What should I read to my baby, and when?
January 14, 2017 8:42 PM   Subscribe

My wife is just beginning her second trimester, so it looks as though I'll be a dad in July. I'm pretty excited about this. I'd really love to instill an appreciation for canonical literature at an early age since it was so important to me as a kid and now as an adult.

I feel I came to it too late, though. I was eleven before I read my first real novel: Huckleberry Finn. I look back on my English major friends who have gone on to become successful academics, and they were all from exceedingly literate families, reading Shakespeare and Jane Austen quite young--before their teens, anyway. So my question is this: have any fellow MeFites introduced classic lit to their young children? Can I get away with reading Robinson Crusoe to a baby, and if I do, will it make it easier to read In Search of Lost Time at their bedside ten years later? Or do I need to accept that classic literature is inappropriate for children who've yet to develop the lexical and syntactical tools to understand it? I read somewhere that Shakespeare's sonnets are good for babies: short, lyrical, rhythmic.

I know I risk becoming a James Mill or Leopold Mozart dad who sacrifices his kid's wellbeing for a chance to reclaim his own squandered youth. I'll be careful, I promise. And my wife is really big on pushing back against my excessive expectations.

Bonus question: I've had John Dewey's Democracy and Education on my bookshelf for years; would it behoove me as a parent to finally read it, or should I leave it on the shelf?
posted by jwhite1979 to Education (60 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Can I get away with reading Robinson Crusoe to a baby...?

Sure, there's no book police, knock yourself out if you think you'd enjoy it!

But babies don't really understand language- mostly just tone, if anything.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:49 PM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just remember that it may not take. My childhood involved a lot of mandatory quality literature, classical music, and other "culture". All it accomplished was instilling a reflexive dislike of classical music and a lot of classic literature. Reading to kids is important for a lot of reasons, but don't expect that you can necessarily channel your kid into being a lit fiend.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:52 PM on January 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

My Dad read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story before I could read. Kindergarten I think? About the age Christopher Tolkien was when his father wrote it for him. Started my love for fantasy.
posted by Canageek at 8:59 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Implicit in the question, I guess, is whether I should spend the available time reading Golden Books about Elmo instead, or those cardboard books with fuzzy cat fur and whatnot. Does it matter, so long as I'm reading?
posted by jwhite1979 at 8:59 PM on January 14, 2017

I think you may have some cause and effect confusion. I think it's more thanks to growing up in academically/intellectually oriented families that these peers went on to become successful academics (and read classic literature, probably among many many other things) rather than being due to the some inherent qualities of literature that has been canonized as classical.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:06 PM on January 14, 2017 [15 favorites]

You'll probably end up reading either things your kid responds to or things that you like reading. When mine was little, I became pretty discerning about what books I would read to her at bedtime. Not too many words - short and sweet! Plots that were too insipid got "lost" and anything that was gender essentialist was banned (or at least re-worded). It's only been in the last 8 mo or so that I've been able to try chapter books with her (kids ones that have the occasional picture) and she's had the patience to listen (age 6). It's been very enjoyable.

When your kid is little, make use of your local library and accept hand-me-down books so that you have lots of things for your kid to look at and read that isn't too precious and can get dog-eared and loved. I would read almost any book that came into our lives at least once but if it was lame, out it would go, Elmo definitely included.

Growing up, the best thing for my reading was access - lots of books in the house - and boredom. With the age of screens, that last one might be difficult.
posted by amanda at 9:06 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

My dad read me The Hobbit, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island and a huge book of poetry at bedtime when I was about six.

He also made up a ton of bedtime stories.

Just read anything, but, even better, make up your own fantastic stories.
posted by bendy at 9:09 PM on January 14, 2017

Read whatever you like to your baby, and ask another question in a couple of years about which classics your four or five year old will enjoy most. (Beatrix Potter? Robert Louis Stevenson? Rudyard Kipling?) Once your child is a few years old, they'll understand more of what you're reading, and also you'll have some cues from the kid about what they would find interesting.

And if your kid is interested in reading something that isn't what you had in mind, don't impose the classics because they're "good for you"... readers are readers because reading is fun.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:14 PM on January 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

I read Darwin's *On the Origin of Species" to mine as an infant. Just saying, and true story.
posted by spitbull at 9:21 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think you should read your baby whatever will make you happiest! Could be classics if you'd find it satisfying but definitely not necessary.

I'm not a parent but I am an editor and about as enthusiastic a reader as you could find. The earliest book-type memories i have are listening to The Runaway Bunny and my dad regaling me with stories about animals visiting the grocery store. Once I could read on my own, I tore through a bunch of stuff like The Babysitters Club and horse stories, and doubt I picked up any Literature until I was 10 or so at the earliest. I think the most important thing my parents did was encourage me to read whatever I wanted without any judgment, just happiness that we all like the same activity. The Proust and Joyce and Tolstoy that followed felt like a natural extension.
posted by ferret branca at 9:21 PM on January 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

Or do I need to accept that classic literature is inappropriate for children who've yet to develop the lexical and syntactical tools to understand it?


You should read things that will do for your kids what good literature is supposed to do - make them feel something; inspire thoughts and questions about their lives and the world around them; encourage them to imagine new things; or provide pleasure through humor, interesting language, a compelling plot, etc. Shakespeare and Austen probably aren't going to do that for a little kid, but there are classics written for kids that might: Goodnight Moon, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Giving Tree, Peter Pan. A book about Elmo might even do it. One of the reasons a book like that seems like boring crap to an adult is that it's probably very unoriginal and has a predictable plot. But if you're two, you haven't yet read all those other books that are just like it. It might be completely unlike anything else you've heard and exciting to you in just the way a work of classic literature will be twenty years later.

Probably the best way to get your kids to read classic literature someday is to convince them books are interesting. So read them books they find interesting.
posted by Redstart at 9:22 PM on January 14, 2017 [60 favorites]

All good advice. I'd just add that as your baby gets older, find age-appropriate "classics" - there are old classics like Dr. Seuss and new classics like the Hat Series. Getting your child to *like* books is the first step - ideally then they'll want to read others. We have over 100 children's books in our house (I'm not lying) because our toddler is a book lover. We started reading to him from day 1 (I'm not lying) - and not in a horrible, boring parent way (I hope), but in a bonding, this is fun way.

