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Reluctant Book Reader—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
My four-year-old has been much too squirmy to ever get through a whole picture book with me. I’m ready to give up but we have family members pestering us to be sure he’s not behind when he gets to kindergarten in the fall. How do I get him to pay attention from cover to cover?

Let’s Watch a Movie Instead

Dear LWMI,

Books are really important in early childhood, while the brain is rapidly developing, to pave the way for success with reading in elementary school. One of the best predictors of school achievement is simply how many books there are in the home. This finding has prompted many initiatives such as Reach Out And Read (ROAR) to encourage getting books into homes of toddlers and preschoolers in which family libraries are lacking. An easy way to do this is for “read to your child” to be prescribed at routine pediatric checkups. Then the families take books home at the end of the visit.

Hopefully access to a nice variety of good picture books is not the issue.

Subject Matter

Let’s start with the choices of books available for reading to your child. Maybe he’s not interested in the ones you have offered. What is he interested in? An online search or a librarian familiar with picture book titles can help narrow down some appropriate selections. (Anne Arundel County Public Library is currently open for drop in visits, as well as curbside pickups.)

Here are a few examples based on topics a four-year-old might enjoy:


Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty

Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg

Albert Talbot: Master of Disguise by Ben Manley

Bugs, Slugs, Etc.:

Wonderful Worms by Linda Glaser

Cecily Cicada by Kita Helmetag Murdock and Patsy Helmetag

The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle

Some Smug Slug by Pamela Duncan Edwards

Claudia and Moth by Jennifer Hansen Roll


Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Elizabeti’s Doll by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen

Scribble Stones by Diane Alber

Petra by Marianna Coppo

Stone Soup by Marcia Brown

Trucks and Loaders:

Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker

Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle

The Old Truck by Jerome Pumphrey

Push-Pull-Turn! Fire Truck to the Rescue! by Peter Bently


If your child is a typical four-year-old he needs lots of movement in his day. Time your story reading for after a long period of exercise – preferably at least an hour of outside play. Or at the end of an active day after a relaxing bath. Use shorter books at first, or non-fiction books that allow the reader to get information from any page in any order. For example Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi can be used as a reference to identify a creature your son spotted when he was outside. 

When you find that perfect time in the day, try to make book reading a routine that you can both look forward to. There is no end to the books you can find at the library, nor is there any harm in re-reading his favorites time after time. After many readings, he may surprise you and tell you what the words say!


Don’t worry too much about reading every word on every page. Use your story time as a chance to share the experience of a book – using your own lives and imaginations for deeper understanding and furthering your son’s curiosity. If your conversation mid-book goes way off topic, it’s better to follow your son’s train of thought than to see if The Little Engine That Could (by Watty Piper) makes it to the end of her track. Maybe you’ll get a little further with the next reading, or pick up where you left off.

Picture books support learning because, well, the adult is not just reading words but is helping the child make connections in his mind from the pictures and ideas in the book. This is early literacy, long before he can decode the squiggles on the page to sound out the words. Intriguing subject matter, relevance to his real experiences, a captivating story line, and easy-to-identify-with characters all help to engage his desire to turn to the next page. Each page can lead to another fascinating conversation between the two of you. Oh, and between your son and the book.

A study in the Netherlands on the use of picture books to increase mathematics skills for kindergartners concluded that “participation opportunities” during story times are key to children gaining understandings. “Children should be triggered to be involved cognitively, emotionally or physically by asking questions, providing explanations and surprising them.” In other words, make your story reading engaging and fun. Relate actions and objects in the book to his own life. Make faces with each other to match the characters’ emotions. Ask your son what he thinks will happen next.

Dan Gartrell, Professor Emeritus, Bemidji State University, summarizes the view of contemporary experts about what a child should be experiencing before school age, “The best predictor of children’s success in school and life is a brain that develops in healthy ways, as a result of their attachments with their family, and especially their parents.”

Story time, snuggled up with his beloved parent, will help your son to view books as portals to understanding the world in which he lives and the even wider world of imagination.  

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org

Celebrate Screen-Free Week at CCM with a nature walk on Thursday or Indigenous Tales interactive story time on Friday. Or just come explore the park at 25 Silopanna Road, Annapolis!

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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