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This summer, the recommended reading list for my church community includes titles like The Rule of Benedict (Chittister), St. Francis of Assisi (Chesterton), and Establishing a Rule of Life (The Trinity Mission). We’re considering what it means to create a personal culture of faith by establishing a “rule” for living. For some, this looks like a detailed list of activities to be done every day, week, month, or year (like those who choose to live under Benedictine or Franciscan rule). For others, though, it’s simply a matter of deciding how we’d like to invest our time and resources and translating that into everyday life.
My husband and I feel strongly about family culture, about having the big questions answered so that on the average day, we know what we’re working toward. We love nature, for example, and we want our children to love and care for the earth, so we plant gardens and make compost. We hike in our local parks and nature preserves. We learn the names of the birds we see and how to tell the difference between a maple and a mockernut. When we’re able, we visit the National Parks, and every other year we return to the same little town in Maine to play in the harbor and ramble over seaside cliffs.
Sarah Mackenzie feels strongly about family culture, too, but in her newest book, The Read-Aloud Family, her emphasis is on creating a love for reading. Sarah opens with a memory from her early days of motherhood, when she first began to envision a family culture in which books and stories were vital. She carries us with her, to three children, to six, weaving accounts of personal failure and triumph and renewed vision into the why and how of creating a read-aloud culture.
A key element (and one I appreciate) of Sarah’s vision is the idea that books bring us together. An exhausting day with a rambunctious toddler can end on a sweet note when mother and child snuggle up to read a picture book. Parents in conflict with a teenager can find moments of connection when they share a great story. An engaging audiobook can put an end to siblings’ squabbling and turn a tiresome road trip into a joy. “The stories we read together,” says Sarah, “act as a bridge when we can’t seem to find another way to connect. They are our currency, our language…The words and stories we share become a part of our family identity.” This is exactly the kind of bond I hope to create, and it’s my chief motivation for reading aloud to my kids.
I want to raise a boy who watches in delight as the mother bird guards her nest, as the chicks hatch, as they learn to fly. I want children for whom love and delight are the driving forces behind all they choose to do.Helena Sorensen
Another thing I love about Sarah’s approach is her focus on the heart. She’s not an elitist (an unfortunate tendency of many readers), and she’s not hell-bent on using books as a tool to improve her children’s academic performance. She’s committed to making reading a matter of delight, not merely a means to an end. Sure, reading (and being read to) increases a child’s vocabulary and his capacity for connecting ideas. Sarah’s suggestions for compelling questions to ask after reading a book are wonderful tools to encourage high-level thinking. But that’s not the point. Sarah quotes colleague and friend, publisher Rea Berg: “…we don’t want to create intellectual geniuses who don’t have humanity, compassion, and empathy. Intellectual genius without heart is a dangerous, dangerous thing.” I could teach my son everything there is to know about Eastern bluebirds—their anatomy, their call, their nesting habits. But without heart, without love for the beauty and grace of those birds, he might be inclined to walk out to the nest on our deck, grab a bluebird by the throat, and dissect it. Like Sarah, I’m far more concerned with my son’s heart than his storehouse of knowledge. I want to raise a boy who watches in delight as the mother bird guards her nest, as the chicks hatch, as they learn to fly. I want children for whom love and delight are the driving forces behind all they choose to do.
I’m not new to the read-aloud culture. We read a great many books at our house. There are loaded bookshelves and stacks of books in nearly every room, and the kids know to expect books for birthday and Christmas gifts. But like all mothers (and perhaps especially homeschool mothers), I worry about whether I’m doing enough. I worry that maybe there will be holes in my children’s education, that I will fail them in their academic preparations and wake one morning to find they’ve posted something like this on social media: “Your not gonna believe wut just happened too me lol!” That little worry knot in my stomach relaxes when I read Sarah’s words. Her conversational style and her candor set me at ease, reminding me that small investments add up over time, that it is never too late to begin or improve. Her passion reminds me of what I’m aiming at: a family of word-lovers, book-lovers, story-lovers, a family with a shared vocabulary, shared jokes, shared memories, a small community of people whose hearts have been shaped by truth and beauty.
If you’re looking to clarify your vision for your family and you’d like reading to play a more prominent part, Sarah Mackenzie’s The Read-Aloud Family is an excellent resource. As a bonus, Sarah includes several chapters with book recommendations and reviews for different age levels, as well as an extensive book list in the index.