For long stretches of my youth my family did not have electricity. In the evenings we would gather around a kerosene lamp and my mother would read by its light. She read hundreds if not thousands of books to us. I remember especially Little House on the Prairie, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Oliver Twist. 

She did not focus on reading us books that we could understand. Instead she focused on reading us books that she wanted us to understand. I was perhaps eight when she read us Oliver Twist. But I can still remember the wonder of listening to the story unfold. The vocabulary was over my head, but that did not stop me from grasping the overall message of the story.

The beauty of reading books you want your children to understand is that you get to read books you enjoy. Nowadays there are lots of books written for specific age groups. This is great for our children as they learn to read. But when we are reading to our children we get to expose them to what good writing really is. When my girls were very young I read a few of the Boxcar Children books to them. It was a great introduction to teach them to enjoy listening to books. As soon as they had really started to enjoy listening to books I stopped reading Boxcar Children and began reading the Chronicles of Prydain, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Both of those series, while still geared towards kids, are truly well written. They are packed with deep themes, well developed characters, and a broad descriptive vocabulary. Not only do these books invite us to think deeply, they supply vocabulary to express ourselves more fully.

We have now read lots of books. It is amazing how many you go through just reading a chapter or two a night. I want to share a few things I look for and pay attention to as I choose what to read next.

Is the book well written?: Not only do I want to expose my children to good writing. I want to enjoy reading. There is no way I could read to them every night if it was an exercise in suffering through the purgatory of Boxcar Children, or Dog Man. It’s great those books are out there and I welcome my children reading them for themselves. 

Is it full of meaning and purpose?: A lot of books these days are written purely for entertainment. I still remember and consider lessons learned from books my mother read to me as a child. Reading is an incredible opportunity to expose our kids to deep thoughts and ideas that will stick with them for their whole lives. Why waste our time on what is purely entertaining or cool. We get enough of that from tv and music already.

Are the underlying messages valuable and true?: This is perhaps the hardest one to nail down. Growing up I loved Redwall, a series of books by Brian Jacques. They are fairly well written stories with meaning and purpose. However, his character’s perception of bravery and honor often carries with it a need for revenge. Looking back, I think I can link a tendency in my youth to feel honor bound to hold onto grudges to those books. Much of what he writes about bravery, hard work and protecting the innocent is edifying. The underlying theme of vengeance has caused me to choose not to read them to my kids. Jesus teaches us to forgive and to love our enemy. I will not read stories where the heroes continually do the opposite. I think we often undervalue the power that stories have over our lives, and especially over the lives of our children.

Does the book have relatable characters?: The most valuable lessons are learned when we learn to see ourselves in the characters we are reading about. As a kid II related to Oliver Twist, Edmond, from The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps this is the greatest consideration when deciding what to read to our children. If our kids identify with at least one character in the book they are guaranteed to engage with what we are reading. As a father of daughters I find myself looking for books with strong heroines. Princess Elonway from the Chronicles of Prydain, Lucy and Jill from the Chronicles of Narnia. Laura from Little House on the Prairie. These are all entry points for them to enter into the story. That is not to say that I limit our reading to books with heroines. Tom Soyare, and a biography on Brother Andrew have also been among their favorite books. In both cases they entered into the story through the common ground of childhood. 

I hope you find these criteria helpful as you dive into reading to your kids. I believe it is one of the most powerful, practical things we can do to show love and develop depth in our kids.

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