Friday, May 8, 2009

Shhh! It's Good for Them!

In one area of motherhood, I just might be an evil genius. I discovered that if I add the word, "party" to an otherwise mundane word, my kids' eyes light up. 

In an effort to get them reading more--and to be reading together more--I invented "reading parties." We hold them about once a month during the school year, but when Christmas break looms large or (especially!) summer vacation gets boring, I pull out the big guns and we hold an impromptu reading party.

They have no idea how good these are for them, and even better, no matter how old they get, they never get tire of reading parties.

Here's what we do:

First, I make the party announcement. Cheers abound. 

Next, we climb into the car. Everyone brings along any library books they need to return, and we head straight to our public library. The kids often wander the shelves looking for books, but often they'll seek out specific titles based on friend or teacher (or mother) suggestions. Half an hour later (or so), we're back in the car.

Then comes the "party" part. We head to the grocery store, where each child gets to pick a treat to share with everyone. Usually that means a bag of M&M's or Skittles or maybe gummy worms--nothing expensive.

Back at home, we pop popcorn, dump the treats into a bowl, and spread out a blanket. Everyone sits around with a stack of books and munches on treats while I read aloud a chapter from our current bedtime book.

Then I take turns reading something from everyone else's pile: a Berenstein Bears picture book (or two) for my kindergartner, a story from my son's Choose Your Own Adventure book, and so on. When my throat is raw and everyone's getting restless, we settle in for silent reading.

The parties last an hour or two, depending on our mood.

I suppose I could do something similar without the treats, but I think the goodies help. I see them as the Pavlovian part of the event: they make the entire experience positive and fun, so my kids equate reading with a great time even when they're reading alone in their room.

It's probably also significant that I read something from each person's stack. Of course my teenage son isn't going to care much about Berenstein Bears or another sister's Barbie book, and his little sisters don't really have much interest in a cyber-adventure in space. But that's okay. Everyone gets a turn, and everyone's taste is valued. They learn to appreciate different kinds of books.

With our bedtime books in particular, we discuss the novels we read as a family:
  • What did you like . . . and why? 
  • What didn't you like . . . and why? 
  • What do you think will happen next? 
  • Why did this character do that? 
  • What would you do in the same situation? 
  • How do you think the writer could have made that part better?
Between our regular reading and our reading parties, I've discovered unforeseen effect. 

Yes, my kids love books, and I'm thrilled about that. They all read above grade level. Fantastic. 

But what I didn't expect is for them to become such discerning readers and to be able to use that skill to become great writers in their own right.

It's not uncommon for one of them to pipe up with, "That scene was too telly," or, "The author needed to cut that scene down; it slowed the pace too much," or, "That was awesome. I could totally see that fight scene."

They learned this from bedtime books and reading parties. Rock on.

I've been reading aloud at bedtime since my oldest was born. I still read when we're all at home together (not every single night anymore, alas). 

Below are some great books for reading together as a family. Most of them aren't too advanced for grade school kids to listen to, and they have a wide appeal for ages and both genders.

Bedtime Novels for Families

Farworld,  by J. Scott Savage
A fantasy about a boy with magical powers on Earth and a girl without magical powers from Farworld--and their quest to save both planets from destruction.

The Journal of Curious Letters, by James Dashner
Tick gets a strange letter that sets him off on an important but dangerous adventure to prevent the evil Reginald Chu's plan that just might annihilate Earth and the other twelve Realities as well.

Deltora Quest series, by Emily Rodda
A fun series of short books that follows a group as they face life-threatening challenges to find all of the jewel stones from the belt of Deltora, which will redeem the kingdom from an evil overshadowing it.

The Wordeater, by Mary Amato
A silly book that poses the question: What if a worm could eat a word saying something--and then the item itself would cease to exist? Sounds great at first, but that kind of power could cause some serious problems.

A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgins Burnett
Classic novels about young girls and their power to change their own lives.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
A humorous and ridiculous series about three orphans trying to escape the evil Count Olaf. The series has levels of humor and story that make it particularly fun for older readers, while younger listeners will simply enjoy the wild story.

The Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
This Newberry Honor-winning novel has a great message, fun characters, and a great story.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
These seven classic books are written at the perfect level for reading aloud to kids. Older readers will catch the deeper symbolism.

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull
A fun series about a preserve for magical creatures, two kids, and their almost hopeless efforts in the face of huge obstacles to save it.