Reading $50k in Books Before Kindergarten

Yes, I know – the title sounds absurd or an extravagant waste of money. I promise it’s both true and completely affordable. But first I’ll tell you a story about how we got there and what it did for our son.

The Backstory

The epic journey began when my son was 1 and my wife stumbled on the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program at our local library. She came home excitedly and let me know we were going to do it. I liked the idea, but thought “wow – is that even possible? That’s a big number!”

It turns out the program is easy to do. 1000 books is just 3 books a day for a year. One book at nap time and two books before bed and you’re golden. You can even record each time you read a book again. Read the same book to your kid 3 times tonight because she wanted to hear it again? That’s 3 books down on your way to the 1000 books goal.

Well, it would have been according to the way the 1000 Books program works. But that wasn’t good enough for my wife. She decided that each book only counted once. We were going to read 1000 unique books to our son before kindergarten.

I was up for the challenge but it sounded really expensive. If the average board book or picture book cost about $10 and we were going to read 1000 unique books, then someone was going to be spending $10k or more on books. Diapers are expensive enough. No way I was spending that much money on books for a toddler.

Getting to 1000

The only realistic way for us to get to 1000 unique books was to go where they give you the books for free – to our local library. It was especially good for us since we were reading a ton of books once and giving them back.

At first we went to the library the way everyone else does. We would go in, walk around to look at some of the featured books, then dig through the stacks a bit to find some of the books we wanted. We looked up “lists of best kids books” to figure out books we wanted to read our precious little one. I’d make lists of books, look them all up, and then go search for them all to get just the right ones.

That got us to ~300 unique books but it was incredibly time consuming. I was spending hours looking for the right books and an hour or more at the library trying to find them all. Eventually I stumbled on a completely different, way more sustainable strategy.

We now read in one of two ways depending on where our kid was in their development: alphabetical order (the default) or by ‘special labels’ on the book spines.

Reading the Library in Alphabetical Order

Just writing the title to this section sounds crazy, but yes – we currently go to the library and pull out whole sections in alphabetical order. We’re doing this again for our second child right now and I have a whole stack of books with ‘G’ authors sitting on our bookshelf. It baffles the librarians when they first see us do it (new ones join from time to time), but eventually they just laugh with us and thank us for finding books they haven’t seen in years.

Here’s the trick – you go in alphabetical order but use a few filters:

  • Does my child have the attention span for this book yet? Some books are too long for young ones or too short for older readers.
  • Does this book match what I want my kid to read? If you have a certain set of religious beliefs, it may dictate what books you pull (no Christmas books or no books about monsters or something).

That’s basically it. Outside of those filters, you start with the letter A and grab an entire section every week or two. I used to check out ~40 books a week for my son before he went to daycare. After he started preschool our reading was around 40-50 books every two weeks since he wasn’t at home for nap time as often.

The process makes trips to the library incredibly time efficient. I walk in, drop off this week’s books, look for the section you decimated last time, and take the next section. I’m usually back to the desk to check out 40 new books before the librarian is done checking in the books I returned. In fact, a few weeks ago, I showed up 10 minutes before closing time and walked out with 40 new books. The new librarian had warned me they were about to close and was a bit stunned by how many books I checked out.

The other advantage we’ve noticed is that it exposes our kids to all kinds of things we wouldn’t have intentionally thought to focus on. We’ve read books about Eid, about gardens growing in cities, about making apple cider, and women flying to outer space among hundreds of other topics. Some deal with grief or loss, some are about friends and fun, and some – like How Are You Peeling – are absurd. We regularly stumble across amazing books the librarians have forgotten about that we love. We also find books we’d never read again and return them without having paid tons of money for them. It’s amazing.

Additionally, because man similar topics show up across a lot of different books, our kids seem to get a very rich understanding of the world. Seeing different families shown across cultures, stories and situations gives them breadth. Understanding sadness or that being mean doesn’t work across a dozen stories gives texture to their thought processes. It’s both reinforces what they’re learning and helps them get different views of it. It’s a bit like trying to train a machine learning model – they’re seeing different views of the same concepts over and over which helps them build their own mental models.

Reading the Library by Book Tag

There is an exception to the process above that we have used for both of our kids – the specific training process for numbers and letters or, during different holidays, a focus on one specific topic for a week. We’ve found that our libraries have a special tag for ‘ABC’ and ‘123’ books to denote books about the letters or numbers. They’re incredibly valuable books for kids learning numbers around 2 years old and letters at 3 or 4.

Our process is very similar to the ‘reading in alphabetical order’ above, just filtered to the appropriate special tag. Right now we’re working on letters with our 3 year old son. My next visit to the library will be to do our typical alphabetical order process above, but I’m only going to pull ABC tags. I’ll come home with 40 books just about letters. I’ll do that for the next few times I visit the library.

The incredible thing we found with our older son is that after reading ~100-150 different books about letters, suddenly he started to know them all really well. And, because we didn’t just repeat the same book over and over, he wasn’t just memorizing the book. He was starting to pick up on the pattern of which visual representation was each letter.

But what about the $50k?

As I promised earlier, the $50k number sounds absurd but it’s entirely true. In our case, once we started with the crazy idea of reading 1000 unique books we ended up going a bit nuts. We used the 1000 Books iOS app to record our progress because it allows you to scan barcodes which makes the process much faster. At around 3000 books we stopped recording and started estimating instead.

Based on records from our library plus a few rough estimates of our nightly reading, we averaged around 3-4 books a day for the 5 years from 1-6 before my son started kindergarten. We read him around 4-5k unique books from the library (roughly 2/3 of the picture books in our library) and out of our own purchased book collection.

4000 or 5000 books at $10 a book is $40-50k. Many picture books are $17-25 so the amount could easily be in the $75-100k range if we were liberal with the ‘average cost per book’. Either way it’s a ridiculous amount of money invested in my child before kindergarten. Nearly all of it was free.

More than anything, this post is just a reminder that “hey, libraries are free and massively underutilized.” Go get some books from the library and read them to your kids. They’ll thank you later. My son is in kindergarten and reads at a 3rd grade level already. I’m not saying that’s what will happen for your kid, but I’m quite certain it helped ours.