How to Choose a Great Read-Aloud Book

red autumn in the park

Autumn has come; what a splendid season. The leaves have changed, but only to yellow here in the mountainous, desert-like climate of Colorado. The aspens have change to a gorgeous gold-like yellow blaze in the prime of fall. I have to admit, as much as I enjoy our autumn season here, I dearly miss the memory of fall in the Midwest. Not much can compare to the red, orange, burgundy, and yellow leaves of the tall, tall deciduous trees amassing the fields and hills. When I have a quiet moment, which is rare, in a house alive with four children, I hear the ring of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow my kids have been working on memorizing. The second stanza begins…

We hail the merry autumn days,
When leaves are turning red;
Because they’re far more beautiful
Than anyone has said.
We hail the merry harvest time,
The gayest of the year;
The time of rich and bounteous crops,
Rejoicing and good cheer.

Like poems, beautifully-written stories can shape the imaginations of our children. A good story is a gift to our children— a gift that enables them to see the mystery and magic of our world now, and a preparation for what is to come.


late-night-reading

So, what is a ‘great’ read-aloud? One possible indicator is when your child says, “Mom, will you please keep reading….just one more page? Please!!” You know you’ve likely found a great read-a-loud when your your kids are asking for more. There are numerous books out there that have a captivating story and are also wonderfully written.

Whether you have already created a culture of reading in your home or if you’re just starting now, there is hope. I had my first child eleven years ago and I had no idea at that point in time how to choose great books to read to her. One day, in a Borders bookstore, standing before the shelves of children’s books and feeling more than a little overwhelmed, I shyly gathered courage to ask a nearby mom. “ Umm…do you have any recommendations for what to read to a toddler?” She kindly responded with, “Two words….Charlotte Mason. Check her out.”

I discovered Charlotte Mason was a British educator living and teaching in the 1800’s. She recommends the reading of what she calls, ‘living books’. Living books are typically written by one person who writes in a narrative or conversational style who has immersed herself in a topic. I liked the sound of reading a ‘living book’ to my child— much better than a dead one, I suppose! Mason discouraged reading ‘twaddle,’ a word she termed as dumbed down literature with the absence of meaning. In our home, we aim to spread before our kids a broad feast of books to read and for us to read to them. And once in awhile, we all read a few purely for fun!

If you’re wondering what criteria to think through in selecting a read-aloud for your children, here are a few thoughts:

Great Read-Alouds…

  • include an intriguing and well-written narrative with complex characters who come alive;
  • stimulate the imaginations, minds, and hearts of both children and adults;
  • are often timeless classics, fairy tales, or chapter books;
  • include characters worth emulating or ones that lead a child to explore the tensions and complexities lying in the human heart.

Children are often able to listen to a book being read that is two to three levels higher than his individual reading level. We just finished reading Mr. Poppers Penguins to our four year old and six year old. This absurd tale is full of humor and you might find yourself laughing out loud along with your kids.

The goal in selecting stories for a great read-aloud isn’t finding one with the most well-behaved characters. The Bible certainly isn’t even an example of this! Rather, the goal is to find stories that help us wrestle with themes of good vs. evil, whether it be in an external battle and an internal challenge a character is facing.

“Having found the book which has a message for us, let us not be guilty of the folly of saying we have read it. We might as well say we have breakfasted, as if breakfasting on one day should last us for every day! The book that helps us deserves many readings, for assimilation comes by slow degrees.” Charlotte M. Mason, Ourselves


If reading aloud is a new practice in your home or if you’re trying to get back into the habit…start small. Try one thing on this list:

  • Spend 10 minutes a day reading aloud to your child. This small amount will actually total 30 hours of reading a year.
  • Set an alarm on your phone to read aloud to your kids. 
  • Play audio books. Our local public library system has an abundance of books on CD or playaways. Try out a free subscription to audible.com, or check out LibriBox– a free public domain books in an audio format written before 1923. Audio books or playaways  are perfect when you’re tired, or when you’re in the car, even if you’re just driving the kids around town for their activities.
  • Older kids can read to younger kids.
  • Replace wasted minutes in the day with intentional reading time. A 10-minute Facebook scroll time in the car may be a window of time you can read to your child.

Here is a short list (selected by our kids!) of our favorite family read-alouds….

Picture Books

  • Billy & Blaze by C.W. Anderson
  • The Bear Who Heard Crying by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
  • Roxaboxen by Alice McClerran
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • Mr. Books (Mr. Happy, Mr. Bump, Mr. Impossible, Mr. Greedy) by Roger Hargraves
  • My Mama Had a Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray
  • The Three Bears by F. Rojankovsky
  • The Bee Tree by Patricia Polacco
  • Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
  • Johnny Appleseed by Johnny Kellogg

Chapter Books

  • Chronicles of Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis
  • The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • Moby Dick (abridged ) by Herman Melville
  • All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
  • Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery
  • Swiss Family Robinson – Johann David Wyss
  • Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
  • The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
  • Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones
  • Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite read-alouds?

