My three-year old has started copying his favorite phrases using our ever-growing collection of alphabet magnets. Right now it’s

BOO
BOO
BUTT

on the fridge. Before that it was

BOTTOM
DRAWER
SAID
THE
DARK

on the kitchen floor. A little earlier it was

QUILTED
NORTHERN

atop an Amazon delivery of toilet paper.

He’s not always spelling. Sometimes, he sits on the stairs unspooling paper products. But my houseful of magnetic messages feels like one of my biggest successes in parenting. It’s not because I have a three-year-old who collects letter magnets, or because I’ve overtly taught that three-year-old anything about reading. It’s because all of these new favorite phrases came from D.E.A.R. time.

D.E.A.R. (short for “Drop Everything and Read”) comes from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8. During the second week of school, third grade teacher Mrs. Whaley tells her class they’ll have Sustained Silent Reading every day. She goes over the basics. No restrictions on reading material. No book reports. No spelling lists. Then, in what I’ve always imagined as a conspiratorial tone, Mrs. Whatley replaces the jargon-y Sustained Silent Reading with her pithier acronym.

Ramona decides she’s going to stick with Sustained Silent Reading because it sounds more sophisticated. But whatever the name, it’s clear that Ramona finds in-school reading time magical: “How peaceful it was to be left alone in school. She could read without trying to hide her book under her desk or behind a bigger book.” D.E.A.R. resonated with so many of Cleary’s readers that D.E.A.R. Day is now officially celebrated on April 12.

Like many elementary students of the late eighties, I was obsessed with Ramona. My “Stephanie Loomis, Age 8” birthday party featured a giant paper face at which celebrants threw eggs, and if you can’t imagine why we should do such a thing you should drop everything and buy the book right now.

D.E.A.R. has been our household philosophy since the moment he could carry a book. When he brings me a book, or two, or lately, a canvas bin full of books, I drop everything and read. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when I’ve just decided to get in the shower. Even when I’m making a desperate “quiet time” attempt to get down a few sentences. Even when I’ve just sat down to the breakfast that’s been cooling on the counter all morning. Even when visitors are minutes away and the kitchen counters are covered in safety hazards.

I drop everything and read because I want to help my son form good life-long habits. I want him to be curious. I want him to have a robust vocabulary. I want him to explore deep questions. I want him to be empathetic.

But I also drop everything and read because it’s so easy to over-plan even the youngest child’s day. Many young children I know spend a surprising amount of time in school, even though they’re not yet of school age. There are music classes, foreign language classes, swim classes, and gymnastics glasses. There are story times, playdates, and seasonal activities. All that enrichment means kids have more opportunities than their parents did. But it also means they have less time to be alone with their thoughts.

I think D.E.A.R., even at my son’s young age, helps give him something akin to Ramona’s alone time at school. Our household D.E.A.R. philosophy means that my son can exert some control in his day to pursue what interests him.

Our reading is rarely silent, nor is it always even sustained, as he picks what and how much to read. Recently, he has started to wander off on his own to “read” the favorite books he’s long-ago memorized. And then he reaches for the magnets.

My son is not yet reading at Ramona-level, but I am so excited for the days he spells out LITTLE PEGGY ANN MCKAY, or SOME PIG, or PRIVET DRIVE, or some other yet-undiscovered phrase from one of his future favorite chapter books. I’d better get some more magnets.