We haven't hit Robinson Crusoe, yet. But I imagine we'll hit it eventually...
posted by Toddles at 9:23 PM on January 14, 2017

Also to add, if you are successful at getting your child interested in reading, be prepared to read the same books over and over and over and over again (hence the need in our house of over 100 books...dear god).
posted by Toddles at 9:25 PM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

As an avid reader, MFA holder, and published children's author, please don't rob your children of reading the incredible wealth of children's literature that is out there and can help them navigate their worlds by forcing on them boring "important" grown-up books instead.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:26 PM on January 14, 2017 [58 favorites]

Reading to kids is more important than what exactly you read.

But I'd make sure to start with a nice well-illustrated edition of Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes, which are their own kind of classic, and will give your child an appreciation for the sound of language that will serve them in good stead when they're ready for great poetry and prose later in life.
posted by waffleriot at 9:31 PM on January 14, 2017

Pleased to see so many Hobbitses in here! My dad read it to me several times, probably starting when I was too young to really get it. But I was drawn into the story anyway because Dad totally hammed it up and gave each character their own voice (he did an especially fine Gollum, precioussss). So have fun chewing the scenery and help fire your kid's imagination by voice-acting good stories, even if they're a little too young to appreciate everything.

To this day when I'm rummaging in my pockets to find something, I sometimes mutter "What has it got in its pocketses, precious?". Thanks, Dad!
posted by Quietgal at 9:37 PM on January 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I do think this question is very sweet since your baby is not yet arrived. Now, go tuck in to a good infant care manual so you can impress everyone by demonstrating your diapering, soothing and swaddling skills right off the bat. A good bond established right away will go a long way to ensuring that you're able to be close to and share your hobbies and passions with an interested kid.
posted by amanda at 9:52 PM on January 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

I grew up in a literate family and think I managed to produce very literate children but no one was reading Shakespeare (in the original, at least) or Jane Austen before high school. I think there are a couple keys to success here:
1. First and foremost, you want children who believe that books hold the key amazing, wonderful experiences - good readers come from people who actually enjoy reading and don't do just do for homework. What they read matters far, far less than that they read for pleasure. How do you get there: when they are little, you read to them. Or you look at pictures with them. They learn that they can getting special Daddy time if they hold out a book and say "Read NOW" You are also setting an example - you read your own books and they see that adults read for fun too.

2. You can stretch them just a little. With a preschooler, you don't just read the words, you ask to think about the story - why did he do that? What do you think will happen next? You pick out some books YOU think would be fun to read together (although you quit if they don't like it). Children can listen far above their reading level so don't stop reading to them just because they read on their own. They miss a lot of things if they can follow the general story and they are excited about it, it's OK, especially if you are also in the habit of reading favorites.

But with new baby on the way, you don't actually need to worry about any this right now. First six months, reading is totally optional. After that you are just working on the idea that books have fun, and teaching them about how language works (lots of vocabulary but also the rhythm and rhyme of language. Sometimes you might read the words in a story and they just flow past the child as a pleasant stream of sound.

Sometimes when they get closer to year, they point and you just tell them what they are pointing at (Like kid points to baby and you say "Baby" or you say "Baby) or, if you have more energy and toddler is the right mood, you might expand it ("That baby is smiling. See his happy face.") or stretch a little and ask the kid for some input ( "Baby. That baby has a smiling mouth. Can you point to the baby's mouth?")
posted by metahawk at 9:56 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and a really wonderful thing to do with a kid who is maybe ages 4-7 is have them make up a story and then help the write their story down so now they have a book that they created. They are not only a reader but an author!! Super powerful way to create a literature-loving adult.
posted by metahawk at 9:58 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

The "classics" to read to kids begin and end with Dr Seuss, as far as I'm concerned. I credit the good Dr with giving me an ear for rhyme and meter that led me straight into all kinds of interest in structured verse when I was a teen.

The themes of classical literature won't mean much to a younger child. I read the Alice books to my daughter at 3 and she clearly had only the foggiest notion what was going on most of the time - I think the only reason she got all the way through them with me was because she liked the pictures, and liked that the chapters were longer than most books we read together so she got to stay up late.
posted by potrzebie at 10:15 PM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's an interesting question, but to a certain extent you get the kid you are going to get, and while you may in the long run be able to instill an appreciation for literature, and a capacity for understanding it, it's a bit of a crap shoot how much a parent can do to get their kid to love the classics, or to seek them out. And I imagine it's super easy to go about this goal in such a way that the kid loathes them.

There are a lot of studies that talking to kids and reading to them at a very young age is important for language development, so when your baby is still pre-verbal, that's a great time to read them whatever interests you, so they are soaking up all the possibilities English holds. Once they are starting to talk and recognize letters, you may want to dumb it down a bit more so that you can introduce words they will recognize in the world around them (the first word my son learned to read was "EXIT" and the second was "PIZZA" - those were the signs he saw the most often. I don't think either was in any of the books we read him at the time). Board books are for teaching language and reading / letter recognition, you DON'T have to assume that that means Elmo. But you'll be amazed how quickly you'll find your child has their own taste in what interests them. For the longest time we couldn't get our son to pay attention to books with line-drawn illustrations, while he loved books with photos. He also loved anything with numbers. Finding good ones of these took a lot more work than I would have thought, but playing to your kid's taste doesn't have to mean you have no say in what you're reading to them.

Next comes chapter books, which you read to them. There are a lot of great AskMe threads here with suggestions. And they make "little classics" series of books that are abridged versions with dumbed-down language that will make you want to cry, but can hook kids in with the plots and characters so later when you bring out the real ones it seems like an old friend.

Having said all that, remember how I said my son loved books with numbers? That never went away. Now I've got an 8 year old who still would rather do math worksheets than read, and I don't think it's because we didn't/don't read to him enough. You get the kid you're going to get. But we've taken him to the free Shakespeare plays in the park since he was around 5, and this year he sat through all of Othello and seemed to understand way more of it than I expected, and really enjoyed it. At age 7. So I do think if you love something and can find ways to make that love accessible, you've got a fair shot at it.
posted by Mchelly at 10:22 PM on January 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

The literature (in education) shows that modelling is v important here, and whether fathers read matters quite a bit, from memory.

