By Suzanne Nelson, Young Adult Author
Nannease welcomes this wonderful author as the guest writer of this important piece- Read more about her work at the end of this article.
The first time I read a book to my son Colin, my husband raised his eyebrows skeptically, no doubt questioning my sanity. In his defense, he might’ve had a valid reason for concern. I was about eighteen weeks pregnant, my baby bump barely visible. I was undaunted.
“The baby can hear my voice now,” I told him. “I want him to love books. Of course I’m going to read to him.”
Every night for the rest of my pregnancy, I read a bedtime book to Colin, and I swear, the rhythm of the words, the swings in my voice, the magic of the stories reached him, soothing him, even in utero. One of the most vivid memories I have of bringing him home from the hospital is of carrying him into his nursery. The first thing I showed him wasn’t his crib, or the rocker, but his bookshelf, already filled with books. That night, we read The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. I cradled him, we stared with awe into each other’s eyes, and I felt a certain awareness pass between us, as if he already recognized, or remembered, the familiar bedtime routine.
I continued this tradition with each of my pregnancies, reading to all three of my children well before they were born. Before any of them could walk, they were eagerly crawling to their shelves to choose their favorite books for read aloud. I’ll never be able to say for certain if the in utero reading helped make it true, but all of my children are bookworms. Of course, I’m a writer, so it’s a given that I’d raise my children surrounded by books. More than that, though, are other reasons for encouraging their love of reading. There’s a shift taking place in our world, moving us farther from the printed word and more towards social media and every other form of visual stimulation.
Recently, I spoke on a panel for “Raising Resilient Children,” and during one of the breaks, the other panelists and I discussed the dilemmas we faced as mothers in an electronic age. One woman, Director of Residential Life at a local university, told me that the biggest problem she sees in dormitories is students communicating more with their phones than with each other. Students could, in fact, be sitting side by side on a couch in a common room, snapchatting with each other while completely avoiding eye contact or physical conversation.
As my children grow, I will have to eventually succumb to their need for tablets and phones, but only when it becomes a necessity for school, and not a second before that. In the meantime, I fight against the allure of technology with every ounce of my bookish being. My children don’t watch television or “game” on weekdays. Movies and game time are reserved for weekends, and then are usually only limited to two or three hours spread out over the course of Saturday and Sunday. I consider it a victory when, on occasion, one of them forfeits television in lieu of reading. Or, instead of spending their allowance money on candy or toys, they thrill at the idea of heading to the local bookstore to buy a new book.
I don’t believe that they were necessarily “born” with this love of reading. It’s something I’ve been so staunchly dedicated to nurturing that perhaps they haven’t had much of a choice in the matter. Books are part of my identity as a writer; I consider it as much my duty to pass them onto my children as it is to pass on a sense of right and wrong, or a value for honesty and integrity.
It’s not just that I want them to love the written word, and to have the opportunity to expand their minds and experiences through books. It’s not just that reading will make them interesting people with a healthy repertoire of discussion topics ready for moments when they’re not plugged into their phones. It’s not just that reading will increase their vocabulary and expand their imaginations, lengthen their attention spans and increase their ability to focus. I want reading “moments” with my children—moments where they’re nestled against me, their heartbeats fluttering on my skin, their bedhead hair tickling my chin. Reading is as much about this precious time together as it is about the content on the pages. Our life as a family is hectic, filled with school, sports, dance, and friends. Then there are the mundane obligations of existence that soak up so much time—grocery shopping, doctors’ visits, cooking and cleaning. Of course even in these activities there’s a certain sort of togetherness. It’s not the same, though, as those moments when we’re nested against pillows with a book, when my children whisper to me of their secrets, worries, or dreams, when they share with me a piece of themselves that might otherwise be passed over in the frantic pace of the day.
There will come a time when my boys may shrug away from my hugs and kisses, when they’ll duck out from under my hand reaching to ruffle their hair. There will come a time when my daughter may roll her eyes at my advice or wardrobe choices. There will come a time when my presence isn’t needed, or possibly even wanted. For now, they’re still asking me to read to them. So, with the sense that we’re dipping into a precious basket of time and we haven’t yet found the inevitable bottom, with the sense that we can still find awe and wonder in each other and in the pages, I do.
Some of my favorite bedtime picture books:
- All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee
- The House in the Night, by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes
- How to Put Your Parents to Bed, by Mylisa Larsen, illustrated by Babette Cole
- In a Blue Room, by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Tricia Tusa
- Kiss Good Night, by Amy Hest, illustrated by Anita Jeram
- The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan
- The Night World, by Mordicai Gerstein
- The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska
- Stars, by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee
- When the Sky Is Like Lace, by Elinor Lander Horwitz, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Suzanne Nelson is the author of Serendipity’s Footsteps, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Cake Pop Crush, and a host of other middle grade and young adult novels. She is also a contributor to The Washington Post “On Parenting” blog.
After spending eight years as a children’s book editor in New York City, she now lives and writes with her family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her author website is www.suzannenelson.com. She tweets @snelsonbooks.