Mo Willems remembers the morning his daughter, Trixie, read her first book. The then 4-year-old had climbed into her father's lap for a read-aloud in their Brooklyn living room. Only this time, she was determined to read to him. Dad listened with growing excitement as Trixie -- the inspiration for the main character in Willems's popular Knuffle Bunny books -- slowly sounded out the words from Hop on Pop, by Dr. Seuss. Getting through the last page was a milestone for Trixie, who is now 10 and a voracious reader. "The first time your child reads a book on her own is as special as when she takes her first steps," says Willems. "It's like she now has a magical power -- she can go anywhere and do anything."
Few people better understand how to teach a love of reading to kids than the authors and illustrators who create children's books. We asked Willems -- and some of the other biggest names in the business -- for their advice on getting your child hooked on books.
Reading together is one of the best ways to bond with your baby -- and to help her associate books with comfort.
Start early. Don't worry if your child isn't old enough to understand. Reading still benefits him. "We began when our son was still in my belly," says Samantha Vamos, author of the bilingual children's picture book The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred. "We wanted him to hear our voices articulating words over and over again."
Turn reading into a game. "It's a natural instinct to interact playfully with your baby," says Karen Katz, a mom whose brightly colored baby books are perennial favorites. While reading Where Is Baby's Belly Button? try identifying other body parts. Point to your nose and then hers and say, "Nose." Try a new one each day.
Feel the beat. Help your child pick up on the sounds of words by clapping out the syllables as you read to him and by picking rhythmic books such as Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, by Al Perkins, and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault.
Explain the basics. Say, "Open the book" as you lift the front cover and "Turn the page" as you demonstrate how to do it, suggests Katz. When you're finished, say, "All done."
Teach through touch. Babies learn about the world around them partly by exploring different textures. Look for cloth and touch-and-feel board books that your child can chew, hug, and crinkle in her hands.
Let her "read" in bed. Once it's safe for your child to sleep with objects in her crib (around 12 months), you should let her snuggle with a board book. "It's like a stuffed animal for her brain," says Erica S. Perl, a mom of two and the author of Dotty.
Books are as vital to your child's daily routine as meals, naps, and bathtime. Over time she'll start to enjoy them not only with you, but also on her own.
Fill the house. Since his daughter, Zoe, was born, Jarrett Krosoczka, author and illustrator of Good Night, Monkey Boy, and his wife have made a point of keeping children's books accessible in every room of the house.
Stop babying him. While board books are great, you should start to introduce titles with paper pages once your child is a toddler. "Teach him how to flip through them by himself," says Perl. "So what if they get a little dog-eared? Children's books aren't heirlooms."
Get caught reading. Be a good example by taking out your own real books to read. "If you tell your kids to read and they don't see you doing it, they'll get the message that it's not important," says Willems.
Sign him up for a library card. Vamos says her son was so proud to get his first card at age 4 that he showed it to all his preschool teachers. Now 6, he wears it on an elastic cord around his wrist whenever he goes to the library. Being able to choose and check out books makes him feel independent and gives him greater incentive to read.
Take advantage of technology. Nothing can replace the physical experience of cuddling up with your child and sharing a good book. But when you're busy making dinner or driving the family van, digital audio recordings are a great alternative to videos and gaming systems, says Perl. There are plenty of sources for free audio recordings for kids. Public libraries lend books on CD as well as audiobooks that come with a digital player (known as Playaways). Sites such as audible.com and librivox.org let you download book recordings to your MP3 player. Then there are e-book readers, like the Nook Color -- which lets your child zoom into pictures and choose a "read to me" option.
Even as you start reading books with more detailed text, there's no reason to abandon picture books -- even those that have few or no words. Far from mere artful entertainment, these titles teach children how a story unfolds and also help them become a narrator. "Ask your child what she sees in the drawings," says Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia and the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. "Reading the pictures is a stepping-stone to decoding the symbols we call letters."
Linger over the pages. Don't rush through a book because it has only a few words (or, worse, because you need to check your e-mail). "Slow down, and search with your child for visual details that help tell the story," says Tad Hills, a dad of two and the author of How Rocket Learned to Read. "Encourage him to make predictions about what might happen next." This helps develop a child's intuition and his ability to communicate a story back to you. Both of these skills are crucial for learning to read words.
Less is more. Watching how his daughter gravitated toward elementary illustrations reinforced the way Krosoczka produced books. "Young kids tend to respond better to basic drawings and bold colors," he says. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology came to a similar conclusion. Among the two groups of children observed, 20-month-olds and 30- to 36-month-olds, they recalled more details when reading picture books than pop-up books. Researchers concluded that the pop-up designs and pull tags, while undeniably entertaining to young children, can be a distraction in their retaining of information.
Hold onto picture books. Many parents are quick to get rid of "babyish" titles once their child begins reading. That's a mistake, says Paterson. Kids often form a deep and lasting attachment to them. Plus, finding comfort in a familiar favorite will help them gain the confidence they'll need to get through more complicated chapter books later on.
The more you share books with your child, the more likely he is to fall in love with reading. Timothy Basil Ering, illustrator of the Newbery Medal?winning The Tale of Despereaux, sees proof of this whenever his 4-year-old, Phineas, "reads" to his 1-year-old brother. "The way Phineas describes the story as he moves through the illustrations is priceless," Ering says.
Keep it cozy. Though her three boys are grown, Judith Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, now reads to her grandkids. "They're in a snuggly mood once we get started," she says. Her son Alexander, the inspiration for her most famous books, used to curl up in her lap. "One of my greatest book memories is when we were reading Charlotte's Web, and he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he leaned down and kissed a picture of Wilbur the pig."
Preview the book. Familiarize yourself with the punch lines and dramatic parts ahead of time. "Repetition is one thing I use to build anticipation," says Mark Teague, a dad of two daughters and the author and illustrator of Dear Mrs. LaRue. "If you can see you're building toward a recurring line or event, you can help your child start to feel it as well." Encourage her to guess the line.
Read it again, Mom. No matter how tired you are of flipping through the same old picture book, don't try to convince your child to pick something else. "For kids, it's a joy to read a book time after time," says Paterson. "Eventually they'll start to memorize it, which is a precursor to reading."
Even if your child cherishes his book time with you, it can't hurt to mix things up a bit. Try these activities, and make it even more fun.
Start a collection. Before reading a baby book like Katz's Peek-a-Baby, gather up some things mentioned in the pages. When you come to the part about, say, a teddy bear, let your baby hold it. This helps her make a connection between the word, the picture, and the object.
Help kids become authors. Perl has discovered a simple way to encourage her kids, Franny, 11, and Beatrice, 8, to write and illustrate their own books. She folds a few sheets of paper in half and staples them down the middle. "I set out a pile of these beside a basket of crayons and markers," she says. This makes it easy for them to write and draw their own stories.
Act it out. Have your child use a hand puppet to channel one of the characters in a book, suggests Hills. He can then repeat some of his favorite lines, or you might ask him what the bird or pig might say if it came to life.
Plan a book-themed birthday. When her younger daughter turned 4, Perl arranged a party centered around her favorite book, Penelope Nuthatch and the Big Surprise, by David Gavril. (It's about a bird named Penelope who is invited by her friend, Luther Crow, to the ballet but instead gets taken for an unforgettable day at a water park.) All of Beatrice's friends were instructed to wear tutus and bathing suits. "We read the book and then acted it out," says Perl, who set up baby pools and water activities in the backyard.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.