TBH though, whether or not your adolescent child reads will be the product of a whole bunch of things that it's too early too effect. Whether or not they read Shakespeare at 11 or 15 is not generally considered to be one of them.
posted by jojobobo at 10:23 PM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi, I'm a parent and devout reader of the classics! Reading to your child is wonderful. Read them their books.

I also read to my kids from day one (heck, I read to them in the womb). From infancy I read a mix of books for babies with books I was reading, just aloud, to get them into the flow and importance of books. But once they were old enough to get "reading" as a concept it was all kid books. Graduated, of course - at their level largely, or a below-level for comfort reading, or an advanced-level as a fun challenge. We read (almost) every night, and go to the library weekly, and they own a silly amount of books. And they see us adults read often. The older child is reading on his own a few grade levels beyond years, and the young toddler loves to "read" his own books by using contextual clues and his memory. So I think by your measure we've been largely successful - they love reading, and for that I'm so grateful. And they will definitely enjoy classics when appropriate; I can't wait to read them The Hobbit.

But I don't think that'd happen if I'd only read Austen. I LOVE Austen but the enjoyment isn't only for prose; it relies on a lot of historical knowledge they just wouldn't have. And so it'd be pretty boring for them. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is pretty boring to me now as I've read it 74 billion times, but gosh, they love it. There are hundreds of beautiful and shocking and deep and meaningful children's books written to invoke the same awe the adult classics do, at their level. They need that to become life-long readers. Proust won't give a ten year old that, but Animorphs sure as heck can.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 10:23 PM on January 14, 2017 [12 favorites]

When my son was born his mum was in hospital for a while. Most of his first days consisted of him sitting on me sucking my little finger while I read "A Short History of Nearly Everything" to him from cover to cover.

It doesn't matter what you read at an early age.

Much of the so-called "canonical" literature was arbitrarily decided upon a very long time ago. Much of it is rather pointless or at the very least nonsense nowadays. Austen as a pre-teen is a complete waste of time as it's just a series of soap operas involving young ladies trying to get married. Similarly Shakespeare needs some life context before it makes sense.

Don't panic, just keep lots of books about and keep reading to your baby.

Congratulations, by the way!
posted by tillsbury at 10:26 PM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Although most people would consider me well-read, I didn't read Proust til past forty, and frankly I think that was perfect timing. Remember that if even a brilliant book is describing an experience completely beyond your child's ability to connect to it imaginatively, it will go right by them. In some ways this is good (I read a lot of SF/F and mystery as a young child in which what I later recognized as graphic or explicit material went right over my head), but it also means that such books are of limited value to the child. Or, depending on the book, the adolescent!

Don't treat books as objects for fetishistic cultural consumption. Just don't. Either your kid will hate the way you're pushing books on them to serve your own ego or they'll pick up awful snobbish ideas. Neither will be good for them. Stop keeping books on your shelves just to have them on your shelves. Your kid will be able to tell you're faking earlier than you think.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 PM on January 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

Why do you think I'm keeping books just to have them on my shelves? I don't think I'm as pretentious as you seem to be accusing me of being. Stuffy and pedantic, maybe antiquarian, but hopefully not pretentious.
posted by jwhite1979 at 11:01 PM on January 14, 2017

I have a young child and a PhD in literature. I used to read mine Kipling and Longfellow and G. K. Chesterton as a baby - babies like hearing strong rhythms and they don't really care what the actual words are, so, why not? But as she got older we moved on to children's books and nursery rhymes and 11648 repetitions of a book called One Two Flea. Less fun for me, often, but progress for her - she was understanding more and more language, and wanted books she could follow.

Your ultimate goal here is to have a child who wants to read the classics themselves. The way to build that kind of self-motivation is not to read them Proust as toddlers, but to show them from a young age that books are fun and interesting and relatable and meaningful. To do that, you need to read them books that are fun and interesting and relatable and meaningful to children. Build that love of reading, and they'll find the classics on their own.
posted by Catseye at 11:23 PM on January 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

Credentials: my father read Dickens to me when I was nine or ten; I really did read plenty of "classic" literature as a kid and a teen, plus a lot of other stuff. I am not an academic, though.

Some thoughts: Have you decided that your kid needs to be an academic in the humanities and therefore needs to read hard books from the cradle? And is this because you wish you could have been an academic? And have you considered the employment stats for academics in the humanities? If you're thinking, "my child will be happy as a professor", I think you need to avoid living through your kid (who isn't even born!) and also to remember how miserable life is for many in the humanities. It's a lifetime of poverty, insecurity and living in places you don't like for far more than it is a lifetime of comfort and intellectual fulfillment.

All through my thirties, I regretted not pursuing an English PhD - I love to read and write about books, I have several fairly focused areas of interest and I've turned into an adequate teacher. But now I no longer regret because I have seen how few of my peers who are academics in the humanities have fulfilling lives, stable careers or economic security.

Also, becoming an academic is as much about family class background and temperament as it is about smarts. There's lots of smart, well-read people out there, but it's overwhelmingly middle/upper middle class people with professional/family connections and the class-based knowledge of how to work the system who become academics. If your family is lower middle class, for instance, it will be hard for your kid to become a successful academic in the humanities even if he or she is brilliant. Not impossible, but hard, and mostly for cultural reasons. Don't get all hopped up about your kid becoming a professor unless your family runs to professoring.

On the actual reading front: My family's house was full of books of all sorts - really full of them. My parents had accumulated kids' books, young adult books and all-ages books for me from well before I could read. Some had been their books when they were young, some were from jumble sales, some were presents from family, some had been my grandparents'. Most were fiction but there were also some kids' biographies of great women, some books about nature, etc. My parents had books of their own of every type - coffee table books about history, fashions, places, nature; gift editions of fancy-pants books; their books from college and grad school; such contemporary fiction as they enjoyed; and pretty much every book you'd read if you were a voracious English major in the late sixties. Also, both of them really liked murder mysteries, so we had tons of those. We also went to the library all the time. My parents read and talked about books, so I knew - for instance - who Charles Dickens was long before I'd read any Charles Dickens.

Because the house was simply stuffed with books of all sorts, I read a lot of different books as the mood struck me and as my reading skills increased. I went on a huge Tales From Shakespeare kick when I was eight, I read a bunch of cat owners' guides around then, I really loved John Bellairs and Madeline L'Engle and the Hobbit and Swiss Family Robinson and turn of the past century children's author who published as Mrs. Molesworth. And fairy tales - we had so many, many books of myths and fairy tales, geared to both adults and children.

