How to Breed Little Bookworms

Literature opened doors that allowed my kids to explore the development of their own values

M. M. De Voe
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write
6 min readJun 2, 2021


lots of old children’s book spines on a bookshelf, needs dusting

I was a teenage bookworm, one of those kids never seen without a paperback. I read while walking, read in trees, and always took my lunch and recess in the school library. My teachers handed me “special” books they could not give to the rest of the class.

I read voraciously and was, for my age, oddly discriminative: a book had to keep my attention only past the first paragraph and then I would finish it, no matter what. I grew up to become a writer and got my MFA from Columbia. I never stopped reading.

When I had kids, I was told people read while nursing. I tried, but breastfeeding was too exhausting. My mind made mush out of the words on the page. I re-read paragraphs, sentences, and nothing stuck. Strings of letters turned decorative: garlands of tiny spiders, waiting around for Halloween. I grew fearful I would never read again.

Fearful, yes. Dumb, no.

If I couldn’t read while nursing, I thought, why didn’t I read during playtime? My infant son was active, alert, eager to stare at the weird dangly toys we hung over his head (why do humans do this and what is it supposed to represent — jungle blossoms, fruit?) and I took this opportunity to sink into a cushion and open up the novel I’d been reading before the little guy emerged into the world: Atonement by Ian McEwan. Great book.

Ah, but the guilt was real: When I turned away from my baby to read, my conscience burned! I couldn’t remain in the room without interacting with the little dude. What to do? Suddenly, inspiration struck.

I would read aloud. To him.

Thus began an eighteen-year odyssey (so far) of reading my library aloud to my kids. A friend had given me Harold Bloom’s Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages and I read it to the little man from cover to cover. I got far more out of this than my six-month-old infant, but he was happy to pretend I was background music while he batted at the dangling star-moon thing (seriously, why?).

Encouraged by his lack of tears, I read aloud from children’s books I had always wished to revisit. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Narnia. Harry Potter. Asimov’s I, Robot. Bradbury. Arthur C. Clarke. The language was lush and the stories fascinated me, if not always him. And then, four years later, there was another baby and a new dilemma.

Thus began an eighteen-year odyssey (so far) of reading my library aloud to my kids.

My daughter napped but my son did not. I left my spouse snoozing with the baby while my son and I sat together on benches in flower gardens, on elaborate rooftops, and in strange, majestic hotel lobbies and hidden cafes. (We live in Manhattan, where discovering such magic is easy.) On each bench, I read him classics.

Despite my son’s ADD, he was enthralled, which is surely a testament to the enduring power of these books.

Robinson Crusoe was an early favorite; it coincided with his introduction to the terrifying subject of slavery in elementary school. He shuddered at Friday not having his own name and the fact that “Master” was Friday’s first English word. But he also saw that Friday was a quick learner, clever, and loyal beyond belief. For years he wished for a friend as devoted and vibrant, and as he aged, my son always had a multi-racial assortment of mentors and friends— and many were compared to the loyalty, enthusiasm, and charisma of Friday.

He was drawn to the fattest tomes, assuming their importance simply due to their heft. Sherlock Holmes taught critical thinking, Jules Verne imparted a love of science. When he turned ten, we started The Count of Monte Cristo and spent the next year discussing unjust imprisonment and the virtue/vice of revenge. He learned the power of a long-term strategy, nobility, and of remaining faithful through hardship and schooled me by drawing out a complex character map so he could keep track of the myriad intersectional relationships.

By the end of middle school, we were weaving our way through Edith Grossman’s brilliant translation of Don Quixote. He caught the humor faster than I did, and for years called it the funniest book he’d ever read. Meanwhile, my eyes were crossing from the fine print, so I was happy when his little sister demanded in on the action. We switched from nightly novels to half an hour of reading before school.

I am not a morning person.

Sherlock Holmes taught critical thinking, Jules Verne imparted a love of science. When he turned ten, we started The Count of Monte Cristo, and spent the next year discussing unjust imprisonment and the virtue/vice of revenge.

At the breakfast table, to keep my brain from exploding, I started something simple with short words, pictures, and a large font— Little House in the Big Woods — and was thrilled that both kids were riveted. It made sense: the story of man versus nature, the love and protection of family, wolves in the dark, a loyal guard dog, the endless battle against wind, drought, famine, and fire.

Chilling stories. Real stories. Stories in which responsibility was assumed as a facet of adulthood not to be avoided but embraced. The kids always cleared their dishes after breakfast while we flew through the Little House series (no doubt grateful they didn’t have to pump water and chop wood). The only thing I had to worry about was getting so caught up in the narrative I made them late for school!

Our breakfast table hosted readings of Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, Anne of Green Gables, belly-laughs for Harry Potter, tears for The Little Prince, and Charlotte’s Web. I dug up favorites of their aunts and grandmas, Rose in Bloom, Tales of Magic, Howl’s Moving Castle, and as they aged, Treasure Island, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, King Arthur, Call of the Wild, and so forth.

Dickens was a surprise hit. After A Christmas Carol, we were enthralled by Pip in Great Expectations, followed by Oliver Twist; Dickens engendered deep conversations about social justice, societal views and how they affect policy, government, poverty and its relationship to crime, kindness to strangers, money-grubbing, and the ugliness of jealousy.

Literature opened doors that allowed my kids the chance to ask questions about morality, and explore the development of their own values. We talk about Nancy and Oliver, and how hard it is to stay true to your own code of ethics when your best friends are doing things you know are wrong.

After my son left for college, my daughter and I bonded over Vanity Fair. I had never read it and, like her brother, she was spellbound by a heavy tome. We delighted in the clever exploits of Becky Sharp, but because my girl was only twelve when we started the book, she also pondered the morality and kindness of each action. I learned to pause after each betrayal so that she could work out a “better solution for everyone,” to my great delight.

I recently overheard my dyslexic fourteen-year-old daughter defend Sense and Sensibility on an English class Zoom. “Have you even read it? Because you’re totally leaving out context. Jane Austen earned her own money as a writer. In her books, the main characters want nothing but agency in a society that doesn’t allow women to have it. If that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is.”

War and Peace is sitting on top of the piano in our living room. I’m saving it for prospective grandkids.

M. M. De Voe is the founder of Pen Parentis, a nonprofit that helps writers stay creative after kids. She writes Pushcart-nominated short fiction, lately in the Shirley Jackson Award-winning anthology Twisted Book of Shadows and globally in literary journals. Her highly acclaimed Book & Baby: The Complete Guide to Managing Chaos & Becoming a Wildly Successful Writer-Parent (Brooklyn Writers Press, 2021) — is an instructional guide with advice from many famous authors, and won first prize in writing/publishing at the 2021 Indie Book Awards. She is a Columbia University MFA graduate (and fellow) who studied under Michael Cunningham. More on her author page:



M. M. De Voe
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

Fictionista, collector of obscure awards, admirer of optimists in the face of dread. Author of 2 books that are polar opposites and yet the same.