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.

Courage in Oz

Cowardly Lion:  “All right, I’ll go in there for Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards, I’ll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I’m going in there. There’s only one thing I want you fellows to do.”

Tin Woodsman & Scarecrow:  “What’s that?”

Cowardly Lion:  “Talk me out of it!”



As my wife and I and our friends get older and move into this stage of our children leaving home and living their own lives, I was deeply struck by some words attributed to John Steinbeck.  He wrote, “Perhaps it takes courage to raise children…”

I have tried to think back to our early days of parenting to discover when the need for courage really begins. Was it when the doctor first confirmed that a baby was indeed on the way and we rejoiced while at the same time wondered what it really meant for two people who still enjoyed romantic dinners and quiet nights at the movies and sleeping in on Saturdays? Was it in the long hours watching the pains of labor that finally produced a real live baby who would bear a name only we had chosen for her?

Maybe it was the hard and frustrating nights around our kitchen table when money was tight and bills were voluminous and the future of our young family loomed somewhere out there in the darkness? Could it have come when another’s rising fever forced us to the emergency room on her birthday and we thought we had lost her on the frantic drive there?

Maybe it came when one made a bad decision that ended with discipline and heartbreak and anger and mercy and forgiveness near the midnight hour around our kitchen table? Or maybe it truly began when one left for life on a college campus that she would soon call “home?”

Then again, maybe the courage to parent is always present, lying dormant somewhere within us and just waiting for these and a million other moments to arrive and pull courage from its slumber.  Maybe, just maybe, if courage was required of parents all the time, we would never want to be parents, never want to accept the journey to live and love and lose and win and fail and try and try again.

It all makes me think of our youngest’s favorite book, The Wizard of Oz.  The cowardly lion is so worried about everything that he somehow ends up hiding in the shadows of that forest, a recluse, all alone and going nowhere…so discouraged to have no courage.  And then, only after he stops worrying about not having courage and accepts Dorothy’s invitation to join her and her friends on that now famous journey – then and only then does courage come, just when he needs it most.

‘Land of the Not Lost’ Thursday Stories with Baby Frederico

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

 BF Home

Baby Frederico loves his Momma Mia and Papá Frita, his buddy Grenelda the Grasshopper, blue crayons, popcorn, and…The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; but he did not like to get lost.  Here is his story:

Baby Frederico and his parents loved maps.  They loved treasure maps and city maps, state maps and country maps, world maps and maps of the moon’s craters and maps of the stars in the sky, google maps and yahoo maps, history maps, book maps, even those big, colorful maps at the local shopping mall.  Mamma Mia and Papa Frita would often say to Baby Frederico, “We love maps because getting lost is one thing, but staying lost is another.”  This family loved maps!

The first map Baby Frederico ever loved was a big drawing of a magical world that had been painted across the entire wall of the waiting room at the doctor’s office.  It was colored in black and white and inhabited by a dozen different roads and castles and caves and mysterious animals and other unusual characters.  He loved to start at the bottom left corner of the wall and carefully choose which path he could trace with his finger that might lead to the monstrous dragon’s lair or the distant field of gold coins that lay beyond one of the massive castles and its alligator-filled moats.

After he learned to read, his Papa Frita bought him wonderful map-filled books like Winnie the Pooh and his 100 acre wood, Treasure Island and its eerie pirate treasure map, The Hobbit and his ancient Middle-Earth world that stretched from the Shire to the land of Mordor, and My Father’s Dragon and his Island of Tangerina.

Baby Frederico and his Mamma Mia would spend Saturday afternoons at the kitchen table drawing grand maps of other favorite books like Where the Wild Things Are, The Hardy Boys and the Secret of Skull MountainA-Z Mysteries’ The Deadly Dungeon, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Maps helped Baby Frederico understand things – from where he was to where he wanted to go, which way and how long it might take to get there, and how to not stay lost. Whenever he was away at camp or on a long band trip at school or just feeling worried about tomorrow’s tests, his Mamma and his Papa always reminded him to draw it out on a map – just so he could remember where he was headed.

