Katie and I finished her 24th chapter book—Black Beauty by Anna Sewell—this afternoon. While we might put another couple into her repertoire before the summer ends, these twenty-four books represent hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of critical thinking and practice with language, the structure of a novel, and literary interpretation.

These hundreds of hours do not count, of course, all of the other reading we have done in her young life: children’s books galore (I have an obsession with collecting), newspaper articles, magazines, poetry, and other pieces of non-fiction print. I have no way to estimate the total time we have spent reading in her young life… She has been out of my womb for what? Maybe 1640 days. (What is that, maybe something like 39, 360 hours of life or more…we’re estimating here, although this may be an irrelevant number to the rest of my calculations). If we spent about two hours a day reading, that would be about 3280 hours. (Honey, check my math please)! But this would only be an average—obviously some days we spent less and some days we spent far more than two hours (especially during the Harry Potter series). Anyway, let’s say a few thousand hours. Not a whole lot, but I’ve been hearing that 10,000 hours is a popular number these days when we’re talking about practice-towards-mastery with respect to critical thinking/interpretation. If that’s true (big big IF there), then she is about 1/3 of the way there.

I often worry that I will shortchange Eric—it is much harder with two to put in the reading hours and at the right challenge levels—but I do aim for at least two reading sessions with him (and Katie with us) a day.

Sometimes I am asked about Katie’s vocabulary. It comes from all this reading and from never talking to her as a child. I learned this from my parents, who always spoke with my brother and me as though we were adults capable of grappling with logic and complexity. I completely value letting children immerse themselves in complex, rich, high-challenge language. Sooner or later, given enough immersion, it may take hold.

I have also been asked about whether or not Katie can truly understand some of the literature I have given her at her age (starting at about 3.5 years). These were her thoughts about the Harry Potter series, which is evidence enough for me. I do not think I can expect her to develop complex thought if I never ask her to deal with complication in a consistent, practiced way. I believe that being a critical thinker starts young. As we read these novels, we discuss all the way through. We often take time for new vocabulary and talk about characters, plot, and setting. I am grateful for my training as a high school English teacher.

So why these twenty-four books?

I thought these might be enjoyable for her, plus I already owned many of them. I don’t think this is a definitive list, and if I had more time, there are several others I’d want to read to her before next autumn. Still, even though we’ll have a more set curriculum (and right now they are all children’s books for the lit—many of which we have already read, several times), I fully intend to keep reading chapter books to her to keep her growing as a thinker.

Here are our books:

1. Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)

2. The Sign of the Beaver (Elizabeth George Speare)

3. Island of the Blue Dolphins (Scott O’Dell)

4. James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)

5. Ramona the Pest (Beverly Cleary)

6. Odd and the Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman)

7. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl)

8. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

9. Helen Keller (Katharine E. Wilkie)

10. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

11. Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls)

12. Little House on the Prairie (Ingalls)

13. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Ingalls)

14. By the Shores of Silver Lake (Ingalls)

15. The Long Winter (Ingalls)

16. Little Town on the Prairie (Ingalls)

17. These Happy Golden Years (Ingalls)

18. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)

19. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)

20. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)

21. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)

22. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)

23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Rowling)

24. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling)

We also read fourteen small chapter books in the Rainbow Magic Fairy series (Rainbow Fairies and Weather Fairies) as well as several original Nancy Drew books and a couple of Scooby-Doo books. I do not count these among the twenty-four because, yes, they are all chapter books but they are also formulaic and more in the category of “light reads.” I think it is important to enjoy light reads, and I think it is likewise important to teach our children how to balance lighter reads with heavier reads; in fact, I think our brains might need this balance. Everyone enjoys a light read now and then, and I believe a light read is important for practicing literacy skills as well as giving the brain some play time. These kinds of reads are a chance for our brain to integrate what we know about reading, to enjoy a different style, and to let the imagination have free reign.

And yes, I have taken a formal stand on Harry Potter, obviously. As an English teacher and a Stanford English major, I very much believe these do belong in the official/unofficial literary canon. 🙂

We also started both Stuart Little and The Phantom Tollbooth, but stopped part way through on each. Both times she decided she was in the mood for something else, and I honor that. We do that as adults, too. I am sure we’ll come back to both of those.

She chose our new book this afternoon—always a great feeling, to spread out a selection of books and read the beginnings to pick out what you’d like next, yes? She chose The Bridge to Terabithia, and I am terribly glad! I was really in the mood for that one, too, out of all we had to choose from, although I tried to remain neutral as we explored our options.

Although there have been times when dropping everything to read during the day has felt at first like work, what I will remember most is how much fun it has been with her, and how much I have loved the cuddles and the chance to witness her world open up and her mind engaged. It has been magical to build this connection between us—the connection of literature in common—and we draw upon it all the time.

Now to finish making dinner…and tonight, more Terabithia! I love being as excited as she is about what we’re reading.