the rabbit’s journey and his gift giving help you to show your child the power of a simple act of generosity. The tender repetition of the language as he adds his fruits to the basket is soothing and familiar. You are reminded that gifts come in all sizes and all forms. This becomes one of the first, precious lessons you can teach your child. Later, when your child is older, six or seven, and you read the chapter book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to this same child you feel one another tense up as Lucy opens the door of the wardrobe and feels the cold rush of air in Narnia for the first time. Here is where Lucy will find the courage she never knew she had and meet beloved friends such as Mr. Tumnus. Here too is where she will face the frailties of human nature when her own brother Edmund betrays her to the icy, cruel White Witch. Here is where Lucy will be brave, even though she is a small girl, and here is where she will learn to forgive her brother and give him another chance. Here is where, as a parent, you will accompany your child through this essential journey of making choices and finding acceptance, standing up for yourself, and knowing when to forgive. Books give you ways to talk to your children about these big ideas. Later, when your child is on the brink of leaving childhood behind, you want to share words with your child that will help her move gracefully into young adulthood. According to the poet Billy Collins, poetry tells the history of the human heart. But I think that all of great literature maps the human heart, and children’s literature knows how to do so best of all.
My Life with Words
As a child, books were my transport. Through reading, I discovered worlds of people I had not known before. I read stories about history and places and people that moved me, reduced me to tears, brought me off of my couch and on a journey that never ended. The protagonist in Faith Ringgold’s masterpiece Tar Beach travels the city of New York by flying: she soars over the city and gets a bird’s-eye view of her home. The reading experience for me was much like this: I found myself soaring overhead, even while I could still keep an eye on my reading self: on the couch down below.
Both Jo in Little Women and Sal in Blueberries for Sal taught me the kind of girl I wanted to be. The heroines of those books were more meaningful to me than most of the girls I saw on television or even met in my 1960s childhood. As a parent of two daughters, now sixteen and fourteen, I read to them as eagerly as I read on the couch all those years ago. It was a delight to return to some of those old books and watch my own daughters cry too when Beth falls ill in Little Women, or laugh over Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s antics, or grip my hand tighter when Milo begins the next adventure in The Phantom Tollbooth.
But it has also been my great pleasure to fi nd new books through these readings together, books that had not been written when I was a child. How fantastic that my daughters were present for the birth of a Landmark text, the Harry Potter series, and that they have also been part of a revolution in children’s literature as illustrated books by authors like Mo Willems and Brian Selznick break new ground in storytelling through pictures.
I’m often asked in workshops when I stopped reading aloud to my daughters, but the fact is, I haven’t stopped. Even now, as teenagers, my daughters revel with me in the nuances of language in a Billy Collins poem that I read aloud to them from the current issue of The New Yorker. At the breakfast table, my husband and I read aloud to them from articles on African education, one of the issues currently on our minds as a family. We read to them from books they may still, as fluent readers, have challenges navigating on their own, or books that will benefit from a collective reading through the discussions that ensue. And, simply, because a shared text creates another kind of energy in our family: like going on a long road trip, it is a new venture that bonds us most.
Reading is more than a passion to me: it is a life’s work. I am certain that it has the capacity to be exhilarating for every child, and so I have devoted myself to the task of expanding literacy so that one day every child will be able to read to the point of transcendence. There is still so much work for us left to do together, not only for our children, but for all children. I hope to share with you the techniques and the titles I have found to be the most compelling for both children and their teachers and to help you be your child’s own best teacher in the purest and most joyous sense of that word.
As executive director of LitLife, an internationally recognized organization dedicated to cultivating the reading and writing lives of children and young adults, I train more than a thousand teachers a year in the teaching of reading and writing. In every classroom, there is one unfailingly successful tool for unlocking the door to literacy for all children, and that is the readaloud: the book that is read by the teacher to her students: the shared experience. I want every home to have access to this wondrous and miraculous tool. I want you to have all the resources you need to unlock the door for lifelong literacy for your child.
As a literacy educator, I also founded an initiative for foster care children called Books for Boys, and now, LitWorld. Both of these initiatives bring the work of LitLife to all communities of children: from the Children’s Village, a residential school for vulnerable children, to a school for HIV/AIDS orphans in Nairobi, Kenya. No matter the gender, the life story, the nature of the community, or the personal story of that child, over and over again I pay humble and grateful witness to the mysterious power of the human voice, the human child, and the text and what they can accomplish together.
Joined together with each other over the pages of a book, adult and child discover new worlds and, with them, a sense of unending possibility. When I read Dr. Seuss to a child who has survived unspeakable horrors in his early life, and he laughs until he cries, or I read Where the Wild Things Are to a wounded and hurt teenager who has years of defense built up around him, and he cries, he literally cries, leaning into me and whispering: “No one ever read aloud to me before this moment, and I always wished someone would,” then I know that books and the ritual of the read-aloud do truly have the power to change the world.
