From the May/June, 2012 issue of Touchstone

You Decide! by Kathie Johnson

FIRST BOOKS by Kathie Johnson

You Decide!

Over the years, I’ve noticed two distinct types of parent–child interactions with books. Here I am mainly talking about young children, who are not yet reading independently. I call these two types “catering to whims” and “guided reading.”

The first type of parent always asks the child a question like, “What sort of book would you like to borrow today? Do you want one about dogs? Cats? Trucks?” And so on. The children rarely respond, and when they do, it seems to me to be with a sense of stress—they need to choose something to please mom (it’s mostly moms that come with their kids to my library). These families walk away, having checked out one or two books. The next time they come, the same thing happens. The children rarely show any joy around books.

A variant of this is the mom who shows her child a book and says something like: “Here’s a book that looks interesting. Shall we take this one?” The answer is often “No.” What is the child basing that response on? Some reaction to the picture on the cover? Something they are reading into the way the book is being presented by the parent? How do they know whether or not they will like a particular book?

The other type of parent doesn’t bother to ask the kids. These parents go to the shelves themselves and get armfuls of books on a variety of subjects. They are always interested in what I have on display or what people are talking about. They use reference books or the Internet for suggestions of good books. They ask me for ideas.

Getting Excited About Books

On subsequent visits, they talk about the books their kids especially liked, which leads to more suggestions. The children in these families are excited about books. They soon come to learn their way around the library and develop favorite shelves. Lots of boys stay a while among the shelves containing dinosaur books, or train books, or books about pirates or sharks. Many of the girls spend time among the shelves holding ballet books or cat or butterfly books. They often develop an attachment to particular characters such as Angelina Ballerina or Katie Morag.

As these children grow older and learn to read for themselves, they find new sections of the library to explore. Since they are used to having lots of books around and generally read quickly, they consume entire sections, powering through easy mysteries, The Boxcar Children books, and The Magic Treehouse series, then moving on. One older girl has gone through most of my “older fantasy” section, discovering new authors each time she comes. A boy in another family has read many of the biographies in my library, and is now working his way through the Native American section.

The first type of parent is trying to be responsive to what their child might be interested in, but how does the child know? Children who have not been exposed to lots of books and topics and ideas have difficulty even determining what their interests are.

Among the second type of parent, those who impress me most are the ones who listen carefully to what their children talk about. They listen to their questions, encourage their natural curiosity about the world, and then make mental or written notes. These parents will come in saying something like, “We were noticing the garden spiders in our back yard this week and wonder if you have some books about spiders and the webs they build.” It’s great fun to gather a variety of books that will expand their interest and knowledge about some aspect of the world.

Or they might give me a response to a particular book or books. This might sound like: “My boys loved the book about the snake with the wonderful illustrations by Steven Kellogg. Can you find more for us?” It gives me joy to find lots of books written and/or illustrated by Kellogg, knowing that these bouncy boys will derive so much pleasure from them.

Parental Guidance Recommended

I’m only passing on what I’ve observed, without claiming any expertise, but I’ve watched the same patterns over many years now and have concluded that it works better if parents do most of the selecting of books when their children are young. As children learn what they like and are interested in, they will naturally begin to make their own selections. Even then, the parents I admire most tend to continue to select additional books, which their children may not notice for themselves. These often turn out to be big hits. Parents may select books to broaden their children’s interests, to challenge them, or for a variety of other reasons.

If you have young children, I would encourage you to make lots of books available. Parents report that even if their kids are not very interested in a particular book while they are at the library, they will often pick it up at home and then get truly interested. If you want to have children who love books and are comfortable with selecting them, don’t leave all the decisions up to them. 

—Kathie welcomes your questions and suggestions for topics to cover. Please contact her at

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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