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How (and How Not) to Pass On a Love of Books to Your Kids

Row of colorful hardback books, open book on red background

My two daughters share a room. They’re 14 and almost 7, so it’s not an easy match, but our house is our house, and so they share a room. It’s mostly my older daughter’s stuff everywhere—she’s got jewelry boxes and perfume and as much makeup as I’ll allow. My younger daughter has a playroom for her dollhouses and baby dolls, her arts and crafts and her desk.

I was cleaning their room today (I know, I should make them do it, but I always loved when my mother cleaned my room for me and so I clean theirs for them), and found myself staring at the bookshelf and thinking about how the changing roster of books on the shelves reflects our changing lives. Today, most of our books are kept out in the living room. My daughter has a small bookshelf in her room, filled with her books.

Meanwhile, I’ve got two big bookshelves out in our main living space, one for me and one for them. My first shelf is filled mostly with their books, homeschool books for my son, books from my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I’ve got a shelf devoted to my library books, a rotating supply of books to read and books to return. The “Harry Potter” books that are dog-eared and beloved, the chapter books that my oldest has outgrown, and my youngest is just now starting to read sit on WHICH SHELF?

My other bookshelf is devoted to picture books. Hundreds of picture books. I’ve got fourteen years worth of PJ Library books, three copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” (when your son’s name is Sam, it takes on a special resonance). I’ve got counting books and books on why we don’t litter, books on tongue twisters and books about ladybugs and butterflies. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and a particularly large group of books about ducks (because that’s what my son was into when he was a toddler).

I collect books, but when I had children, I stopped collecting my own books and starting collecting kids’ books. If any family was clearing out their bookshelf, I gratefully accepted their castoffs. I had big baskets filled with board books, and shelves and shelves of picture books. Over time, I’ve managed to cull out the absolute favorite board books and donate the rest, but there are always books flowing in and out of the house, like a river of words.

I’m a reader. I vividly remember learning to read, and walking into the library and being thrilled to realize that all those books were there, just for me to discover. I read walking to and from school, I read in the car until I got car sick. Today, I still read to drown out family drama and I read to decompress from whatever is going on in the world. It’s my coping mechanism, it’s my way of interacting with the world in a very real sense. I read fast and furiously, and my idea of a dream day is the whole day alone with a pile of books.

I pushed reading on my older daughter, because I was SO excited to have a daughter who could read all the books I loved. I brought them home, piles and piles of them, thrilled to introduce her to the classic heroines: Jane Eyre and Marmee, Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy, Anne and Emily and Marigold and Jane of Lantern Hill… and my daughter responded by refusing to really read anything for pleasure until she was in fourth or fifth grade. Even now, she reads completely different books than I do and in a different way. She falls in love with a book, and reads it until it falls apart (she’s on her third copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird“).

I learned my lesson with my oldest, and have been much more reserved about introducing books to my little one. We read board books and picture books, just like I did with my older two. But I didn’t push them on her. I didn’t build her a collection of chapter books way before she was ready, the way I had done with my older daughter. The books are here, because I had, but I am letting her discover them on her own.

And it’s been working. She seeks them out. She’s working her way through a fairy magic series now, and just started reading the “Magic Treehouse” books. When I see her carrying around a book with her, and sitting down and reading it, just like I used to do, I’m alternately proud and afraid to say anything that might make her stop.

So here I am, looking at her room and I realize: she’s ready for her own bookshelf. This shouldn’t be cause for tears, and yet, I found myself having to literally sit on the couch and cry for a little bit, because in order to get her the bookshelf, I have to admit that I don’t need hundreds of picture books anymore. There is no little one left in the house to read those bright, illustrated books. The reality is that my last little baby isn’t a baby anymore, and might need a shelf where she can store her chapter books instead of “Winnie the Pooh” and the “Paper Bag Princess.” I’m happy, I’m sad, and I’m crying.

I like to think I’m handling my kids growing up well. I remind myself that everything has a season, and there was a time when my life revolved around proximity to the bathroom for day-long morning sickness, and then around nap times and nursing sessions. I carried a diaper bag everywhere, and planned my days around snack times and early afternoon naps. Things change. I’ve got my oldest stepdaughter going off to college in the fall, my younger stepdaughter planning on getting her license, and my oldest daughter dancing off to high school in September. And I thought was fine with all of that—until it dawned on me that my almost seven-year-old is outgrowing her little girl books and is ready for more.

I’ll give her a shelf. One just for her. I’ll sort through the books I’ve got, and take her shopping for more. And maybe I’ll be able to find another mom or ad who’s where I was, fourteen years ago, looking to build a library with hundreds of picture books, and pass along some of our treasures, the ones I read over and over again until we could all chant them with our eyes shut, to their family.

But I’m keeping my multiple copies of “Green Eggs and Ham,” and the nursery rhymes, and fairy tales.  I think I’ll always have at least shelf, just for me, of the books that we loved, and that they’ve outgrown, but I never will.

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