In terms of "classic" literature: I actually think that you're sort of onto something here. The biggest boost for a kid's reading ability is going to be the ability to read longer, more complex sentences with more extensive vocabulary, and you do get that from some encounters with both "classic" books and books that are "above" your reading level. For me as a child, this meant that I was reading a mix of the easier kinds of "classic" literature and young adult books that were "ahead" of my grade level.

But remember: your kid's interests will be both unpredictable on the per-book level and somewhat age appropriate. For instance, when I was about nine through twelve, I loved the first parts of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and other "classic" novels with tales of children who were wrongly treated by authority. I even read some stuff about Dickens and his general social world. But I totally lost interest in the stories once the characters grew up, and I didn't even finish those novels until I was substantially older. It may be that a kid will be able to read a story but the content will be too dull/grown-up for them - if you're sharing classic lit with kids, choose kid-centric selections and drop them if they're dull.

My parents read to me, starting with kids' books when I was quite small, progressing to a mixture of kids' and kid-appropriate books (Swiss Family Robinson, the Hobbit) when I was six through eight or so and then switching mostly to accessible grown-up novels (which we dropped if I got bored). My parents were total heroes about this, as I know that they didn't always like what they read me (my father read me large parts of The Sword of Shannara, which was truly coals of fire for him).

As a kid, the "adult" books I read were more often either genre books (Sherlock Holmes and other mysteries, science fiction and fantasy of all kinds) or the easier sort of kinda-serious 20th century fiction. (I really liked my mother's 1950s modern literature textbooks, for instance - I was super into Our Town.) I also really enjoyed popular histories, especially cultural histories - I was absolutely obsessed with this one book about Victorian fashions, scandals, housing, etc.

When I was nine-ish, I adored the Sword of Shannara and its sequels (far more than the classier fantasy I also read). However, I was fascinated by how it was like and different from Lord of the Rings - this was a foundational English major moment for me.

Now that I look back, I think that when I was about seven through nine, my reading was hugely boosted by looking at low-quality adult stuff - we had a big book of "mysteries of the world" about the Marie Celeste, whether or not yeti existed, etc, and I also remember really enjoying Readers' Digest, old humor books (with terrible gender politics, OMG) from the forties and fifties that my grandparents had, Women's Day magazine, Smithsonian magazine (not especially low quality). I was very into Robert Benchley, James Thurber and mid-century humor books of the Erma Bombeck variety.

Also important: adults did not really watch TV at my house. Kids were permitted about as much TV as we wanted, except not evening "adult" shows - so I watched lots and lots of cartoons, re-runs of Bewitched, late afternoon sitcoms, old movies, etc. But it was understood that for adults, television was a rare thing, only for when something was actively interesting - my parents would watch the Muppets with us on Saturday nights because they liked it and they watched some BBC/PBS miniseries adaptations of Dickens and Trollope (which I thought were hideously boring) and that was about it. They never watched TV in the evenings - they read instead. Later, when we got a VCR, they would watch a movie on Saturday nights a couple of times a month, but that was a weekend thing, not a regular thing.

In short - make sure your kids have lots of books of all kinds, including grown up books and kids' books; let your kids see that you prioritize reading in your own life; gently share more challenging books with them but don't push if they're bored; give them the ability to choose books at the library and in bookstores; talk about books at home; and give your kids freedom to watch TV/have screen time but don't let your family's life revolve around screens.

And with all that, who knows? Kids are individuals. And it's not like I have a fancy career to show for all my reading.

One other thing that occurs to me: you might end up with a kid who has trouble with reading, despite your best efforts and their best efforts. If this happens, don't push. A kid who isn't a strong reader can be a strong learner in other areas, for one thing, and a kid who isn't a strong reader can still enjoy books. You can make available interesting coffee table books, magazines, comics, graphic novels and so on - things that make reading a small part of a pleasant experience rather than a huge life-sucking chore. You're better off as an adult who doesn't read a lot but enjoys magazines or graphic novels or YA than as an adult who haaaaaaates and avoids reading because you never experienced it as anything but a struggle and a chore.
posted by Frowner at 12:19 AM on January 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

Also, at our house, the TV was never in the main family-hanging-out room - in one house, it was in the...I guess you could call it a back parlor where my brother and I spent much of our time and where the paperbacks were shelved; in the other it was in a finished room in the basement. (These weren't huge houses - the actual rooms were small.) In the evenings, there was usually about an hour between dinner and bed-time when we would all be in the living room - the kids would read or draw, the adults would read or maybe write. I would suggest that whether you can put the TV in a separate area or only have room to have a TV cabinet, you create a shared space where the TV isn't always right there - if you want reading to be the norm for entertainment, create a space where that can happen.

(And I'm not saying "banish TV" - it's just that if you want your child to read fluently, widely and with enjoyment, it doesn't do too much good for them to see you always watching television, even "golden age" fancy television.)
posted by Frowner at 12:33 AM on January 15, 2017

Well, you're talking about classic literature not as actual texts which have different substantive things to offer different people at different times in their lives (which would require you to recognize not only that much of the canon has only limited value for the pre-teen, but that the value such books can offer will vary dramatically by individual book and child) but as checkboxes to be marked. Like, the idea that any ten-year-old is likely to get much of anything from Proust is risible--at ten, I certainly could have understood the vocabulary and followed the story of the first volume, such as it is, but even the parts of the story where the narrator is still a young adolescent would have been beyond me conceptually. Or: why Austen? Why Shakespeare? Why those two, what benefits do you think a pre-teen would get from those specific authors above all others? It doesn't even seem like you particularly love them. Well, they're bywords for classic literature! But that's cargo-cultism. Don't inflict this on your kid. Let them read books suitable to their understanding, encourage them to challenge themselves in the direction of their natural interests, and show them at all times by your own behavior that the great point of reading is pleasure, not racking up points.
posted by praemunire at 12:55 AM on January 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

@Frowner: Turning my kid into an academic is absolutely not my aim! :) Everything you said about job satisfaction, quality of life, etc., is precisely why I didn't go down that road. Although I have friends who seem well enough adjusted to being profs, I remember one of my own profs specifically who told me it's just not a good way to go if you value your time and freedom. He was an English professor--and my favorite--but wished he'd gotten into law instead. I love my job working with the elderly and could wish my child no better career for my child than to help little old ladies to the bathroom at midnight. I just want him or her to be able to pass the down time absorbed in the magic of a challenging book.

