Growing a Reader: Cultivating a Love of Reading in Young Children

A school social worker shares how books have helped her breathe life and imagination into the teaching of social and emotional skills both at work and at home.

At-Home Learning: PBS SoCal and KCET, in partnership with LAUSD and in collaboration with California PBS stations, are offering broadcast programming with digital resources that adhere to California’s state curriculum. Download this week’s schedule.

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott

I’ve always wanted to raise children who are readers — preferably, voracious readers.

I grew up as a somewhat socially awkward, introverted girl who found peace, adventure, and courage within the pages of my favorite books. My copy of “Charlotte’s Web” was tattered, pages taped back together, from having been re-read so many times. Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume introduced me to young spitfire women whom I admired, and I gleefully went along on the adventures of “Ramona the Brave.”

Through high school and college, I fell in love with the poetry and novels of such writers as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Elie Wiesel, John Steinbeck, and many others. I was lucky to have teachers of literature who poured gas on the fire, and my passion for reading grew exponentially. I couldn’t wait to have a day in my future where I could help my children love to read as much as I did.

Fast forward to my early 30s: as a mom with a young baby girl, I would sit with my daughter on my lap, reading a brightly-colored board book, her chubby fingers pointing at the pictures, and her voice cooing and singing. Reading with my baby was a full-on sensory experience: her peach-fuzzy head nuzzled into my neck, and my lips would read softly into her ear, pausing every few pages for an ear kiss.

I furnished my kids’ rooms with low, baby-sized bookshelves from the time they were infants, so they could always have an ample supply of books to pull off the shelves at their leisure. We filled our reading time with Dr. Seuss stories, colorful Todd Parr books, and great green rooms with red balloons, and an old lady whispering “hush.”

A mother and children read in an indoor tent.

Over the years (my kids are now 9 and 14 years old), my husband and I have continued to nurture our little bibliophiles. We make frequent trips to the library with a tote bag, so we can lug back all of our books to return and reload the bag with new treasures. My daughter is a self-declared “Potter-Head” and a passionate devotee of all things Percy Jackson.

One of our favorite ways that I have enjoyed reading with my daughter is by starting a Mother/Daughter Book Group when she was going into 4th grade. She’s now about to graduate from middle school, and our group is still going strong. What I’ve observed is that this group has not just built supportive friendships while providing a social outlet, but it has also given my daughter a path to try out new book genres and to learn how satisfying it can be to talk about and process their perspectives and ideas with others. Our girls create value together from their reading experience, making it meaningful for their own adolescent world and budding sense of their identities.

In my work as a school social worker, I often use books for bibliotherapy, in order to breathe life and imagination into the teaching of social and emotional skills. The students I work with struggle with a variety of issues that keep them from being successful at school. These may include difficulty with self-regulation, struggling with peer relationships, and depression or anxiety that cause an up-and-down rollercoaster of daily emotions.

The stories we read together allow the children to take an “ego-step” away from themselves in order to learn from a character’s experience in the book. For example, one of our favorite characters, Pete the Cat, often gets himself into trouble and takes on a flexible, “I’ve got this!” attitude. My students learn flexible thinking and problem-solving in a way that I might not have been able to teach without Pete’s great modeling.

We read chapter books that expose the students to children from diverse backgrounds —different races, socioeconomic statuses, and life experiences — that challenge my students to gain empathy and awareness of life outside of their world. Another example of one of our favorite books is “Fish in a Tree” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the story of a girl with an unidentified learning disorder. She is able to skate by in school by masking her inability to read, covering up her lagging skill with a quirky sense of humor and attention-seeking behaviors. My students are immediately pulled into this story, as it hits close to home for many of them. The book is a vehicle for us to engage in learning, meaningful conversation, and a deeper self-understanding for my students. The icing on the cake: a seed is planted for what I hope will be a lifelong love of reading for each of them.

As I write this, we are in the midst of a worldwide shutdown due to the COVID-19 crisis. Like many families all over the world, we are quarantined in our home and making the best of a very challenging situation. Our family’s love of reading has been a tremendous coping skill and lifeline to the outside world during this difficult period of time. Since December of last year, we’ve had a beautiful boxed set of illustrated Harry Potter books on our bookshelf, and life has been so busy with activities that we haven’t made time to read them yet. This shutdown — as hard as it is for all of us — has given us the gift of time to slow down, enjoy these family connections, and open up a great book to read together.

If you’re looking for new books to enjoy with your family, check out a couple of my favorite websites.

  • A Mighty Girl: Not just for girls, this website provides wonderful guidance on literature for children and teens. There are lists based on genre, age group, and various themes.
  • We Need Diverse Books: This fantastic website guides book-hunters to a variety of websites, in order to find books representative of the kids who are reading them. “Diversity” encompasses race, ability, LGBTQ+ status, religion, and other identities that are often underrepresented in traditional, mainstream children’s literature.