or, talking about children's books with Sarah Miller from "Can We Read?"
I started this newsletter mainly because I had all these ideas swirling around in my head and wanted to get them down on paper (screen?). What I didn’t expect was that it would become a catalyst for connection. I’ve heard from friends, former colleagues, and acquaintances that I had been out of touch with, and I’ve met several new people too. One of these new friends is Sarah Miller. In addition to being a fellow Substack writer, we connected over being former English majors and our shared Midwestern roots. And I’m thrilled that she agreed to be interviewed this week.
Sarah was born and raised in Madison, WI, and still lives in the area with her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 7. She works full-time in marketing and communications for a nonprofit technology organization that serves the public sector in her state. In May of 2020, as a way to sane while working from home with two small kiddos during the pandemic lockdown, she started Can We Read?, a twice-weekly subscription newsletter about children’s books, raising readers, and how to build a culture of reading at home.
What motivated you to write about children’s books?
I have a genuine love for the topic. I’ve been reading to my children since they were three months old, creating reading nooks for them, packing our shelves with kids’ books, going to library sales, and figuring out ways to build the most robust reading culture that I can in our household. My husband calls it an obsession, and he’s not wrong. I was doing all this before I had a newsletter, and I’d be doing it even if I didn’t have one, but sharing it with others has added another layer of purpose and satisfaction – helping people in this area thrills me. It might be a new parent having trouble finding good books, a grandparent whose grandchild is going through a significant life transition like a divorce, an educator trying to diversify their classroom bookshelf… there are people out there who want to do everything they can to support their young readers but need support themselves, and if I can do that for even one person, it makes all the work worthwhile. When someone emails me and tells me their family loves a book I recommended, that keeps me going.
What are your top tips for raising kids who love to read?
Read to them! It’s really that simple: read to them. It helps if you’re a reader yourself and they see you reading – that actually matters quite a bit – but even if you’re not, read to them, make books available to them however you can, and don’t judge their tastes. You don’t need a massive library at home; you need a library card and the willingness to seek out quality titles. (This is where I can help!)
What are your favorite books to give to new parents to start their library?
I try to stay away from the classics – Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are – not because they aren’t good but because new parents usually get several copies of them. So I go for titles they’re likely not familiar with – Global Babies from The Global Fund for Children (babies love to look at other babies and the Global Babies series is particularly well done); Whose Toes Are Those? By Jabari Asim; The Babies and Doggies Book by John Schindel. I’m an affiliate of Bookshop.org (which means I receive a small commission if you use these links to make a purchase) and have several lists on my Bookshop.org storefront that are great for this purpose: Books for baby showers; Books for 3-12 months old; and The best nursery rhymes. My favorite nursery rhyme book to give as a gift is The Neighborhood Mother Goose by Nina Crews – it has major staying power.
What books are your kids loving right now?
My kids are loving Russell Hoban’s Frances books – we came late to this party, admittedly, but I’m so glad we arrived because they’re wonderful. Frances is hilarious, and her stories – about bedtime, a new baby sister, a birthday; there are six in all – are so relatable. (Who hasn’t been fed up with some small non-issue and sighed the sigh of the put-upon and said, “Things aren’t very good around here anymore?” We genuinely laugh out loud.) As a parent, I’m finding there’s a lot to be learned from Frances’ unflappable Mother and Father Bear, too. (There is an instance in Bedtime for Frances where Father Bear mentions spanking, which I don’t endorse on the page or as a practice in real life, but otherwise, I aspire to be as calm and droll as they are.)
Other books they’re loving right now are Number One Number Fun by Kay Chorao (they like racing to see who can figure out the simple math the fastest); Knitty Kitty by David Elliott; and You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You by Mary Ann Hoberman, which is a “two voices” poetry book my 7yo and I are using for reading practice. (She reads a few lines to me and I read a few lines to her, precisely as the title promises – I adore this series and think they’re fantastic tools for emerging readers and anyone supporting their learning).
We are also moving pretty solidly into the era of chapter books. That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned picture books – I plan to read picture books to my kids as long as possible, and there’s a solid argument to be made for doing that – but we’ve added a chapter book read-aloud to our bedtime routine, and we’re all enjoying it tremendously. My 5-year-old loved The BFG by Roald Dahl so much she cuddled it to sleep a few weeks ago. My 7-year-old is so into Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke she begs for one more chapter every night. Late last year, we listened to A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (and its two follow-ups, Bat and the Waiting Game and Bat and the End of Everything) on audio, and my kids couldn’t get enough.
Have you read anything lately (for grown-ups) that you're really loving?
I’m a voracious reader, so this is a dangerous question. I’m going to give some disparate answers: the last few books I’ve enjoyed are Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours by Sarah Sentille, Bewilderment by Richard Powers, and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I’m about halfway through The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence by Jessica Lahey, and even though I haven’t finished it yet, I already know I’m going to recommend it to every parent in my life.
Let’s talk about balance—the perennial struggle for working moms everywhere. What works for you and how do you find time for yourself?
I’m a very focused, organized, and disciplined person, which helps in terms of creating systems, routines, and habits that keep it all running, but a more direct – and honest – answer is that I hire someone to clean my house (I worked for years to get to the point where I can do this, and I understand the privilege of it) and my husband does all the cooking. Behind every successful woman is someone, somewhere, who is somehow helping her. I want to be transparent about that – I “have it all,” but I’m not doing it alone.
A considerable part of my ability to balance is the luck of working for an organization that allows me the flexibility to have a fulfilling job while also being the type of parent I want to be. I go to the office every day and I work very hard, and I prioritize my motherhood. I learned this from my own working mother, who had a much more demanding career than I do and yet managed to show up for me in every way that matters: I put my children first no matter what, and I don’t apologize for it.
I make time for rest as best I can. I have a chronic health condition, the primary symptom of which is crushing fatigue, that forces my hand on this one – if I don’t want to get really sick, I have to sleep, and restrict my exercise (a huge challenge for me as it’s my main form of stress relief), and generally offer myself the same kind of comfort and care I give my children. I’m not going to lie: it’s a struggle.
I couldn't survive working parenthood without... Our daycare provider, and the ability to order things online instead of running errands.
Guilty pleasure: Espresso in the afternoon, about once a week at work.
Favorite non-reading activity to do with your kids: Hiking or drawing.
What's in your cup of ambition? Jasmine green tea. Sometimes a few tears 😉
Best piece of advice for working moms that you ever received: Trust yourself, and don’t apologize. (Thanks, Mom.)
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