To address some of the more accusatory and frankly judgmental comments above, I have no desire to shove Shakespeare down my kid's throat. If my child isn't really cool with classic lit, that's fine with me. I'll be a little disappointed, but not in my child. Because I'm not an asshole. Thank you very much.

I want to expose my kid to really hard things at a time when they're likely to benefit from it. Regarding language acquisition, this happens pretty early, like in the first few years. It's pretty well known that children who are exposed to a second language early on tend to adopt it much more easily than they would if they first heard it later in life. Likewise, I'm wondering if introducing my child early to certain kinds of literature--syntactical structures that aren't popular in contemporary literature--might help them to more easily understand complex structures come early adolescence. More specifically, I was wondering if people around here had experience of that kind. And fwiw, the idea that classic literature doesn't contain subject matter that would be appealing to a kid--I find that a little strange. A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, content-wise, seem perfectly suited for a little kid; it's the rather alien language that I think would hold up a child, but as I was getting at, perhaps less so if they're exposed to it early? I'm not sure, but of course that was the point of the OP.

@praemunire: What would a pre-teen get from Shakespeare? Austen? It doesn't seem like I particularly love them? I guess you touched a nerve, so I won't type what I'm thinking. But you certainly seem to be claiming an understanding that you do not have.

Lots of great suggestions above, though. Thanks everyone for chiming in. I will be reading very widely to my child: Where the Sidewalk Ends and Matilda and The Poky Little Puppy and The Hungry Caterpillar and Watership Down and all that fun kid stuff. What I'm taking away from the group is that when my child is a baby, I can read whatever I want, but as they get older and start to understand more words, they'll let me know what to read by interacting with the material or not. I guess that seems like common sense, but I'm a 37 year old first time father with very little common sense.
posted by jwhite1979 at 1:43 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two thoughts. (No, three.) 1) As already mentioned, your child will love reading the most if you make it fun. Early on the fun will come from hearing your voice and being held and interacting. Slightly older and the child will let you know what he or she likes.

2) For infants and toddlers it's mostly about the sound. Both of my girls got things like "Clancy of the Overflow" and Vachel-Lindsay's "The Congo" till they got old enough to care about the actual words. Some years ago I actually heard a colleague read her little one instructions on backboarding spinal injury patients.

3) A surprise to me was the interplay between book and movie. Each night this week, my girls (5 and 7 years old) are listening happily to Dickens' dense prose in "A Christmas Carol," because they've seen various versions of it on the screen. Who knew?
posted by wjm at 1:49 AM on January 15, 2017

When your kid is a baby, the most important thing is the quality time and the sounds of your voice and the language. When I was a law student, I did some babysitting for extra cash, and i would read to the infants aloud from my law school textbooks while I rocked them. So if they were absorbing any of the actual words, it was about 19th century contract law. Once the kid gets to be a little older, s/he will tell you, strenuously and often, what books to read. Have a variety of books available, including both Pat the Bunny and Goodnight Moon, and whatever you like. My niece's favorite books at the age of 2 include a book about numbers, a book about Sesame Street, a back issue of an architecture magazine about skyscrapers that I think her dad picked up on an airplane, and the Ina Garten cookbook. And at any given time, she will make very clear what she wants you to read to her and how many times in a row she wants you to read the same book (answer: always at least 3, and sometimes as many as 10 consecutive readings of THE SAME BOOK DRIVING ME CRAZY AND I HAVE IT MEMORIZED BY NOW).

So yes, until old enough to have their own opinions, read them whatever you like. Sonnets and Huck Finn sound great. Once they care about the content, they'll let you know, and then you can follow their lead. And then once they get a little older, you can start to reintroduce stuff you like again. My dad read me Greek myths and Jonathan Swift as bedtimes stories when I was in elementary school, and that was great, but I also read a lot of Sweet Valley High because that's what I liked, and I've grown up into a well-rounded adult who reads a variety of content.

Your kid will be fine. The sheer fact that you've thought about this issue at all tells me that, regardless of how you decide to proceed, as long as you implement your plan lovingly and are flexible to work with your kids needs and what makes her/him happy, your kid is going to turn out great.
posted by decathecting at 2:24 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think this is such a lovely idea.

As another data point, I am an avid reader and was a total bookworm as a kid (I was the kid to walked through the school hallways between classes reading a book), but I don't ever recall a family member reading a book to me. I mean, they must have at some point but I certainly don't remember it and there is zero tradition of reading in my family. Metahawk's comment resonates really well to me - I learned through school that "books hold the key to amazing, wonderful experiences" and so I read everything that I could find after that. I think it would have been even more amazing if my parents had read to me (they talked to me a lot instead), but don't worry if you have to skip a few bedtime stories!
posted by ukdanae at 2:34 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please read books you actually like. The enthusiasm you impart by actually enjoying what you read is a thousand times better than following any suggested reading list.
posted by jazh at 2:34 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is: kids can often sense when a parent is pushing something because of the parent's own demons. And if your kid is like me, then that kid will rebel purely because of the pressure being applied. In my house, reading wasn't one of those things, because it was just an easy and natural, unforced part of our life. But there were other things that my parents got wound up about--where they were clearly reacting to something in their own heads or in their own past instead of to me, the child in front of them--and in 100% of those situations I kicked like an ornery mule and refused to follow along.
posted by colfax at 3:31 AM on January 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you want to start really early, I (like others here) suggest starting off with rhymes so that your child can enjoy the rythm of the sounds. But before that I would start off with singing. There's a reason why nursery rhymes are a thing and most can also be sung. The melody is another thing to enjoy when they're too small to understand the words.

Get a nicely illustrated bundle of nursery rhymes and sing/read from that. Your child will at first simply enjoy that you're making noises at them, and one by one, will come to appreciate the other aspects: melody, rythm, rhyme, the pictures, the stories, the fact that this book is associated with having a good time together.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:36 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Until your child is a toddler, you have the choice in what to read to them, but you should read to them (like others have said, language skills).
Later, you're going to want board books of various stripe because your child will be manipulating them as you read. You'd think it wouldn't matter what you choose, but for better or for worse, kids like colorful books, animal books, food books.
Later on, you can guide, but I can guarantee that you will have almost no choice in what books you "get" to read to your child because you won't pick and you can't dictate (cf. Hamster Huey and Gooey Kablooie).
At one point, I started reading Curious George as if I was narrating a Film Noire detective story.

