If Books Read Themselves


We were driving home one evening a few weeks back when my 9-year old nephew and my daughters were talking about things they disliked. It included everything from bathing to chores and homework to flu shots.

When I thought they had surely exhausted their list of troubles, my nephew said, “I wish teeth cleaned themselves.”

Isn’t that the truth? There are evenings I am so tired I just want to crawl into bed and live with the consequences of abandoning all the pre-bedtime rituals…but then I remember that teeth do not clean themselves nor do spouses appreciate bad breath (especially in the close proximity of a bed).

It makes me think of another nightly ritual that I too often do abandon (and I write a website called “Father Knows Books!”) – reading with my kids.  I can’t believe the evenings I’ve wasted not reading with them.  My oldest daughter is 19, so I have been reading off and on with daughters just before bedtime for about 18 and half years (that’s 6,756 nights of possible reading opportunities).  If I read just 20 minutes an evening during those years, that equals 135,120 minutes!

A recent fact sheet by Scholastic and entitled Read Every Day/Lead a Better Life reveals that “children learn an average of 4,000 to 12,000 new words each year as a result of book reading;” and that “if a child reads as much as one million words per year, they will be in top 2% of all children on standardized reading tests. If a child reads as little as 8,000 words per year, they will be in bottom 2% of all children on standardized reading tests. Therefore, if you read 3,000 words every day you will be in the top 2%. If you read 20 words every day, you will be in the bottom 2%.”

Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the United States, wrote in a recent article, “Even after children learn to read by themselves, it’s still important for you to read aloud together. By reading stories that are on their interest level, but beyond their reading level, you can stretch young readers’ understanding and motivate them to improve their skills.”

When my daughters and I have read together, we have also lived a dozen lives together. We have been the beasts of Oz and the wild children of Neverland, the ferocious pirates of Treasure Island and the ogres of Frell, the brave animals of Narnia and the mysterious dragons of Tangerine.

No matter what we wish, books do not read themselves. They require a voice, a narrator, a reader…they require us.

Look at this Book! ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

* Every Tuesday we introduce you to a favorite book from our secret book room, and give you a unique “recipe for fun” this week over on our Book Cook page…

 Wild Things

Today’s great book: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963, Harper and Row).

Time to Read: short and sweet; bedtime; when your child has been difficult or wants to run away

Summary:  Max is the little boy who decides to make a mess of his home before his parents discipline him by sending him to his room without any supper.  As Max grows frustrated, his room transforms itself into a jungle and small sailing boat appears at the magical shoreline.  He sails away to a land of giant monster-like creatures called Wild Things, whom Max intimidates so well that he is made their king.  Max finally decides to return to his real home, where a hot supper awaits him.

Best Quote:  “And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max.  And he sailed off through night and day, and in and out of weeks, and almost over a year to where the wild things are.”

Our View:  I have loved this book since I was a child and it later played an important role in helping me master my student teaching semester with 25 kindergartners over a decade ago.  I must have read it a hundred times when I was a child, but when I was introduced to it again after I found it in a storage box in my attic not long after I became a father, it held a new magic over me.  I have enjoyed reading it to all three of my daughters and reminiscing with them about how much I loved it when I was a boy.  I simply wanted to be Max and I wanted a small sailing boat just like the one in the book.  Mary Pols of Time magazine wrote that “[w]hat makes Sendak’s book so compelling is its grounding effect: Max has a tantrum and in a flight of fancy visits his wild side, but he is pulled back by a belief in parental love to a supper ‘still hot,’ balancing the seesaw of fear and comfort.”  Another wrote that Sendak alluded to his books as describing “how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”  Where the Wild Things Are, at only a little more than 300 words, does just that!

Remember to visit our Book Cook page for the recipe – “What the Wild Things Eat” – created by the kids to accompany this particular book.

Look at this Book! Goodnight iPad

* Every Tuesday we introduce you to a favorite book from our secret book room, and give you a unique “recipe for fun” this week over on our Book Cook page…

 photo (4)

Today’s great bookGoodnight iPad:  A Parody for the Next Generation by Ann Droyd (2011, Penguin Group).

Time to Read: short and funny and true

Summary:  from the back cover, “In the bright buzzing room…it is time to power down.  For parents and children alike, here is a modern bedtime story about bidding our gadgets goodnight.  Don’t worry, though.  They’ll be waiting for us, fully charged, in the morning.”

