What's for dinner - Harry Potter or Jules Verne?

When our daughter started kindergarten eight years ago, we were surprised at how little interest she showed in reading.

As a preschooler, Rachel had regularly scooped up a dozen or so picture books on our weekly library visits, and demanded that we help her read them. But suddenly, when encouraged to sound out simple words in her take-home reader, she wandered off.

It was clear Rachel hadn't lost her love of books. Whenever I read nursery rhymes to her newborn brother, she would cuddle next to me, eager to listen and see the pictures. She still enjoyed bedtime stories.

I puzzled over Rachel's sudden disinterest in reading at home. Her teacher reported that she was one of the better beginning readers. So why did Rachel not want us to know that she was learning to read? This seemed out of character.

Then I thought about something I had said to encourage her: "Won't it be great when you can pull any book off the shelf, and just start reading all by yourself?"

"All by yourself." Of course!

Why would someone who had not had to share her parents for five years want to learn something that might further reduce our time together? Reading was just one more thing she was expected to do on her own since brother Burt's arrival. I needed to prove to Rachel that if she learned to read, we could still enjoy books together.

First, I began to read more to both children.

Second, they saw me reading alone. I had always saved my books for when they were in bed. Now, I read in front of them. I sometimes shared a funny or especially descriptive paragraph.

The third change came about more slowly. I remembered a favorite professor's daughter saying how much she had enjoyed his reading to the family at dinner. I had filed this away as a curious anecdote about this respected historian. Now, I wondered: Could this work for us?

I decided to give it a try. Eight years have passed, and I am still reading aloud at dinner: the Boxcar Children series, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Wilson Rawls's "Summer of the Monkeys," Will Hobbs's "Kokopelli's Flute."

And did Rachel ever let us know she could read? Absolutely! In fact, our aspiring writer devours books .

Now a third-grader, Burt also handles books with ease.

Whenever I worry that he is not paying attention to our dinnertime book, I am revived by his curiosity about the technical details of the characters' lives and his insistent "read another chapter ... please."

Reading aloud has many dividends. The dinner table becomes a hassle-free zone where complaints and adolescent angst are put aside for the moment. How much better it is to argue about why a character shouldn't investigate a noise in the woods than about why the kids can't watch an R-rated video that everybody else has seen.

We still report on our days and enjoy our food. When busy schedules prevent eating together, books help us reconnect at another meal. The children - and my husband - have perspectives I wouldn't have considered if I were reading by myself.

They often make connections between our dinnertime books and what they are learning in school. Books have inspired family trips and elaborate LEGO creations.

I'll always treasure those times when Rachael flops into a chair and asks: "What are you reading now?" and makes suggestions for my own pleasure or our dinnertime selection.

Peggy Ann Brown lives with her husband and two children in Alexandria, Va.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

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