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Today on Instagram, I reposted a quote from Mem Fox that a friend posted:
When I say to a parent, “read to a child,” I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.Mem Fox
Reading aloud is one of my all-time favorite things to do – whether in life or in work. It definitely counts as chocolate. In fact, in second grade, I wrote that I wanted to be a school librarian when I grew up. As far as my seven-year-old self was concerned, it was the perfect job: school librarians work all day, literally surrounded by books, and it looked to me like they spent most of their day reading aloud to classes! Sounded like the perfect job to me. The expressions on Mrs. Moriarty’s face and the emotions that played across her vocal chords as her voice wove the stories around me and my classmates conveyed a deeper love for books than any words she could have said. And I was already hooked on books. No need to convince me!
In my upper elementary and middle school years, I was homeschooled, and part of each school day was our read-aloud. I honestly loved it when my mom was busy with my baby brother or the phone rang, because then I got to be the reader to my siblings. Personally, I thought, listening to a book is boring. Making the story come to life with my own voice? Magical.
Now, I teach fifth graders, and my favorite part of my job – other than the relationships, of course – is reading aloud. And every time I skype with my nieces, who are three and a half, they can’t wait to say to me, “Let’s read a book!” – and then we read anywhere between 2 and 5 in one sitting.
Read-alouds do something in a classroom, or in a home, that other things can’t.
First, reading books aloud together creates shared experiences through the pages of a book. And, as my youth pastor once told me, shared experiences, like embarrassing moments, flat tires or when you spew water because you’re laughing so hard, are the basis of relationships. Why not create some shared experiences with your kids/students?
Want to take kids traveling to another country?
Read a book together – and experience all the sights, smells, colors, and tastes that form the tapestry of its culture. My siblings and I still remember traveling to Persia and the surrounding countries in Shadow Spinner and Seven Daughters and Seven Sons, going to China through the true story of Eric Liddell, and to India via Amy Carmichael.
Want to take your kids on an adventure?
Read The Chronicles of Narnia – there’s plenty of adventure there!
Second, stories read together also create open opportunities for you to discuss real-world topics with kids – and often cause them to ask poignant questions about those topics.
Want to talk about racism with your students or children?
Read a book – and discuss how the characters view the “others” in it – and whether or not it’s right and fair. I did that with my students this past year in a unit on Westward Expansion, and I was impressed and humbled by the ideas that they shared – especially when a group read Sign of the Beaver.
Want to show your kids how books help us sort through our own family issues?
Try Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing or Beezus and Ramona. Maybe, if family life is harder, try something like Because of Winn-Dixie.
What about someone for whom school is hard?
Maybe there’s someone in the class who has dyslexia or autism. Try Rules or Fish in a Tree.
Maybe the kid in your life is walking through grief for the first time.
Each Little Bird that Sings might be just the thing they need to be able to put words to the roiling emotions inside.
Books – and the stories contained within them – are marvelous, mysterious things. We read them and learn without realizing it. We make sense of the world around us. And we realize that there are others in the world who can relate to our emotions in ways we didn’t even think possible!
Reading aloud is also so very, very, very good for young readers. They learn so much about how reading is supposed to sound, how to hold a book, what a word is, how pictures and words go together, and how readers think – all from reading aloud with someone who is a more experienced reader than they are. – Especially if that reader pauses every so often and asks things like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” or “How is this character feeling right now?” and then share their own reader thoughts with the child.
But I might be getting carried away on my reading teacher soapbox.
I want to share below some of my favorite read-alouds. These titles are based on my own childhood, teaching, and aunt-hood experiences. But before I share, a couple of notes:
- The list below is by no means exhaustive.
- I have also realized, while teaching in another country, that many of the books that I used to consider essential, are, in fact, very central to my white, middle class, American culture of origin. I would love to expand my arsenal of favorites to include stories about other cultures, countries, ethnicities, and people groups that are accurate, honoring portrayals. So if you have some suggestions to add, please comment below!
- I put them in age categories, but those are VERY flexible.* Picture books can still be great read-alouds for older kids. Younger kids can understand chapter books that are read-aloud. You just have to know your listeners. And sometimes, that requires some trial and error. There’s nothing wrong with stopping when a book is not working for you or your fellow readers. The important thing is to read aloud, read together, and read often.
*Case in point is my brother-in-law who read the Theory of Relativity to his first-born twins when they were less than two months old. They already know more about physics and chemistry than I do. And they’re only three and a half. Don’t underestimate the power of reading aloud early and often!
Read Aloud Favorites
Babies and Toddlers
- Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
- Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
- Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
- Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney
- Curious George by H.A. Rey and Margaret Rey
- The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
- The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Early Elementary (K-3)
Picture Books/Early Reader Books
- Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
(all the Amerlia Bedelia books!)
- Thunder Cake by Patriccia Polacco
- See the Ocean by Estelle Condra
- Morris the Moose books
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
- Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (and basically any books by him)
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
Chapter books to read with this age:
- The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
- The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
- The BFG by Roald Dahl (this one is well-loved by 4th and 5th graders, too!)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Books I’ve never read and/or read aloud, but my students love:
Upper Elementary (4-6)
This is my area of expertise, so this list, especially chapter books, is longer. You could arguably read many of these books aloud to younger kids – again, just know your audience.
Any of the above, plus:
- A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
- The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
- Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
- You Are Special by Max Lucado
- Because I Love You by Max Lucado
- The Children of the King by Max Lucado
- Wonder by R.J. Palacio
- Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
- Mrs. Piggle-wiggle by Betty MacDonald
- Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
- The BFG by Roald Dahl (seriously, kids think his humor is hilarious! I love the shared experience of laughter that comes from this book)
- Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (beware the triggers in this book – if there is an absent parent or someone in a kid’s life who struggles with alcohol, they could get upset while listening)
- The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards (I do a whole unit using this book every year)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – or any in this series
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
- Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher
- Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen – there’s one half-page my mom covered with a post-it when we read it because the protagonist realizes she finally looks like a woman now that she’s grown-up and it’s becoming harder to pretend to be a young man to earn money for her family – and she describes her realization in detail. Just so you’re aware. I’d summarize/skip that paragraph when reading aloud to kids now.
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien – depending the maturity/interest of your listeners
- The Wright 3 by Blue Balliett
Books I haven’t read aloud yet, but want to, given the right audience:
- Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (update: I read this to my class this year, and they LOVED it)
- Rules by Cynthia Lord
- The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
- City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
- Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
- Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
- The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
- Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I hope that’s enough to get you started, but there are so many more read-aloud worthy books in this world! And a bazillion reading lists that you can Google too.
Comment below with some of your favorites! Especially those titles that involve a variety of cultures and backgrounds.