I didn’t want to stop. I’d been reading to my daughter her entire life, even before she was a person I could hold in my arms. I read Goodnight Moon when she was in utero, Knuffle Bunny when she was a toddler, Ramona and Beezus when she was in early primary school.
I spent all that time reading to her because I knew it was good for her brain. Also, it was fun. And frankly, it was something I could do while lying down, exhausted from nighttime nappy changes, never-ending laundry and so many dirty dishes.
When she became old enough to read to herself, I didn’t want our story time to end. So we created a de facto book club. Reading together is different than it used to be, but I read somewhere that all is change.
Now, I read with her instead of to her. We no longer march through the text locked together at my pace, hearing the dialogue in my droning voice. We move silently and apart. Often, she reads the books first and I follow.
She sprints through novels, finishing a stack of seven in as many days. I’m slower, distracted by annoyances like work. I don’t read everything she does, but any time she comes to me holding a book she’s just finished, her eyes wide, I take it from her hands with reverence. Our book club is sacred to me.
There's magic in reading books aloud to little kids, especially when you do the voices (you've got to do the voices) and they giggle at the pictures and you talk about the characters as if they're your BFFs.Read more
Reading the books in our club forces me to put down my phone and log out of Twitter. I love books for grownups — I get cranky when I don’t have one at hand. But some authors, like Jennifer Egan, craft stories that are so powerful to me that I’m a little scared of them. I could lock myself away with her entire catalogue and emerge a year later, looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away and speaking in riddles about the truth of the universe.
But who would clean the litter boxes in my absence? A great middle-grade or YA book is just engaging enough to free me from the shackles of social media without overwhelming my psyche.
Then there’s the idea of the book as time machine. After you’ve gone cover to cover, you can return to any time within the story you choose. Like when Dumbledore is (spoiler alert!) alive and jovial, instead of dead and jovial. A book’s time machine power extends into the real world. When you’re absorbed in a story, time stops. (If I ever do complete my Jennifer Egan sabbatical, I’m certain the year will take no longer than the blink of an eye.)
And returning to a book, months or years after you first read it, is a touchstone to your former self. My daughter mentions this phenomenon all the time — where we lived, what age she was, what she was thinking about, when she last read Where the Footpath Ends, for instance.
Most importantly, the book club gives us something real to talk about. She describes herself as “a talkative person,” which is true until I ask her how her day at school went. Then, she has nothing to say.
We tend to talk about the books when we’re in motion. Walking home from school, hiking in the woods — activity that doesn’t require full attention. Our talks are informal. I don’t ask her to explain symbolism or justify her opinions. We walk, and we chat. Sometimes, she’ll just say the name of a character who died or turned evil. I know what she means. I couldn’t believe it either.
Talking about the books we read, and the feelings they create in us, helps us learn about each other. It lets me see the the person she’s growing into, watching her push into the perspectives of writers and characters.
Here are some quick tips, if you want to start your own parent-child book club.
Let your kid pick. If you want enthusiasm, start here. When kids choose the books, their reading experience is fulfilling. That means your experience as a parent will be fulfilling. You won’t have to badger and cajole — the reading will happen naturally. The books your kid picks will teach you about her interests, what she finds funny, what she finds delightfully scary.
But, if you find yourself ploughing through a dozen vampire books, feel free to steer the book club in a new direction. (How about werewolves?) If you come to an impasse, see below.
Use the library, both for the books and the advice. Books aren’t cheap! Take advantage of the books available for the common good. Library websites are robust these days, allowing you to download ebooks and audiobooks for free. When you want recommendations, go in and chat with the librarians. This is especially fruitful at branch libraries, where the pace of work is a little slower than the central library and the staff have the opportunity to get to know the regulars.
Delay the classics. I know you can’t wait to share Little Women with your kid. Little Women is great. The thing is, many other great books have been written in the past 150 years. My experience as a parent tells me there’s no faster path to eye-glazing than telling a tale of the way things used to be. (Once upon a time, there were no smartphones!) Kids need a little experience with life, a little worldliness, to understand their place in history.
For now, let them read modern books. The classics will come. Trust me.
Be open to new genres. I’m not a fantasy guy. I’ve tried to like trolls and battle sprites, but stories with those sorts of characters have always left me bored and confused. Happily, my daughter does not share in my confusion. This means my reading diet has become more well rounded since our book club began. She’s also drawn to graphic novels. The graphic novels I’d read were comic-influenced, but books like El Deafo have opened my eyes to the possibilities of telling stories with pictures.
Find something good to say about every book you read. Look, I’ll just say it. I do not like the Percy Jackson series. I have my reasons, but I’m not going to get sidetracked into a rant. My daughter loves Percy, and I see no reason to crap all over her joy. The point of this book club is to promote parent-child bonding. So, I breeze through a book I don’t love and tell her that I appreciated the ways the protagonist showed bravery and learned humility.
I tell her how creative it was, bringing ancient myths into the present. We all make little sacrifices to achieve big goals, like family unity. She endures my stories about life without smartphones, which are much duller than Percy Jackson.
Don’t stop. Life will get in the way. You’ll have to travel to a conference. You’ll have to spend 10 evenings in a row creating a PowerPoint deck. Your kid will have track practice three nights a week. On the weekends, she’ll start taking the bus to the mall with her friends. There will be a thousand reasons to disband the book club. Don’t. Even if you only read one book a year together, keep reading.
Read together through high school and through college and everything after. There’s no reason to quit. New books are published every week. Plus, you haven’t gotten around to half the classics yet!