The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 13, 2021 Comments Off on The Secret to Picking Read-Aloud Chapter Books

How do you choose the chapter books you read to your kids? Maybe you consider whether the subject matter will appeal to them. Maybe you focus on what kind of characters they’ll identify with. Maybe you know they’ll be more likely to sit still for a funny story than one with long descriptive passages. Maybe you reach for a book because it’s one your child has asked you to read, or one you think you should read, or one by an author your child loves.

Whatever your criteria, it’s likely you’re thinking more about the audience than about yourself.

What if I told you your audience doesn’t matter?

OK, that’s not entirely true. Of course, your audience matters. Especially with younger children, there will always be ages and maturity levels to consider. But do you know what matters more than all the things I listed above? What matters the most?

The secret to picking a chapter book your kids will want to hear night after night is to pick one you will enjoy reading.

Your enthusiasm for what you’re reading influences your children’s enjoyment more than anything else. When you’re into a story, your eyes light up. Your voice is more dynamic. You are infinitely more likely to make that story enticing. Suddenly, the dishes in the sink or your buzzing phone fade into the background. Suddenly, there is nothing more important, nothing more exciting, than the mutual experience of immersing yourselves in a fictional world.

It’s tremendously liberating. Don’t enjoy fantasy? Don’t read it. Bored to tears by the likes of Magic Tree House? Save ‘em for your kids to read on their own. By reading aloud to your children, especially after they are reading on their own, you are giving them a precious gift. You’re choosing to prioritize reading in the home. I’m giving you permission to enjoy it as much as your kids do. Heck, I’m telling you your enjoyment will nearly guarantee their enjoyment—and, consequently, all the benefits that come with it.

For me, it always, always comes back to the writing. I’m a sucker for good writing. I love the way beautiful language rolls off the tongue. I love the drama of a perfectly placed sentence. I love smart, funny dialogue. Most of all, I love writing that’s tight. (Ironic, I know, since succinctness is clearly not my own specialty.) If a paragraph starts to drift or ramble, if the pacing of a story wanes, then my attention breaks. I’m no longer present. My heart’s not in it. The magic is broken…for a spell.

In that vein, I enjoyed every moment of Elana K. Arnold’s The House That Wasn’t There (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which I just finished reading to my ten-year-old daughter. Yes, the story itself has plenty to recommend it—who wouldn’t love middle-school realism with a few teleporting cats thrown in for good measure? But what struck me the entire time I was reading it was how good the writing is. Every sentence is an absolute pleasure to read out loud. It’s tight. It flows beautifully. It filled us with that same warm fuzzies as previous favorites like this, this, and this.

Oh, and my daughter? The actual intended audience (wink wink)? She adored it, too. We lingered in bed on weekend mornings—we willingly let the bacon get cold!—because we were totally and completely under the spell of this quiet, quirky, touching story.

Sixth graders Alder and Oak—nicknamed “tree kids” by their school bus driver—live next door to one another in Southern California. Only they can’t stand each other. Alder has lived in his house forever, one of the few memories of his late father a family portrait taken in front of the gigantic walnut tree outside his window. Oak has just relocated from San Francisco to the house adjacent to Alder’s—not that anyone asked her opinion—where the first thing her architect mother does is order the removal of the walnut tree to make room for an addition. Glares and misunderstandings between the children (and their mothers) abound. As readers we are treated to both children’s perspectives, in alternating chapters, which allows us that rare gift of empathizing with both of them.

Amidst awkward bus rides and forced school project pairings, the two are increasingly unable to ignore the coincidences that keep popping up around them. For one, they’ve got these tree names. Two, they each adopt cats that turn out to be siblings. And three, they’re the only ones who see a shimmer emanating from the fresh stump of the walnut tree between their two houses. It’s only when both of them are caught near the stump in the middle of an electrical storm that things start to get downright strange…and the stirrings of an unexpected and powerful friendship develop.

Themes of loss, loneliness, forgiveness, and compassion are masterfully woven together with humor, candid dialogue, a touch of magic, and the joy of discovering a kindred spirit where you least expect one (and when you most need one). Did I mention the teleporting cats? And a taxidermied opossum? And a boy protagonist who knits?

Come for the writing. Leave with the warm fuzzies.

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Review copy from Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.

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