But we read and we read a lot and we read a lot in front of the kids. When my son was in 1st grade, I had been reading mefi's own jscalzi's Zoe's Tale. On the way to the school bus stop he asked me "how's that book you're reading about the girl with the two alien body guards?" I told him I had finished it and enjoyed it. He then said, "was there any conflict in it?" which is an eye-popping essential question when you're 6.
posted by plinth at 4:48 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Baby is going to have different needs than 1 or 2 or 3 ... etc

I've got a 16 month old who LOVES Goodnight Moon (I hate it but love that she loves it), a book about a bunny who doesn't want to be a bunny, and anything with animals or Elmo. I would have loved her to get into Peter Pan, and I read that to her as an infant, but ... I guess we just aren't there yet. The time goes quickly though!

The nicely illustrated children's stories (Peter Pan, Secret Garden, etc) are on a top shelf in her room until she is at a point where pulling all the books off the bookcase and climbing / eating them is not the norm. Until then, she has a ton of board books / some shorter paper books (like Courdery and Ferdinand the Bull) both in her room and in our living area.

I am making a conscious effort this year to read my own books where she can see - and take her to the library. She normally ignores me and just plays with her blocks, but I did she her mimicking me by pulling out her own books once, so that was kinda cute.

You might want to check out "Read Aloud Dad" - I have found this to be a great resource for finding / remembering all the amazing illustrated Children's Literature out there.

Like others have said, follow the interests of your child (while also offering your own things!). Baby Grape loves to see books with Babies and Dogs, so we like to try to find those things in books we already have.
posted by kellygrape at 4:54 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I was an early reader, from a house full of books and little tv. One of the things that pushed me into reading more advanced books was simply running out of kids' books to read. I belonged to the library and once I'd read everything in the children's section, I had to move on to the adults'. So I think part of the secret to being into classics etc at a younger age is just grinding through a sheer volume of books in order to reach a certain level of comprehension.
posted by KateViolet at 4:58 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd also like to mention that there are some fantastic kids' books without words (Knuffle Bunny and You Can't Take a Balloon Into the Metropolitan Museum come to mind) which drove me nuts as a word-y parent trying to share (push) my love of reading with (onto) my kid, but which are also really good for helping them find their own storytelling skills and build a visual vocabulary - and they have the benefit that you literally can't read them the exact same way twice, even if your kid demands it.
posted by Mchelly at 4:59 AM on January 15, 2017

I'm a fellow book-lover, though not yet a parent, and have heard the advice that when your kid is an infant, read them whatever you're reading. The idea being that reading to infants is mostly getting them used to the sounds of language, and they're going to respond a whole lot better if you are excited whether the actual text is Robinson Crusoe or FiveThirtyEight.

Also, be wary of giving kids "classics" too early. My parents never restricted my reading choices (and I'm glad they didn't), but I wish they had been more cognizant of my ability to handle the emotional material as well as the actual language. Case-in-point: I was given Pride and Prejudice as a Christmas gift when I was 9. Could I read it? Sure. Did I understand it? Not for several years. I thought Shakespeare was boring and overrated because I was introduced to him in 5th grade. I'm still trying to come to terms with Tess of the D'Urbervilles. (I have to think my mom, not a serious-book reader, didn't realize it was about rape when she gave it to her pre-teen daughter.)

One way around this might be to continue bedtime stories even after the kid can read for themselves. That gives Kid a chance to ask questions and process difficult scenes/characters. My mom sorta did this with us, but the stories skewed younger because my brother is 4 years younger than me.
posted by basalganglia at 5:05 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just a couple thoughts, as the parent of a toddler:

1. You're going to be starting WAY basic, even more so than some of these comments suggest. Even Dr. Seuss will be a little out of reach for a year or two - all but the beginneriest Beginner Books will be too long for a baby's attention span. You'll be starting with, like, board books with one sentence per page.

2. There are SO MANY amazing picture books for kids out there. There are a lot of dumb ones, too, and sometimes the ones your kid loves will be the ones that make you pull your hair out and you just kind of have to roll with it. And the good ones aren't good in that grown-uppy classic-literature way, but they're clever and have brilliant illustrations and sometimes play with the format in really cool ways. Fill your shelves with rad age-appropriate books and your kid will get into them early, and their tastes will mature with age.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:12 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was a super early reader, have studied literature, am bilingual (French) and read Latin, plus I'm a writer and editor among other things. I have had thee children and I have three stories for you.

My first child suffered a birth accident. In the first hours after she was resuscitated when I was confined to hospital bed and woozy from blood loss, I knew she had sustained a lot of oxygen deprivation and I sat and worried that she would not be able to read. I found, and then found again as I got to the NICU and learned we'd be lucky if she could see or hear at all (no) that as a parent I really ultimately only had two things to offer:my love and myself. She died 89 hours later. We read The Very Hungry Caterpillar at her funeral. I had also read Hamlet out loud over my belly, which in retrospect I wish it had been The Tempest.

My second child was born easily, came home. We fed him organic whole foods to the extent that when asked at daycare what his favourite treat was he said oatmeal. He had little screen time, we read to him in three languages, we read everything he liked and we liked. He does like to read, but in grade one he took a field trip to the Gardiner ceramics museum, and came home and demanded a pottery class. He is now 11 and he has taken pottery, clay animation, and illustration and is demanding a fundamentals of drawing class so he can improve his figure drawing so he can get into art high school and ultimately art university where he wants to become an iron worker to make iron sculptures. He hates writing at school with a passion and every assignment is like pulling teeth, except book reports as long as the book is about art or is dystopian YA. He has sobbed "I hate words."

My youngest is 6. He nearly lost his vision to cataracts to the point we were unsure he would be able to see at all. (He grew them while my father was very ill; don't skip the 3 year old check up! We thought he was clumsy.) Because of all the vision problems, in September he still could not tell p-d-b apart. Over Christmas he taught himself to read in three days...in order to play a video game (our standards have fallen)...and last night I found him struggling laboriously over our illustrated book of Greek Myths; he also has started to leave me notes like "I had a bad daye I kut my thum." I suspect words are at least partly his thing.