And as he grew, he learned that no matter the easy or tough or narrow or crooked or funny or scary paths that popped up around him, whether in his family or at school or among his friends…he could always remember, “Getting lost is one thing, but STAYING lost is another.”


The Coolest Maps of Childhood

This week in the teacher education class that I teach at our local college, we are talking about geography – what it looks like through the perspective of young children between the ages of around 4 or 5 to between 8 and 10, and how to teach it to them in a vibrant way. Our goal in any type of instruction is to start with what the learner knows and then bring them along in teaching them something we want them to know.  A map does much the same thing – it shows us where we are and where we want to go.

Map Winnie the Pooh

This is why this evening’s lecture is among my favorite subjects for one reason – these incredible maps!  When you think about it, it is really astounding how much maps are a part of our lives. Whether it is the three or four apps for maps that I have on my cell phone or the Garmin navigator in our car or the bookmarked map website on my desktop or those peculiarly large and colorful maps at the mall – we use them all the time.

Incredibly, some of your favorite books from childhood probably included a map.  For example, think of the classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit, My Father’s Dragon, and Treasure Island. Each of these books has the most elaborate and childlike map on their end pages or mixed among the chapter titles. Their illustrators inherently understood the powerful use of maps in the lives of children and books.

Map treasure-Island

And if you haven’t read the original Pooh books in years or haven’t looked over the wonderfully detailed maps of My Father’s Dragon, this is the weekend to do such things!

Here’s why – maps give children a sense of place in the world that exists around their home and in the world that exists around their imagination. So take them on a walk around your world this evening. Show them on a big map some exotic far-off place you want to visit with them before you die. Make your own map of the Land of Oz or Journey to the Center of the Earth this Sunday afternoon. Bury some treasure-filled shoebox in the backyard and make the coolest old pirate map drawn with crayons on a brown paper sack. Or instead of drawing it, build your map with blocks or clay or legos or even old fruit from the fridge! Your kids (and you) will love every word and every memory and every map you make of it.

Map My Fathers Dragon

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.

Look at this Book! The Doll People

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


Today’s great book: The Doll People by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin (2000, Hyperion) and illustrated by the great Brian Selznick who also authored and illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and Wonderstruck (2011) as well as Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride (1999, illustrator only) and The Houdini Box (2001) and others. The Doll People story also continues in the wonderful The Meanest Doll in the World (2003) and The Runaway Dolls (2008).
Time to Read: 256 pages, a page-turner, 19 chapters
Summary: From the back cover: Annabelle Doll is eight years old – she has been for more than a hundred years. Not a lot has happened, to her, cooped up in the dollhouse, with the same doll people, day after day, year after year…until one day the Funcrafts move in.
Best Quote: “Annabelle stood still and looked at everybody, her hands on her hips. After a moment she said, ‘I have an announcement to make. I am going to search for Auntie Sarah.’…’That isn’t safe,’ said Papa. Annabelle thought about brave Auntie Sarah. She thought about Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Drew. ‘I’m going anyway,’ she said.”

Our View: In all honesty, at first I wasn’t excited about a book with the word “doll” in it, but I knew my kids would love it, and the illustrations are really what pulled me in as a dad…from the cover to the end pages. It is now among our top ten favorite chapter books in the secret book room! The illustrations are so detailed and nearly tell a tale of their own. Beyond that, the story that flows from the pages of this book really tells itself. Our first child was 6 when we read it, and my other two children, who always preferred for me to read to them together at bedtime, were 8 and 4. Your kids will be mesmerized by the matter-of-fact way in which the authors bring us into the lives of what we only thought were inanimate objects that looked like people and lived in a wonderful old, historic dollhouse in a child’s room. I’ll never forget that this was only the second book – the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) book was the first – that my daughters could hardly tear themselves away from and begged me to “keep reading” long after bed time. “Permanent doll state” is among our family’s favorite sayings now; that mysterious phrase alone should compel you to read this book. When you read the last sentence of the last page, you will wish it could go on – and thankfully it does. Though we had to wait for each additional book in the trilogy to debut, you don’t have to because all are now happily available at your favorite local independent bookstore.

Remember to visit our Book Cook page for a “Spider of the Doll People” recipe created by the kids to accompany this particular book.