My son, Cash and I read together as part of our nightly routine. Since he was an infant, bedtime stories have been his norm and our literary relaxation has blossomed into something he looks forward to. Initially we thumbed through picture books together that included sensory aspects such as sounds and different materials to touch and feel. Eventually we graduated to nursery rhymes and short stories.

Recently I decided to ask Cash if he would like to change our reading routine.

Among his book collection we have always kept a selection of short novels. These books are visible and accessible and have peaked his curiosity from time to time. Rummaging through them he expressed amazement about the number of words on each page and that what little pictures there were, weren’t in colour.

Although I was unsure if he was developmentally ready to engage in wordier texts, as this time is different in all children, I asked if he would like me to read him a novel.

“What’s a novel?” he asked, looking at me inquisitively.

“These are novels”, I replied, grabbing the handful of books that he had been so eager to play with.

Novels interested him even though he didn’t completely understand their function. To him, they were different among the ordinary. He was curious and it was my duty as a parent to exploit his innocent prying.

I suspect that he initially chose a novel as a form of bedtime procrastination – the books were long and the expectation was that I would read from beginning to end as I did with preceding stories. It would be unusual to him for a story to be left unresolved.

Out of our small collection he chose James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl – a childhood favourite of mine. In preparation of our literary adventure I primed Cash’s imagination. To engage him in the content I described to him the aspects of the book that I felt he would find interesting – oversized fruit, creatures, magic, a young boy, and an adventure. I painted a vague picture of the story, releasing general details.

From the moment I provided my high level synopsis he was hooked.

Readying him for the lengthier read, I also discussed descriptive words and visualization and their importance to stories. To foster his understanding of illustrative language I asked Cash to describe his bicycle to me.

“My bike is blue and has a silver bell on it.”

“What else can you tell me about it?” I asked.

“It has a brown seat and brown handles. And black tires.”

“Is it a big bike?” I continued.

“No! It’s small so I can ride it, daddy!”

“I can only assume that the wheels are purple, can’t I?” I would provoke him.

“You’re silly! They’re not purple, they are silver!” he corrected me while laughing.

I explained that he was using descriptive words to create a picture when there was no picture to look at. The author uses words to describe what is happening and it is up to you to see it in your mind and that’s how stories work.

Reading the novel was an exploration of descriptive words. When Dahl would introduce a character or describe a setting or detail an event we would stop reading and review what terms the author used to bring the adventure to life. Cash wasn’t always able to fully grasp the events in the novel, but as we read he become more in tune with the impact of the words and how to better visualize the story.

I often glanced over at Cash while I was reading to him. He would have this look of amazement in his eyes. He was intently focused on what I was saying and the words were capturing his imaginative mind. It was a proud and exciting moment for me, and one that I have been fortunate enough to relive since that evening.

Thinking about graduating to novels with your toddler?

James and the Giant Peach captured my son’s imagination, which was vital in allowing him to focus on reading a longer text aloud. Find stories that best suit the interest of your child. Choose tales that inspire them with characters they can connect with. Review the author’s words as you read and nurture the mind’s eye. Encourage your child to ask questions and discuss the story even when you aren’t reading to keep them engaged.

Unsure if your child is ready? You may want to consider starting with longer story style picture books. Experiment with stories with full text pages and books with frequent and infrequent illustrations. Try stories with black and white pictures or detailed illustrations. All of these factors can influence your child’s imagination and how they engage with a book. You will not know until you try. And if a book isn’t connecting with your child, it’s okay. Leave it for the next chapter in your child’s literary journey.