Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Reading: start at the VERY beginning

by Jennie Brown

I climbed into the suburban, terrified. It was my first time traveling with an infant—and our initiation would be with a long car ride and a suburban full of in-laws, not to mention a notoriously fussy three month old. The diaper bag was packed with everything I could think of, but three month olds don’t really have favorite toys. Last minute I had thrown in a book that just arrived in the mail as a baby gift.

And so we set out. She did okay the first hour or so. Then we started to need distractions. I talked and sang and held her hand and got out the fish toy. Eventually, I pulled out that counting book.

She was entranced. We laughed, thought it was a fluke, began to set it down. But my baby wanted to keep looking at that book. So we read. Not just that first day, either. When we drove around Yellowstone Park for multiple days and she was sick of being in a carseat, we read.  When we drove home and she was angry, we read. I counted to ten roughly 30,000 times that week. It would’ve been nice to have another book and some variety, but we blessed that 123 San Francisco book anyway.

And so began my baby’s life as a reader.
My neighbors with babies and tiny children were a bit surprised when they noticed I started toting books around to church and activities as a distraction. Greta loved books. They worked for her. She was a LITTLE baby, and she was a reader.

Was she in it for the story? Hard to say how much, but obviously something was engaging her.
Did she love the pictures and flipping of pages? Yes.
Did she start to develop an emotional connection with books? You bet.

At four months, I was surprised to see that every time we opened to the “Yellow” page in our color book, she grinned at that little yellow lion. This baby was still fussy and didn’t smile all that often, but the lion did it every time. She recognized it, she knew it, and she loved it.

By nine or ten months, her relationship with books changed. She started to request and pick out certain books. She navigated to her favorite pages and flipped them open again and again so we can read them. She caught on to the suspense in storytelling and would giggle and look at me expectantly. She hung onto our voice inflections, soaking in the way we read with silly voices or fake accents. It became a favorite tradition for her to do with Dad, who often left the home long before she woke up and was gone for long days. Over books, they bonded and laughed and connected every night.

By age two, we are entrenched in a book culture. We read every afternoon before naptime and every night before bed. She adores the library. She runs to the bookshelves at her grandparents house to find new titles. She's memorized the words to her favorite books and can repeat them on cue. At her preschool class, they comment on how often she grabs a book to read on the rug. She might have an innate, inherent love of books--but it might also have come from how much we've encouraged it.

But now she has a little sister, too. 
When little Eloise was just two and a half months old, we found ourselves once again setting off on a roadtrip with an infant. We threw in a few board books. It worked. Again. Again, we found ourselves a little bit surprised that our still sleepy, still tiny, just-older-than-newborn could be interested in reading. But we had some real proof of the payoff that could come, so we tried once again to dedicate ourselves to building an early reader.

Baby Eloise hasn't been exactly the same as her older sister. She has some different reading preferences. Before naps, she's a little too tired and fussy for books. But I've discovered that after naps is her ideal time--while she's still waking up and wants to be held, she loves to cozy up and read for awhile. She's also had different favorite books at different times. And the second time around, it's been just as fun. We have loved the literacy journey and the joy that reading has brought to our family.

I don't think what I'm saying is anything new. We all know that reading to babies is good. We all know that starting early is beneficial. I grew up in a home engrained in a culture of reading to babies and children--but I cannot tell you how surprised I was at how early it could start and how fun it could be. 

How early is your baby interested in reading?
How early could you start?
Why don't you try it, and see?

What may have begun in desperation on a road trip with a three month old really kickstarted a cherished family tradition. You can bet it won't stop any time soon.

I believe in reading. And I believe in reading early.