If you had asked me when I was growing up what reading to my future children would be like one day, I would have described something akin to the cover image from my gold-edged copy of Little Women, showing Marmee reading a letter from Mr. March with her four daughters snuggled around her.
And if you understand even part of that reference, you know exactly how big a book-loving school nerd I am.
I have been an avid reader my entire life. When I was a kid, summer didn't mean the beach or the pool — summer meant the annual reading contest at the local library. In college, I was part of the .0001 percent who actually completed all of the assigned reading. When I scored an interview with a children's publisher after grad school, I read three of their bestsellers at the time from cover to cover in the 48 hours prior to the appointment. And then I got the position and reading essentially became my job. I absolutely love to read.
Which is why I was so crushed to realize, after I had kids, that I was not Marmee. I wasn't even Marmee adjacent.
Three years ago, I gave birth to the most delicious baby girl … who cried for six months straight. She would hardly let me sit down, let alone crack a book. She only stopped crying when she was sleeping. I truly have no memory of actually reading to her until she was one year old.
I'm sure I tried. I must have. I had a bookshelf filled with gorgeous books that I had brought home from work or had been gifted from friends. I had stunning, Caldecott-winning wordless picture books, well-loved favorites from my childhood, and several still-in-plastic boxed sets that looked so beautiful I wanted to hug them. One of the unmet goals of my nesting phase was to create a low, child-friendly bookshelf so that my future toddler could browse and select picture books at her leisure.
Once the colic began, however, I bought the tallest bookshelf IKEA had to offer and put the "nice" books at the tippy top.
If I had the luck to catch my baby in a non-crying, non-sleeping phase and I actually felt energetic enough to attempt to read, she would tear at the book, pushing it — and me — away from her. I can't even tell you how many pull-the-tabs she yanked right out of the books, and how much the sound of ripping pages pained me. But you know what hurts more? Taking a board book to the head.
Bedtime would loom large. Sometimes I considered skipping story time. Instead, I would diligently attempt to read to the person I had always assumed would be my captive audience. Maybe that's my problem. I need a captive audience.
I spent the better part of a decade as a professional actor, which means lots of people all over the world paid me good money to read things out loud. And then they clapped. If there was ever a person who should be an outstanding and revered book reader, it was me. I took my acting skills and tried to apply them to my bedtime book-reading performances: I used a wide range of vocal expressions while reading to my baby. I varied my pitch and volume. I gestured at the pictures. I spoke in accents.
But my daughter wasn't impressed. She wasn't even listening. She was twisting violently, willfully destroying property, or both. My parents thoughtfully saved my childhood copy of The Monster at the End of the Book for 30 years so I could share the joy of it with my children someday. My daughter destroyed it inside of three minutes.
She turned one around Christmastime, and one of her gifts was a Santa book. It didn't have an award or a fancy author or anything that interested me from a publishing perspective. But this book was different: It talked back to you. It had magical interactive technology that picked up on verbal word cues, triggering Santa to respond to certain phrases. The first time Santa said, "Ho! Ho! Ho! I'm ready to read with you!" my daughter's eyes completely bugged out of her head. I won't say that she became an avid reader from that point on, but she did sit still long enough for me to turn a few pages. It was a Christmas miracle!
My daughter is now three and she has a one-year-old sister. Even with nightly practice, I definitely haven't figured out how to read to my kids yet. Or maybe they haven't figured out how to listen. But because I came to dread story time, I decided I needed to change things up. So, like any good actor, I started making things all about me.
I stopped reading books I thought my kids would like, and I started reading books that I actually liked. I still perform and vary my pitch and volume and use accents, but I do all of that to amuse myself, not them. I think less about my audience and more about myself, which seems counterintuitive, but somehow it gets results. I mean, I'm still no Marmee and I rarely have both girls listening to me at the same time (and in fact, the other night they completely ignored me and wandered away to play with toys on the opposite side of the room), but sometimes, sometimes, one of them will snuggle into my lap and follow along. And that's enough encouragement to keep me turning the pages for my little women.
Here are a few books that might make you hate reading to your kids a little less:
A Visit to the North Pole — Hallmark's I Reply technology fuels this magical line of voice-enabled interactive storybooks that first stopped my daughter in her tracks. Highly recommend.
Peekaboo! in the Ocean! — This book is a total snooze, but it has several things that make it perfect for sharing with very little ones. It is a stiff board book and has giant, stiff board book flaps to open, which means it's fairly indestructible. More importantly, it's short! You can rattle off this puppy in under a minute and feel accomplished. Set the bar low, friends.
Corduroy — I grew up with this book and it was one of the few my older daughter would (mostly) tolerate. The dialog is just right to be recited in an English accent (I use the Broadway cast album of The Secret Garden as inspiration). And the last line of the book (spoiler alert!) is that Lisa gives Corduroy "a big hug" which is a great way to con your kid into mimicking the text and hugging you.
Never Touch a Dinosaur — This book is colorful and has a decently catchy rhyme. Most importantly, every spread has a bumpy silicone touchpad kids are drawn to. So even if they're ignoring you, at least they're interacting with the book.
After the Fall — If you have a kid who is slightly older and not quite as grabby, check out this lovely book about what happened to Humpty after he fell off the wall. It has that Pixar quality of appealing simultaneously to adults and kids, but on two different levels. I'm not kidding when I tell you that its touching message about overcoming fears made me cry. Reading it almost felt like going to therapy. You'll love it. (Your kid might, too.)
E.T. — Quirk Books has a series of cheerful picture books based on all of my favorite childhood movies! It's fun to recite movie quotes and entertaining to see how they skip over any inappropriate movie moments (their G-rated Back to the Future is certainly fascinating in this regard). This series only sold in hardcover at retail, but you can grab them in paperback through Scholastic Book Clubs so you can worry about ripped pages slightly less.