What to Read When by Pam Allyn

Pam Allyn is the Executive Director of LitLife, a nationally recognized organization specializing in transformative school improvement through literacy education. She is also the Executive Director of LitWorld, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to bringing quality education to the world’s most vulnerable children.

She is also the Founding Director of Books for Boys. For nine years, this program has been acclaimed for its innovative efforts on behalf of at-risk boys, and its work is replicated in other foster care agencies.

Her first professional book, The Complete 4: How to Teach Reading and Writing Through Daily Lessons, Monthly Units and Yearlong Calendars, was published by Scholastic in November 2007. This groundbreaking book was recently followed by Pam’s series of grade level books chock-full with day to day lessons called The Complete Year published by Scholastic in 2008 and co-authored with her LitLife colleagues.

Pam Allyn’s most recent book, What to Read When is an inspirational and practical book for parents, teachers and caregivers that provides thoughtful recommendations for the perfect books to read to your children at just the right moments.  I had the honor of taking some workshops with Pam Allyn while she was at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project. Years later, when I heard she had started LitLife I was thrilled to bring her into the school I was at, to do professional development in writing for our teachers.  Now, I am happy to introduce Pam Allyn to all of you — you are all in for a treat.

Playful Learning: In What to Read When, you talk about books having the power to define childhood — please tell us a bit more about that concept.

Pam Allyn:  Books imprint themselves upon us. So a book that was read to us at a young age or at a pivotal time becomes part of us, part of what we understand about ourselves. Reading aloud to a child builds that sense of self and helps the child to create a storehouse of stories that will help him remember times in his life or help him through times in his life.

PL:  I was really inspired when you said, “The most powerful work you can do for the world begins in your home, with the intimacy of one book.” Why do you think reading aloud to your children has such a big impact on the world?

PA:  Yes, I believe this so strongly. The sound of the human voice combined with the power of a good story or a beautiful sentence cannot be underestimated. It tells the child: I am here. I am with you, and the world is full of stories to comfort you, inspire you, make you laugh. This is no small thing. When I work with children who have suffered greatly in their young lives, sometimes a read aloud is the very first time they are able to laugh. There is something about the read aloud that removes all obstacles to the written word, that allows the written experience to be exactly what it is meant to be: transcendent.

PL:  You write about the power story has in opening up dialogue between parents and children. How has reading aloud to your children helped to deepen the conversations and relationships within your own family?

PA:  Oh, I am so grateful for books for giving us the opportunity to talk about everything under the sun! When our children were smaller the conversations were about the details of their young lives, all the issues that mattered to them that might have been hard to talk about as a separate subject but that flowed naturally from the read aloud: going to bed, going to school, friendships, family. And as they got older, the read aloud became an opportunity to talk about really intense subjects such as death and spirituality that through the pages of books might have on the surface been about characters and plots but then once we went deeper we realized were also about us and our learnings and growth too. I am grateful to books for all the conversations they gave to us together.

PL:  I loved it when you mentioned that your are, “not a snob at all” about your reading.  What do you mean by that?

PA:  Hahah!!! Definitely not! I am voracious, so I love to literally ingest words! They could be in the pages of a celebrity magazine or on the back of a cereal box. I simply love words. I hope parents can be less judgmental about what their kids are reading. I am glad my parents were never judgmental. They understood that my love for words was very democratic and not only accepted me for it but embraced my passion for words. I think the fact that I was never judged for what I was reading made me a very strong reader. It is sometimes easier to read easier stories and articles and it is a way to practice becoming a stronger, faster reader.

PL:  You encourage parents to, “find ways to investigate the Internet and explore it with your child as an act of literacy”. What are some of the benefits of the Internet in terms of literacy development?

PA:  This world is exploding with new literacies, and the Internet is one. We must as parents open ourselves up to this and not worry that because our children are exploring the Internet they will not read books. The Internet is a wonderful pathway in which to read and gain knowledge. It is a dimensional reading experience. If your child is interested in frogs he can not only read about them on the internet but find out what lots of people are saying about them and not only that, he can actually see photos and videos of them. While it may seem overwhelming, it is also a way for your child to become literate in ways you never dreamed possible: a multilayered multidimensional form of reading and understanding. Good for the brain!

PL:  What are some ‘tips of the trade’ you would like to share with parents about reading aloud to children?

PA: Be yourself! Find a place you feel comfortable. Practice the way you like to read. Select books that inspire you too. You are your child’s greatest role model and mentor. And don’t save the read aloud for bedtime. That’s when you are all the most tired! Tuck in the read aloud to other parts of the day too.

PL: You divide your book recommendations into two categories – chronologically by age and theme. In your chapter on, “The Chronological When” you make specific book recommendation based on the social and emotional experiences of each age group.  Why is psychological development important to consider when choosing books for your child?

PA: There are so many books and parents often make the mistake of reading books they remember “too early” to their own children. All the classics are not necessarily the best choices for our young children. And psychologically there are different developmental stages your child is going through at each age: there are books that fit perfectly with those stages. The right match can support your child in his journey through those stages.

PL:  In your chapter, “Fifty Themes:  All the Best Books for the Moments That Matter Most”, you provide a comprehensive list of life events and issues that children experience throughout their lives and offer book recommendations to suit each moment.  Please share a critical moment in your own family, where reading the right book, at the right time made all the difference.

PA: Our younger daughter was having some trouble going to bed. We read her Bedtime for Frances and on one page the father is trying to sleep but Frances is too worried to go to sleep and so father patiently helps her overcome her fears. Our daughter Charlotte said after she heard this book: “I same as Frances!” and slept soundly that night, for the first time in a long time! We were so glad that a badger saved the day!

Links & Resources

More about Pam Allyn

The Pam Allyn Community



Books for Boys


With over 10 years of EDU experience and a growing family, Mariah started Playful Learning in 2008 as a resource for parents and teachers. In 2010 Playful Learning received the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal, and in August of 2011, Shambhala Publications released her first book, Playful Learning: Develop Your Child’s Sense of Joy and Wonder. Mariah has an M.S. Ed in Elementary Education and was that girl sitting in the back of class thinking about what she would do differently if she was the teacher. Now she is happily working with a team of gifted educators to bring life-changing lessons to children, families, and schools around the world. In her free time she can be found taking long walks, enjoying a cup of tea, or swimming in the Atlantic with her husband and two daughters.


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