You sound like a great dad. Try your classic literature experiment but please use your powers of observation and love to enjoy your children for who they are. Stay alert to what captures their mind! Be there with them and get them books about it. It will be fine.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:51 AM on January 15, 2017 [18 favorites]

We have a four year old with a pretty insane vocabulary just from me and my husband talking to him and around him using our regular (dual English major household) vocabularies. We never read him adult literature as an infant and as he grew and developed his own personality well, it's like the person upthread who said you get what you get. We get him books that interest him and he's actually much more science and non-fiction oriented than either of his parents. And he's kind of a neo-phobe about a lot of things, books included. If you try to suggest reading something new or unfamiliar, he will actually cry. I don't want him associating books with being sad so he picks what he wants even if it's the same book about bats for the 800th time. We've read the first 5 pages of the Hobbit about 10 times but that's as far as we ever get and he doesn't want to start where we left off the next time we read, he wants to start at the beginning because it's familiar now.

Read whatever makes you happy and not want to die of boredom (young infants are very boring) when your kid is a baby but they will show their own preferences in due time. The benefit to reading to babies is just speech and language development, so it doesn't really matter if you're reading Moby Dick or reciting the Gettysburg Address.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've been reading poetry to my baby just because I want to talk to him to stimulate his language during those feedings when he's staring so intently into my eyes, and I can't really think of conversation topics when he can't talk back. It's more fun to read out loud something like that than to talk about the dishes or laundry or stuff around the house.

As for the classics, can I ask why you are not considering children's classics? There are some lovely kids picture books which have stood the test of time for a reason. Start with something like Goodnight Moon and go from there.
posted by ficbot at 6:48 AM on January 15, 2017

Keep in mind that your kid will quickly form an opinion about what he/she wants to read.

We love reading. We're a family of readers. My daughter has twenty or so favorite books that she wants to read to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes I can convince her to listen to a new book (or a new-old book that she'd forgotten about) and it will replace one in her repertoire. She's not even three and she has all those books memorized, page by page.

I had grand plans of reading her novels but turns out she's independent and not afraid to state her preferences and decide what to read for herself. Which is awesome.
posted by lydhre at 7:17 AM on January 15, 2017

I want to expose my kid to really hard things at a time when they're likely to benefit from it. Regarding language acquisition, this happens pretty early, like in the first few years. It's pretty well known that children who are exposed to a second language early on tend to adopt it much more easily than they would if they first heard it later in life. Likewise, I'm wondering if introducing my child early to certain kinds of literature--syntactical structures that aren't popular in contemporary literature--might help them to more easily understand complex structures come early adolescence. More specifically, I was wondering if people around here had experience of that kind.

Thank you for the follow-up, OP. This is a very interesting question and different from the one I assume you were asking, i.e., should you read the classics for their content.

You're quite right - early language exposure, whether across languages or within - play an enormous role on a child's pre-six development and for years after. There are remarkable studies showing that the number of words a child is exposed to before kindergarten are still affecting their vocabulary and interests decades later.

Children need two things for language learning: repetition and exposure. They need short, clear sentences that build up their vocabulary and from which they can start expressing themselves. ("This is a ball. This ball is yellow. Do you want the yellow ball?") They also need complex, verbose sentences that introduce them to the weft and weave of language. This is where the type and complexity of words comes in. For this the adult themselves need a strong vocabulary, or be willing to share such through literature, and be willing to spend a lot of time in conversation with and around the child. (There are many interesting books on the subject if you'd like a library shopping list.)

Your normal conversations will achieve this on your own. Introducing Shakespeare isn't a necessary part, but could it help? Maybe! Will it hurt? Absolutely not! Read these complex sentences in a gentle and excited tone to your infant! It won't be the one magic trick to achieve literary success but: in demonstrating vocabulary and syntax, in training you to speak with them often and happily, and in bringing you two close together: it will be quite lovely and very helpful.

Plus it gets you through more of your TBR list before they're old enough to chose Brown Bear, Brown Bear 92 gazillion nights.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 8:00 AM on January 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Read your kid whatever you want while she's a baby. By the time she is a toddler she will be calling the shots. So yeah, read the classics now, because at some point you will be held hostage to the Berenstain Bears and no aspirational plan in the world is going to save you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:14 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

My mom was getting her PhD in American lit when I was very young, and she used to joke (?) that she read a lot of Gertrude Stein to me when I were a wee babe. By the time I was old enough to make my preferences known, her tongue almost fell out from reading me so much Doctor Seuss, and I also loved Winnie-the-Pooh and other kid-friendly fare. Once I was reading on my own, no book on the shelves - and there were many - was off-limits.
posted by rtha at 9:40 AM on January 15, 2017

I read King Lear to my daughter the day we came home from the hospital, but none of my Facebook friends seemed to think that was as funny as I did.

On a sort-of more serious note, I've been reading Proust to her. On the one hand, I think it would be funny if she had a Proustian memory of reading Proust. But really, I just think Proust is one of the most beautiful prose writers, and I'd like to instill in her an appreciation for vivid prose. She doesn't really seem to enjoy it, and I honestly think that part of the problem is the length of the sentences. I know she can't understand them, but she seems to tire of hearing my voice for so long without interruption.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:20 AM on January 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

when i was probably 5 or 6, my dad read "the hobbit" to me. i vaguely remember what happened, and i remember lying against his chest and listening to the rumble of his voice. i think he also read robinson crusoe, alice in wonderland, and other classic "adventure" tales. plus the usual kid fare.

i think it is most important that you are interested in doing the reading with your kid--whatever the reading may be--it is YOUR excitement about it that inspires love of reading.
posted by iahtl at 10:26 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

For vocabulary development, I recommend the outstanding children's book Animalia by Graeme Base. Each letter of the alphabet is introduced with an alliterated sentence, which is then illustrated in astonishingly lush detail with objects that begin with that letter.

