Long before I had a baby, I was blown away by my friend Erika’s accomplishment of reading 1,000 books to her daughter before her first birthday.
But it was my husband who, at some point during my pregnancy, who said, “Let’s do that too.”
We didn’t share this widely — we found some people interpreted this as some competitive parenting, or as one more thing we were adding onto our plates. But it was a joyous endeavor that we wrapped up Feb. 23, a few days before Morty turned one. Here’s what I learned:
1) Reading can be a fun group activity.
Often one of us gave Morty his evening bottle while the other one read aloud. We checked out story time at Play while I was on maternity leave. Grandparents and baby-sitters have also spent time reading out loud, with mixed success. I chose quite a few library books where the grandparents died. Oops.
2) Board books have their place, but don’t hesitate to reach beyond them.
Board books are helpful as your baby starts recognizing shapes and colors. They are durable, especially important for the stage when your baby wants to put everything in his mouth. (They do have their limits: They cannot be taken into the bath, as I learned the hard way. Sorry “Snuggle Puppy!”)
Board books also up your total count: You can knock out a board book in a few minutes, whereas reading “The Cat in the Hat” will feel like it takes years. (You think you like Dr. Seuss, but your judgment has been clouded by nostalgia.)
However, early on, the advantage of reading to your baby is exposure to words and hearing your voice, not to mention establishing a bedtime routine. So I recommend choosing books you find amusing or engaging. I tend to love Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, such as “Bedtime for Mommy,” and Justin enjoys the work of Terry Fan, such as “The Night Gardener.” Recently, “Snappsy the Alligator” by Julie Falatko and “Grumpy Pants” by Claire Messer made me laugh out loud. I’ll publish a separate post on our tops books of the year.
3) The Chicago Public Library system is amazing.
Living in the city has been, and I don’t use this word casually, a blessing. We certainly spent a fair amount of time in our perfectly respectable neighborhood library branch, which is Logan Square. We visited the Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, River North and Sulzer branches. Last week we checked out the brand-new Independence Library, which also is an incredible accomplishment in terms of its kid-friendliness.
But the children’s floor (that’s right, a floor) at the Harold Washington library downtown is one for the ages. When it’s 12 degrees at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, it can be hard to think of places for your 10-month-old to crawl around. Behold, Harold Washington, a place designed to allow little people to play with costumes, mirrors, blocks, foam and more.
I also took Erika’s advice and made sure to start selecting some non-fiction books early on while at the library. In particular we enjoyed the biographies. I’d highly recommend “Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail,” about the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail, and “Balloons Over Broadway,” about the man who invented the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
4) Choose diverse books
From an availability standpoint, this was easier than I thought it would be. Our local bookstore, City Lit, and all the library branches actively work to make sure, for example, there are plenty of books by #ownvoices authors. We often visited Open Books as well, especially during sales.
In my experience, it was a little harder to make diverse selections based on gender, ethnicity or religion. This meant more conscious planning on my part: Asking the library to hold “Worm Loves Worm,” “Red: A Crayon’s Story” or “Jerome by Heart,” and incorporating the occasional Biblical tale along with stories about Jewish holidays or folktales from around the world. (I liked, for example, “Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella.”)
Speaking of gender and race, one of the advantages of reading to a little baby is that you are forced to look at your own biases. Morty has no opinion on whether the main character looks like him, or whether the story focuses on a bulldozer or unicorn. But it takes work to avoiding falling into the trap of “boy books” or “girl books,” even for babies.
5) This project probably can only be done with the first kid in his first year
Before we had Morty, we had probably 200 children’s books, a function of holding onto our own books as kids and stocking our shelves with books for visiting children. Justin would buy me children’s books featuring cats because, well, we like cats. In addition to having accessibility, we also had friends who gave us books. Our first book, appropriately, was from Erika – an autographed copy of “Firebears” by Rhonda Gowler Greene. (“Firebears” is its own story, but I called Erika in fall 2017 and said, “Hey, you get to buy me ‘Firebears’ in the spring” as a way to tell her I was having a baby. Book people are their own kind of weird).
Every parent struggles with time. We prioritized reading, but we also have our day care within walking distance, a grandparent who lived with us for most of this year and helped, and jobs where we can be home most evenings.
We also have one kid.
Even with all these stars aligning, Morty will soon be at the point where he wants to pick out his own books, and want to re-read books.
Which brings us to the big question many parents want to know: Does it really make a difference?
No, and yes. There’s good evidence of the benefits of reading out loud to your kid, but little about book quantity. Erika’s daughter has a phenomenal vocabulary. Morty is on track with the sounds he’s making and loves books, but it’s not like he is sprouting Proust. Mostly, though, what the project did was set up the habit of reading with Morty and give us a fun activity to do as a family. It warms my heart to hear the day care teacher tell us that when she pulls out a book, he gets excited.