Read to Your Children Until They’re Twenty

This holiday morning, as I came downstairs, my eight-year-old stopped me. Wearing a wizard’s hat and hand-me-down robe, he brandished a wand.

“You have to go back upstairs,” he said.

“I thought you wanted me to read,” I said.

“We’re bringing you breakfast in bed. Then we read.”

I didn’t argue.

Yes, we were about to embark on Chapter Six of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But I’m not here to sing Harry’s or J.K. Rowling’s praises; I want to celebrate reading to my son regardless of his age.

We have our favorite books, but they’re so idiosyncratic I’d call this an anti-list.

It’s the act of reading together, of sharing the adventures of Harry or other young heroes, of reading chapter books everyone in the family enjoys—and of our son seeing how much my husband and I want to know what happens next, too—that matters more than any specific title or “enrichment” topic.

We’ve read to him before bedtime since he was a baby. We still do this, often from tried-and-true picture books that are the equivalent of comfort food.

But he and I began reading a chapter a night from far more complicated young-adult books at the beginning of second grade, often taking months to get through them. And with the Harry Potter series, the ritual has extended to us reading at least one chapter first thing in the morning, my son often begging for as many extra minutes as we have time for.

At first, I had twitches of “shouldn’t he learn to do this by himself?” But I’ve quelled them, partly because his enjoyment of plot-driven stories has grown as we read them together; partly as I’ve heard about other parents reading aloud to their kids well into high school—or at least until then—introducing them to the likes of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Little House books.

Our son can read age-appropriate chapter books himself (Ricky Ricotta the Robot comes to mind and similar series this adult finds eye-glazing). We also have a rule that I won’t read comic books or graphic novels out loud—no fun for me—so he often scours Tin Tin and manga-styled comics on his own.

(I’ve made one exception with Rapunzel’s Revenge, an extremely entertaining graphic-novel twist on the fairytale. My son and I have acted out certain sections, speaking the dialogue in the cartoon bubbles.)

All right, this is starting to feel like a list. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, but I’m hoping that a few hits and misses will show it’s the process of reading that brings us closer, not any given title.

So far, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Roald Dahl classics have yet to pass muster with my son. Too creepy. When he was younger, I was sure he’d be hooked by the original Winnie-the-Pooh, but that never took; I doubt it would now. A similar run with The Wind in the Willows was a no-go.

But last summer, over the course of many weeks, we read Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary with surprising success. My son had liked the Ramona books, which were part of read-alouds in his first-grade classroom, and Dear Mr. Henshaw happened to be the only non-Ramona title by Cleary on our local library’s shelves. But its ingenious device of using letters from a young boy named Leigh to his favorite author quickly grabbed me:

Dear Mr. Henshaw,

I wish somebody would stop stealing the good stuff out of my lunchbag. I guess I wish a lot of other things, too…

As the years go by in this story told in letters (with a few answers from Mr. Henshaw), Leigh deals with his parents’ divorce and moving to a new town and his longing for his missing father. My son the adoptee was hooked.

In this case, it wasn’t a matter of page-turning plot devices but of big questions about family that enriched our reading experience together.

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Maas also took us months to read together and for similar reasons. In this story, Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy, both misfit tweens, go on a search to find keys to a mysterious box that his deceased father left for him to open on his thirteenth birthday.

In the course of this story, the young protagonists meet a variety of adults who give them different answers to the main question—which is the point, of course, and Jeremy’s sweet paternal legacy.

Now we’re on to Harry Potter. We began this project because I insisted we read each book before we watched its corresponding movie.

At first, my son grumbled about being behind the curve with his friends. But the complaints soon stopped, because the pacing of the books has taken over. My son and I are into the second (Chamber of Secrets), while he’s just finished re-reading the first (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) with his father, who wanted to catch up to us.

We got through The Sorcerer’s Stone in a week, even though my boy doesn’t like to read about Harry’s adventures at bedtime. We tried that once, and he had trouble sleeping.

So now we read about Hogwarts and Hagrid and Hedwig in the morning, and The Berenstain Bears and the In-Crowd or The Scrambled States of America at night. I am all for letting the words tumble from our lips, for slowing down this wonderful phase of childhood for as long as possible.

I no longer worry that he won’t want to read a chapter book on his own. At this moment, he’s constructing a Hogwarts castle out of building blocks. He loves to slice off his jury-rigged towers with round inserts from pizza boxes.

If we’re still reading to him as he texts away in high school—or on visits to his college dorm—or even just through the lazy days of this summer—I will hug whatever time we have as closely as I do my son. He brought me biscuits in bed this morning that he concocted with his dad. They were spongy, misshapen magic. I had to cram in bites between the paragraphs.