Best Quote:  “Goodnight remotes and Netflix streams, Androids, apps, and glowing screens.  Goodnight plugs and power lights that guide us to pee in the darkness of night.”

Our View:  What a funny parody of the classic children’s work, Goodnight Moon.  My oldest gave this one to me for my birthday last week and we have enjoyed reading it every night since!  I think my favorite thing about this book is how well it captures life a decade into the 21st century.  Who knows what future technological invention is poised on the horizon, so this book will be a treasure to me another 20 years from now when I read it to my grandchildren and reminisce about the birth of apps and streaming movies and nooks and e-books and LOL and MP3 and HDTV and 3-D glasses and viral clips and tweets and texts.  The illustrations are pitch perfect and the rhymes are smooth as butter.  One great book for dads everywhere!

Remember to visit our Book Cook page for the recipe – “Goodnight My Sweet” – created by the kids to accompany this particular book.

Look at this Book! Ghost Horse

* Every Tuesday we introduce you to a favorite book from our secret book room, and give you a unique “recipe for fun” this week over on our Book Cook page…

Ghost Horse Cover

Today’s great book: Ghost Horse by George Edward Stanley with illustrations by Ann Barrow (2000, Random House).

Time to Read: a chapter book; 69 pages; 2-3 evenings.

Summary:  from the back cover…”Emily Clark just moved.  She doesn’t like her new  house.  She doesn’t like her new town.  Then one night she wakes up to find a horse in her backyard – a ghost horse!    Where did he come from?  And why is he haunting Emily’s backyard?  Only by solving the mystery can Emily set the ghost horse free.

Best Quote: “Emily wished the ghost horse could talk.  Why had he come to her?  The ghost horse knelt down on his front legs.”

Our View: First, the illustrations in this book are so life-like.  They are drawn in pencil and really jump off the page as you encounter each one among the chapters.   The story itself is great.  We love mysteries and this book keeps you guessing from start to finish.  It isn’t really scary, but there is a descriptive walk as Emily is led through a cemetery by the ghost horse.  The horse is indeed a ghost and has a good reason for seeking out Emily, who has always wanted a horse.

Remember to visit our Book Cook page for the recipe – “Haystacks” – created by the kids to accompany this particular book.

Look at this Book! Bully

* Every Tuesday we introduce you to a favorite book from our secret book room, and give you a unique “recipe for fun” this week over on our Book Cook page…


Today’s great book: Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2013, Roaring Brook Press).
Time to Read: short and just right for both the bully and the bullied
Summary: A small bull is bullied, which leads him to become a big bully himself. When a billy goat stands up for his friends who are being bullied by him, the bully quickly realizes how mean he has become and changes his ways.
Best Quote: “Wanna play?”

Our View: The single most surprising thing about this book is its perspective. It reads just enough through the eyes of a bully – both when the book starts and he becomes a bully and then when he is called a bully. This is powerful, relevant stuff for the life of children. It also helped me see the importance of defining the term bully for children everywhere. When a bully actually understands what it means to be called a bully, change just might come after all. The words and illustrations are sparse, making this book all that more powerful and helpful to young eyes and ears, and just right for this big issue. This is the kind of book that will be a lifesaver in your classroom or your home.

Remember to visit our Book Cook page for the recipe – “FriendChips” – created by the kids to accompany this particular book.

‘The Mountain’ – Thursday stories with Baby Frederico

*Every Thursday we introduce you to another quick bedtime story about our family’s favorite resident reptile – Baby Frederico. The backstory can be found here. Enjoy!

BF Mountain 3

Baby Frederico loves his Momma Mia and Papá Frita, blue crayons, popcorn…and cinnamon suckers; but he did not like to stop and wait. Here is his story:

The top of the mountain was finally coming in to view. Just a few more steps to go. Baby Frederico had started this day of climbing with his family in the happiest of moods, all smiles and bright eyes and adventurous attitude and energy to burn. He wore his toughest hiking boots and carried a big green backpack full of everything a great climber might need – graham crackers and marshmallows, a box of Battlestar Galactica band-aids, marbles, a compass, a map of caves, a camera, three rocks, his papá’s old Spider-Man comic book, an assortment of his favorite blue crayons, and six cinnamon suckers. It was the perfect day for Baby Frederico.

Or so he thought. His family – which on this trip included his parents and his grandma and grandpa – was just too slow. It took them forever to drive to the mountain; nearly a hundred years for them to get out of the car and put their sunscreen on; and a million hours to check to be sure their shoelaces were tied and their water bottles were full. He did not like to stop and wait…and he began to get mad.