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Four Ways Reading Aloud Can Shape Your Home

 

I’ve been reading aloud to our kids since they were babies. First board books (which they mostly tried to eat), and then on to pictures books full of beautiful illustrations. It’s fascinating to think my one year old child would sit on my lap mesmerized by Good Night Moon or Go Dog Go or The Mitten, and then ask for a story to be read over and over and over again, never seeming to tire of hearing it. Children love to hear a loved one’s voice reading the same words time and time again.

One of my all-time favorite picture books is My Mama Had a Dancing Heart. I’ve read this so many times to our girls over the last ten years, I almost have it down by heart. Our youngest actually did have it memorized by the age of three and oh, it was the sweetest to hear little voice say, “My mama had a dancing heart and she shared that heart with me, with a grin and a giggle and hug and a whistle, we’d slap out knees and Momma would say, “ Bless the world. It feels like a tip-tapping, song-singing, finger-snapping kind of day. Let’s celebrate! And so we did….”  

It seems to come naturally to us as parents to pick up a picture book and read to a small child. But once a child can read on his own, its easy to continue to encourage him or her to only read independently and never be read to. It is a joyous day when our kids can read independently, but there are multiple emotional, spiritual, and mental benefits they can acquire through being read aloud to.


Reading Aloud Can Help You…

Introduce New Ideas
Hearing stories read aloud aids children in their ability to comprehend ideas and broaden their vocabulary. One of the single most important activities for building the knowledge required to be successful in life is reading aloud.

When we listen to someone reading, if we’re reading anything worthwhile, we’ll hear sentences with great language, flow, and structure. How could we not become writers and speakers, if we listen to Homer or Shakespeare? If you can understand their writings, even a little, you can comprehend anything. A child can be taught the proper structure of a sentence, but we learn how to form great sentences best by hearing and hearing excellent language.

Know the Same people
We’re committed to reading aloud as often as possible to our kids until they leave our home. One of the desires propelling us forward in this vision is for our family to ‘know’ many of the same people through the books we read. Through books, we can travel the world and meet people we would never have met like the hilarious, Pippi Longstocking or the trustworthy Lucy Pevensie from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“A family, a class, or any group that reads aloud has a sense of communion as they share together ideas and human experiences.” -Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake

Enter the Big Story
As we share an experience through reading aloud together, we also begin to truly enter into the story God has been creating for the past thousands of years. Reading aloud Bible stories, poetry, fantasy, fairy tales, and animal stories helps us to see ourselves as characters in the story God created us to walk out. My friend, Sarah Clarkson, author of Caught up in a Story, has often talked about how books inspire us to see ourselves as a hero or heroine of our story. When I read Anne of Green Gables aloud to my kids, I hope for them to imagine themselves as Anne, one who cultivates beauty wherever she wanders. Anne can look at a serene sunset and be reminded of the goodness in this world. She can wander under willow trees and hear the sweet whispers of the wind. Hearing stories, shapes the imaginations of our children, which is truly a gift to them— a gift to be able to see the mystery and magic of our world now, and a preparation for what is to come.

By entering these stories, my kids also learn what to do (or not do). I hope to lecture them on character much less and allow them to read more and more about heroes they can emulate. I hope they will learn an abundance of character lessons by reading  great stories— more than they will by my lectures on what ‘they should do’ in any given situation.

My favorite question to ask when we’re reading a story aloud is, “Do you think he should have done that?” Should Abram have trusted God’s promise or acted in fear? Should Harry have trusted his dream leading him to believe a friend was in trouble?”

As we read aloud great books to our kids, we’re placing before them something worth loving, something worth giving their time to.

“What we teach children to love and desire will always outweigh what we make them learn.” Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook

Cultivate the Love of Learning
Reading aloud to our children, inspires in them a love of learning that will remain in them throughout the entirety of their lives. What we listen to, we dwell on. Do you still remember a particular scripture you memorized as child that seems to seep in into your mind on occasion? Or the the worship songs that you still hum, but haven’t listened to in fifteen years?

What we learn in childhood is carved in stone. What we learn as adults is carved in ice.” – David Kheridian, poet


The stories and ideas our children meditate on will stay with them all their lives. Even if they don’t understand everything they hear today, comprehension and application will likely come later. Reading aloud creates an opportunity for a child to make connections, giving them food to delight their soul.

Despite my best efforts to read aloud to my kids every day, there are some days when sickness or tiredness weighs me down like the the heavy load of a donkey. It breaks my mama heart, when my four year old says, “Mama, will you read me this book, right now?” And now, her requests are no longer board books. They seems to be long picture books or even chapter books. This sweet request came a few days ago while I was scrubbing a stack of pans with caked on, dried up food. I would have been overjoyed to drop the task of dishes to be distracted by reading. I’d rather read to her than do almost anything else! The chapter book requested, Mr Poppers Penguins, is NOT a short picture book. My little one couldn’t quite comprehend why I wasn’t able to drop all my household tasks and sit down and read the entire book at that very moment.

Reading some is better than not reading at all. We all have a unique family puzzle requiring intentionality to figure out what works. Let’s intentionally try to make reading aloud part of our daily life, giving us and our children an opportunity to slow down, pay attention, and allow for the richness of reading to stir our hearts and minds.

If you’d like some research on the benefits of reading aloud, here’s a thoughtful and informative piece.

I’d love to know what you’re reading aloud to your kids. Please leave a comment!