Intended to be a relaxing descent for our 6- and 4-year-old boys toward falling asleep. Gather, my sons, in your cartoon jammies with freshly brushed teeth and minds ready to focus on the pictures and words I lay before you.
No, we can’t run around the hallway instead. No, you can’t have a fourth snack. No, you can’t watch the iPad.
It’s reading time. Old fashion? Yes. But we’re gonna read books, dammit, like it’s 1909.
This scene (or many like it) plays itself out between about 7:45 and 8:15 p.m. in our house just before bedtime. My wife and I struggle to take tiny humans, wired to be rambunctious and full of more energy than a nuclear reactor, and calm them down for the time-honored tradition of storytime.
But once the tiny humans finally settle in, I must say, we’re blessed to have kids who enjoy stories and reading time. I hope this means good things in the future.
And I think our choices of books helps with this. We have old classics (Scuffy the Tugboat), new classics such as B.J. Novak’s excellent contribution, and some new ones discovered at various bookstores across the country (That’s Not a Hippopotamus, discovered at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.).
We want the boys to laugh, to be entertained, to relate to what they hear and see.
And we want them to value these last 20 or 30 minutes of every day, when we all together, listening, quiet.
Here are my favorites so far, some of these passed down to me from previous generations, and others I hope our boys will send along to the next generation or three:
THAT’S NOT A HIPPOPOTAMUS by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis: I love books written in iambic pentameter. When you read, it’s like you’re singing to the child who’s listening. This book hits the right notes, including a meek boy named Liam who plays the hero in a story about a visit to the zoo gone wrong. The gang of children on a field trip – “the best, hands-down, of hippo-hunters in the town” — struggle to find a lost hippo, but Liam, whom the teacher frequently dismisses, he’s got a good eye for it.
HOW TO CATCH A STAR by Oliver Jeffers: From 2004, Jeffers from Northern Ireland writes and illustrates a simple story about a boy who wants a star to be his friend. I found this one tucked away in the children’s section of Politics & Prose in Washington D.C. along with That’s Not a Hippopotamus, and they seem just right for a pair of boys who at the time were 4- and 2-years-old, with big dreams and an even bigger world unfolding before them.
ALPHA OOPS: THE DAY Z WENT FIRST by Alethea Kontis, illustrated by Bob Kolar: Z decides he’s had enough of going last, and so the alphabet gets all kinds of messed up. The rules get thrown out the door. Chaos ensues. It’s funny, but also a good lesson about the ups and downs of conformity and why it’s okay to try to rearrange things.
OUTSIDE by Deirdre Gill: When the cold winds of January begin zipping across the homefront, I reach for this one. The book matches a principle I’m trying to teach my boys — enjoy all seasons, even the coldest one. The illustrations, particularly of the orange dragon at sunset, are outstanding, and so much about this book reminds me of what it was like to be a boy in the countryside, with few friends to play with when snow storms coated the landscape, but a boundless imagination would keep me outside in the snow for hours.
SCUFFY THE TUGBOAT by Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by Tibor Gergely: The classic from 1946. I cannot recall ever sitting on one of my parents’ lap and listening to them read stories. I was too young to retain the memory. But just before I became a father, I found Scuffy with its gold-tinted spine in a bookstore, and a mental firecracker went pop. I couldn’t recall ever hearing my mother read me this book, but I what I could remember was how I loved it. A red toy tugboat goes on a river adventure, only to realize where he belonged was in the quiet of his owner’s house. My boys loved it too before they graduated to other stories. Maybe they will rediscover it some day at the right time.
THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES by B.J. Novak: A new classic. A new must-have in your children’s library. If you are a parent-to-be or have babies turning into toddlers, get this one. It’s entertaining and it truly prepares kids for the day when books have more words than illustrations. This has been probably the most-requested story in our house; Dad’s funny voices probably help. But still, remarkable to consider it’s my kids’ top choice because, true to its titles, it has no pictures.
THE STORM WHALE by Benji Davies: I simply can not get enough of this book, the story of a small Scandinavian boy, Noi, who in secret saves a beached whale. Noi lives remotely with his father, a lonely fisherman, and the lesson here about altruism, taking a chance, forgiveness, and friendship gives me a lump in my throat every. single. time. When the boys are too old for us to read picture books to them, this will be the enduring one in my memory, the one I wish I could read to them just one more time. If these boys grow into men and become fathers themselves, I plan to gift them and their newborns this book.
What about you? What are you favorite books to read to small children? Are there books which touched a part of your heart or have resonated with your kids? Tell me in the comments below so I can pick them up before these boys grow up too much.
Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer based in Lancaster, Pa. He and his wife have two sons under the age of 7, and Dave spent 18 months as a stay-at-home father. You can contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.