When kiddo is just learning, you can point out the Cat in the picture. And then later, the Crayfish. And later still, Caesar lurking in the back of the frame, for example. It's great for all levels of language acquisition (and would probably be great for someone learning English as well).
posted by delight at 11:21 AM on January 15, 2017

A friend of mine who reads a lot more than anyone else I know (wasn't an English major though -- but I'm not sure if you are specifically going for that) grew up with not only their parents reading to them, but also the children in the household reading to parents. They either didn't have a tv or watched very little, and would take turns reading books to each other in the evenings and on car trips. Reading at the dinner table was also specifically allowed, and I've actually seen my friend pull out a book at dinner and start reading when I was at dinner with them and their parents.

Whether or not you want to raise children who pull out a book at the dinner table when the conversation turns to things that bores them is another matter.
posted by yohko at 12:06 PM on January 15, 2017

kevinbelt: Just curious, what translation? Not that it matters.
posted by jwhite1979 at 1:20 PM on January 15, 2017

As others have noted, the kid gets a vote. This applies to everything, not just reading material.

Don't skip classics like winnie-the-Pooh and Child's Garden of Verses in your rush to the big stuff.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:30 PM on January 15, 2017

Beyond books, I feel your question touches on a near-universal experience for parents - that of instilling values in our kids, and making the corrections we wish someone had made for us, when we were children.

As a parent of a 5 and 3 year old, and someone who was a childcarer for many years, I think there is good news and bad news for you.

Good news: In my experience, the totality of who and what you are as a parent dwarfs any conscious efforts you make to embed a particular value or behaviour. Kids replicate what they see; so if they see a loving, inquisitive, bold parent, they will themselves tend to mirror that (to a greater or lesser degree, personality does come into it!). This means that many of the "programmatic" aspects of your parenting tend to become minimised under the regular flow and wash of daily life. It's good in that, it takes the pressure off - but it also will catch you out in any hypocrisies!

Bad news: I think it's natural, even inescapable, to view parenting as an opportunity for a "Do-over" - correcting the mistakes you feel were made in your own childhood. This can be very positive if it helps you avoid negative experiences you faced as a child - though you may be horrified at times when you realise that you're saying/doing things your parent did (did exactly!) to you. It will give you a new empathy for your own parents' sometimes inexplicable behaviour (whilst also confirming that some of the things they did were totally wack).

However, it can be negative too, as it locks us into an inward-looking reverie focused on a hypothetical child - the child that still lives on in ourselves, yearning for change, for things to be different - rather than the actual real child in front of us. And it can set up new monsters that our children will attempt to exorcise when they in turn have kids.

Your role as a parent, I think, shouldn't be about instilling a particular set of values or tastes in your kid (though God knows, I think we all try; watching my daughter's indifference towards a beloved childhood text/activity is a little deflating, I admit. Grogre the Ogre was awesome!). It's about helping your kid be the best version of themselves that they can be.

If you keep this in mind, your orientation is always outward - on them, and their needs and desires and hopes, rather than your own and that inner child inside you. And you're gifting them with something incredibly powerful: the power of self-determination - and the confidence that goes with that, along with your support and unconditional love.

That's my advice, at any rate. Best of luck, OP.

Note: all this esoteric malarkey is understandable and easy to indulge in when your kid is largely hypothetical, when you're up to your elbows in shitty nappies, screams, and the heightened senses that only months of interrupted sleep can bring, it tends to restrict itself to lightning flashes of guilty recrimination or self-satsified back-patting after the fact. Parenting: you and everyone else is making it up as they go along.
posted by smoke at 2:06 PM on January 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with reading Proust to your infant, but I'm not sure you should assume that it makes no difference whether it's Proust or nursery rhymes because it will all just be sound to the baby. I started reading to my daughter before she was even born. I read a lot of different things, but one book I read regularly was Goodnight Moon. And I'm pretty sure she already recognized it by the time she was born. I'm certain she recognized it by the time she was 2 months old. I can remember her at that age hearing me start to read the familiar words and stopping nursing to turn and look at the pictures.

At first, of course, it could just as well have been The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner - except that there's no children's board book edition that has brightly colored pictures. I could have shown her pictures of something else while I read, but then she wouldn't have had the experience of learning that the same pictures were always accompanied by the same words and, later on, that the words actually referred to things that were in the pictures. With Goodnight Moon, I could show her, "Look, this is the red balloon. This is the comb and this is the brush and this is the bowl of mush."

It doesn't take long for a baby to start understanding words. If you really want to do something that might jump start a love of literature, or at least an understanding of how books work, starting right off with a book that can turn into a favorite during that first year might make more sense than starting with Proust and then starting all over again with Goodnight Moon a few months later.

I should note, however, that my daughter is almost 14 and has yet to read an adult classic. There's no way I could convince her to read an Austen novel right now, or even Jane Eyre. So maybe you should do the opposite of what I did. (But she's an awesome kid, so maybe not.)
posted by Redstart at 2:36 PM on January 15, 2017

Part of this is a question of education. I went to private school and most of the classics were covered in class; it would have been redundant for my parents to encourage me to read them early, especially when they can be covered in depth in the classroom setting.

I read voraciously as a child and still do as an adult and the biggest thing my parents did to encourage it was provide constant access to books. They purchased some for me but for the most part they would let me loose in the library or a bookstore and let me pick out whatever I wanted. They only intervened when the content was developmentally inappropriate or explicit, mostly when I was younger. There was no expectation that I read a given book unless it was for school. I personally find a lot of the "classic" classics to be dull, and would have resented the hell out of feeling pressured to read and appreciate them even if that's not what was intended. As an adult I love romance novels and detective stories, which don't get taken very seriously from an academic perspective. Every genre has its classics.

I think you may be underestimating the amount of high quality children's literature there is out there. There are incredible picture books and fantastic teen literature and everything imaginable in between. Most children's literature loses its sparkle when you read it as an adult, so you might as well expose kids to it while they're at the optimal age. There are also a wide range of books for children that are not traditional novels-- puzzle books, science books, encyclopedias, choose your own adventure, books that come with the tools needed for whatever game or activity that the book is teaching you about. The classics are only one way of expanding your child's knowledge and understanding of the world. Your kid will have their entire life to read Shakespeare.
posted by fox problems at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2017

@jwhite1979: the Moncrieff Classic.

@Redstart: I don't expect her to remember the first few chapters of Swann's Way, but by the time we finish the whole A la recherche, she'll be like 32 years old, and she'll hopefully remember that.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:54 PM on January 15, 2017

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