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A how-to on reading aloud to your kids

Reading aloud to your kids is considered one of the most important ways to help them develop language skills of their own. Yet in a study released in November 2007, Florida ranked 46th out of the 50 states in parents reading to their children. The National Children's Reading Foundation says you should spend 20 minutes a night reading to your kids. Here are three ways to make bedtime reading less of a chore for you and something to keep your kids involved and asking for more:

1. Don't spare the shtick: This is your chance to ham it up. Use funny voices for different characters. Throw in an accent or two. If you read in a dull, tired voice your kids will think reading is dull and tiring, so it's up to you to show them how much fun it can be. Oh yeah, and — ka-BOOOOOSH! — don't skimp on the sound effects!

2. Mix it up: Don't read the same type of book over and over. Mix classics like Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson with newer books like Sumo Mouse by David Wisniewski. Mix picture books in with chapter books. Throw in a pop-up every now and then. If you're working your way through a sort of serious chapter book, then lighten the mood with a couple of funny shorter ones.

3. Make it a game: Announce at the start of story time that there is a theme for the night's books, and the kids have to figure out what it is. The theme shouldn't be anything complicated or too tough to figure out. You could string together three books that mention dinosaurs, or maybe four where the plot depends on changes in the weather. The point is to make the kids pay attention and listen to the words you're reading.

It's most important to read to younger children still learning those crucial language skills. But even older kids enjoy being read to, since it's time they get to spend with mom and dad.

If you need some suggestions on books, here are a few that we've taken for a test drive with a 6 year old and a 10 year old (all prices are suggested retail but check for deals online and be sure to look in your local library).

Picture Books

Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton ($16.99, HaperCollins): Scotton, the author and illustrator of the bestselling Russell the Sheep, has delivered another hilarious tale. Splat is so worried about his first day at Cat School that he decides to take along his pet mouse, Seymour — with nearly disastrous consequences. When I read this to the kids, they laughed at the slapstick action. They also noticed with glee some of the sly details in the drawings — for instance, that the wallpaper pattern in Splat's bedroom is a series of fish skeletons.

Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems ($16.99, Hyperion Book): Rare is the sequel that surpasses the original. Godfather II is one of the few that comes to mind, and this is another. The first Knuffle Bunny seemed to be coasting primarily on charm, but this book has a plot as well as cute illustrations, and offers some laughs that will be relished by both the reader and the audience. My kids actually like this follow up better than the first one.

Click Clack Splish Splash by Doreen Cronin and Besty Lewin ($12.95, Atheneum): This is an attempt by the authors of the brilliant Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type and the hilarious Giggle Giggle Quack to extend their franchise to a counting book. It's not nearly as much fun as the previous books, but it's better than a lot of counting books. The understated plot was enough to keep my older son entertained while I read it to the younger one.

Silly Billy By Anthony Browne ($15.99, Walker Books Ltd.): This is an odd book but one that my kids enjoyed a lot. At bedtime Billy worries about all kinds of outlandish things — hats! shoes! clouds! — until his grandmother gives him some worry dolls. And then he starts worrying about them too. The pictures are as entertaining as the plot.

Chapter Books

One Beastly Beast: Two Aliens, Three Inventors, Four Fantastic Tales by Garth Nix ($15.99, Eos): This wacky short story collection is like Version 2.0 of the old Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons. Each story features one clever and determined kid pitted against some sort of odd challenge: pirate rats who steal DVDs, say, or a sea serpent who's just misunderstood. My kids howled at the puns and giggled at all the right places.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster ($19.95, Random House): This playful classic (published in 1961) is full of subtle wisdom and witty wordplay, and it's liable to make parents chuckle as much as their kids. Children under 6 may get lost in the thicket of allusions, but it's perfect for your 10-year-old who appreciates a bad pun. My kids particularly liked the Humbug, a gasbag perpetually backpedalling from the consequences of his boasts, and the Spelling Bee, who felt the need to s-p-e-l-l every third word. We breezed through it in a couple of weeks, but a month later my kids were still quoting some of the jokes.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg ($9.99, Aladdin): An award-winning classic, this is the story of two kids who run away from home and wind up living in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — and trying to solve an artistic mystery. Some details of city life are fairly dated and will require explaining —- for instance, when the kids eat at an Automat. But the author does a neat job of depicting the two main characters and tying everything in at the end.

Stuart Little by E.B. White (check your library, Harper & Row): A gentle, whimsical tale about a talking mouse who, by some unexplained miracle, is born into a human family. It's a classic (1945), so I say this with some trepidation but: Beware. My kids enjoyed the first half of the book, but the second half kind of threw them for a loop. Stuart goes on a quest but it's inconclusive, which left the kids wondering why we read the book in the first place.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman ($8, Harvest Books): My kids love this movie, and I remembered enjoying the book as a teenager. You'll have to do some editing on the fly, particularly of Goldman's prologue (we skipped most of it), but it's worth it. You get gags galore that didn't make it into the movie, plus a lot more of the drama concerning Inigo Montoya's pursuit of the evil Six-Fingered Man. Afterward, believe it or not, we had a good discussion about how movies and books differ, and what books can do that movies cannot.

Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or craig@sptimes.com.

Read all about it

The Times Festival of Reading will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the St. Petersburg Campus of the University of South Florida, 140 Seventh Ave. S. The 16th annual celebration of reading will feature more than 60 authors, including children's book authors, a book market, children's StoryLand and a costume parade. For more information, go to www.festivalofreading.com.

A how-to on reading aloud to your kids 10/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 9:36am]

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