Reading to your child begins as an exquisitely intimate experience, but it sows the seeds for lifelong literacy. I hope What to Read When will be a part of the continuing path toward universal literacy, and it is my honor to share this work with you. I hope you will combine your profound knowledge of your child’s needs and desires with the advice I offer within this book to create a joyous, nourishing reading environment at home. You’ll find a selection of books here that I’ve found to be irresistible to children, along with practical advice on how and when certain books are most compelling to read.
The most powerful work you can do for the world begins in your home, with the intimacy of one book. There is no better teacher than you, no better mentor, no better role model. Your connection to literacy will inspire your children to read to their children, and they to theirs. I hope this book will give you the tools, strategies, and the utmost confidence to read, read, read to and with your child. Reading aloud is fun, productive, and life-changing (for you and your child). But sometimes reading with your child also feels hard. I hope this book will help you to embrace the hard parts too, and to be patient both with yourself and with your child and that you will feel the tenderness that growth brings, and your child will feel your tenderness as a teacher. I hope this book will keep you good company on these journeys and help you feel the power of your own life-changing potential, for the work you do matters, so much.
How This Book Works
“Part One: The Power of Reading Aloud” begins with my top-ten list of reasons to read to your kids: values, language, comprehension, story, genre, structure, comfort, critical thought, other worlds and voices, and building a reading life. The list gives parents some of the same practical tools I share with teachers. It also makes the case anew for the power of reading and why, particularly within the context of our information-saturated times, we must read aloud. I will share with you a top-ten list of “Landmark texts.” You may not fully agree, but I will offer you my view on why these books are part of an American canon of childhood literature. I hope more will be added as you experience this book and become familiar with new titles.
The book is then divided into two major “whens”: the chronological “when” of your child’s reading life, and the emotional “when” of your child’s reading life.
“Part Two: What to Read Aloud at Every Age” takes you on a journey with your child through every stage of his chronological development. This section describes some general characteristics of books or stories or poems that make them appealing reads for certain times of the day or for certain times in a child’s life. This chapter tunes into the exquisite differences of each age group. Six is so different from seven, seven so different from eight. Reading aloud lets you hold those time periods in the cup of your hand, savoring them with your child as she learns to love literature.
“Part Three: The Emotional ‘When’: Fifty Essential Themes” illuminates the emotional chronology of your child’s literary experiences. This is a deeply annotated list that identifies the children’s literature best suited for the emotional “whens” in your children’s lives. There are favorite book choices on themes ranging from friendships to journeys, new siblings to encounters with bullying, social justice to spirituality, giving all parents an indispensable resource for nurturing thoughtful, creative, and curious readers. The recommendations represent a synthesis of my personal experience with the books as a reader, a parent, and as an educator; the annotations include helpful hints and tips for the best possible read-aloud experience with each book. “How to Read a Picture Book,” for example, is part of the curriculum I developed for my organization LitLife and adapted so that parents can use those same powerful teaching techniques at home.
“Conclusion: Blueberries, Silvery Moons, and a Purple Plastic Purse” is a final meditation that I hope will be inspiring, a source of nourishment for you as both a reader and as a parent wanting a lifetime of good reading for your child.
The idea for this book was born from the hundreds of letters, phone calls, and e-mails I have received from parents, teachers, school administrators, caregivers, and grandparents over the course of these past years asking farranging questions about how to read to your children, when to read to your children, and of course, what to read. I long to respond to all of you who have written and called, with your words and voices full of love for your children and the hunger to get that reading piece right. This book is my opportunity to do so. I consider it a love letter to all those who love children. I honor you for all the hard work you do in caring for your children and for your desire to do what is right for them. This book is a tribute to you, to all those marvelous questions you have asked me, and to how they inspire me to continue this work. I hope you will enjoy reading What to Read When as much as I enjoyed writing it.This volume by Allyn, director of the literacy organization LitLife, reminds parents that through reading aloud they can “teach the beauty of language and joys of rhythm and rhyme” and introduce their offspring to the “Big Wide World.” Part one of this book—a combination of Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook and Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children—offers 10 reasons why parents should read to their kids: to develop shared values, to fall in love with language, to build comprehension, among them. Useful, too, are Allyn’s Four Keys, revealed in an apt mnemonic, READ: a Ritual of coming together in an Environment conducive to reading with Access to the right book at the right time for a Dialogue. Chapter Four’s 14 landmark books, from Pat the Bunny to Harry Potter (with Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak titles included) will resonate with parents, but the best feature may be a brief section called “How to Read Aloud,” which teaches parents exactly how and why to read to children in order to elicit interest, engagement and response. The bulk of the book is Part three, “all the best books for the moments that matter most,” an alphabetical listing of 50 themes, from adoption to “New Baby” to “Your Imagination.” (April 2009)
— Publishers Weekly
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