“Are we ever going to start climbing up this mountain? Why is everyone so slow? Let’s go!!!” Baby Frederico started up the path by himself, not looking back to see if his words had any effect on the rest of the family.

And now, here he was, climbing over rocks and jumping across creeks on his very own mountain. He looked back to see where his slower-than-slow family was on the path. Nothing – no one anywhere. Baby Frederico stopped. “Where are they now?”, he wondered. He listened for a moment and thought he heard something, but he was mad, so mad that he wasn’t paying attention to his next step.

With a slip, a slide, and a whimpered, “Oh no!,” Baby Frederico found himself at the bottom of a small hole in a large rock. It wasn’t really a hole, more like a deep indention in the massive chunk of earth that he was trying to climb over. Still, it was large and smooth enough that he couldn’t climb out by himself. The top of his head peeked above the rim of the hole, but his arms and legs were just too short to pull himself up and over for a quick escape. He was stuck as stuck could be. He had no choice but to…stop and wait.

BF Mountain 2

And that’s when he heard something that he had not ever heard before. It must have been there all along, but it was far enough away that its sounds echoed more clearly in the hole. But what was it and where was it coming from?

Baby Frederico wasn’t sure if he should hope or worry that whatever it was would come closer. For now, all he could do was stop and wait…and listen.

(To be continued next week!)

Imagination 101

 Sunglasses and Books

“Imagine with me if you will…”  Where is that from?  It sounds a little like the opening to ‘The Twilight Zone’ or something along those lines.  I can’t place it, but maybe you can. Either way, it is a phrase that has me thinking…there is just nothing quite like a good imagination.  If you read Monday’s blog post you’ll see there our list of some recent books that we call “page turners,” those books that you just can’t seem to put down and would risk choking on a small, green, sour fruit to read.

In that blog, I made a passing reference to the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (first published in 1900 – that means this classic is 113 years old…that is cool).  Our children were especially enamored with anything remotely related to Oz when they were young and so I decided to read the original book to them before bedtime – our youngest was maybe four and so the older sisters were eight and twelve.  I have always had the original book on my shelf and can even remember that we were living on the farm and went to a nearby auction when I was in the 6th grade, where my parents bought it for me (I have no idea why that is such a clear memory to me).  However, I had never taken the time to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, mostly because the movie was an annual television event when we were growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s – so I guess I thought I knew the story…so why read it?

Now as a father and a professor in the field of early childhood education, I have worried that movies would be the ultimate demise of great imagination in our kids.  Don’t get me wrong, I love movies and the girls and I have seen more old classic films than we can count, as well as the good new movies today.  We do love movies.  However, I realized that when our kids wanted to start seeing movies that were being made from good books, and more than likely books that they should read anyway, we needed to make a plan.  We agreed that if there was an appropriate book available that would also be coming out as a movie that they might want to see, we would read it before we saw it.  It wasn’t a hard and fast rule by any means, but we – both the girls and me – kept it pretty well and it worked its magic in the most unusual way.  And it was a century-old book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that cinched the deal for us!

Our older daughters had seen the original classic film about Oz and starring Judy Garland and Toto and a tornado and black and white to color and on and on.  It is a great movie and the music, come on, who does not love to hear the Cowardly Lion sing his song of fear and courage in one of the best baritone voices of the period!  A great movie to be sure.

But the book – I can’t tell you how good this book is, how much better it is than this great classic film of it.  There is backstory and danger and fear and humor and a world so detailed and interesting that it is like every page was written in some alternate HD programming for books.


Our youngest had not seen the movie yet when we began reading the book, so we were all mesmerized by it as we read and talked about it and told others what we had found in its pages.  It is something to learn why the Tin Man is tin and why he needs that heart.  That piece of the story alone, it will choke you up.  And – there really are lions and tigers and bears in that forest and it is more than a little scary to read about them.

My daughter’s imagination grew by leaps and bounds while we traversed through the land of Oz.  Her dad’s imagination did, too!  When we saw the old movie again as a family, it was different because we knew “the rest of the story.”

Even better, the lesson was learned for us all – a great book that was great enough to be turned into a movie, is still a great book.  Next time you pick up a book, before you even open it to read it to your kids, point to the cover and say in your coolest Rod Serling or John Wayne or James Earl Jones voice, “Imagine with me if you will…” and then open up that book and watch what happens.