To successfully raise a bilingual or multilingual child, the main requirement is language exposure: the child must receive an ample amount of meaningful input in the target language (or languages) on a regular basis. And the more of this input you can provide, from yourself and/or from other sources of exposure, the greater the odds of fostering active language ability.
But when it comes to reading aloud, finding suitable children’s books in your target language may be a challenge. In fact, I wrote a whole post about this problem, in which I emphasized the use of “wordless picture books” as one way to effectively address it. See What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language.
Well, one parent has come up with another creative solution, a winning idea geared for families in the United States with German as a target language. Beatrice Beckmann, a mother of two who moved to New York from Munich, launched KinderBooks in 2016 to provide families with direct access to German picture books and chapter books. With a subscription to KinderBooks, parents can rent and read appealing books on an ongoing basis, and thus strengthen their read-aloud routine and their children’s exposure to German.
When I learned about KinderBooks, it struck me as such a helpful resource for maintaining a steady stream of children’s books into the home…and it’s a shame that there aren’t (yet) more services like this for other target languages, too.
And not only is KinderBooks an affordable solution—with subscriptions starting at just $10 a month (free postage is also included for receiving and returning the books!), Beatrice is kindly offering readers of this blog a $20 discount to try it out. Just use the promo code BILINGUALMONKEYS (valid until March 31, 2019).
And learn more about Beatrice’s life and work by reading the interview below!
Interview with Beatrice Beckmann
Could you please share the highlights of your background?
With great pleasure. I was born to an Italian mother and a German father in London and grew up in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Both my parents were in publishing and both were really into languages and they passed this love on to me. I have always joked that books are my home country. After my studies in American and French literature and Italian linguistics, I briefly lived in Milan, Italy, where I interned at a book store, before starting a career in publishing in Germany. I was working as a literary agent in Munich, when I fell in love with an American (of Russian descent). So I moved to New York and we started a family here. Three years ago I founded KinderBooks, an online rental library for German children’s books in the US.
I hear you have a long bilingual/multilingual family history.
Yes, indeed! My family has always moved around a lot—I think partially out of restlessness and curiosity. My Italian grandfather went for his post doc studies to Germany, before working as a professor of mathematics in Argentina and Spain for many years. Later, during the war, he lived in France with the family. So he spoke Italian, German, French, and Spanish. My Italian grandmother was also fluent in German since childhood, and went to a German school. My mother grew up in Spain and France. Because they left Italy for political reasons to escape fascism, they didn’t want to stand out in France and my grandfather insisted they speak French only, no Italian. After the war they moved back to Italy. When my mother was in her late 30s, she decided to reset her life. She didn’t have much luck in her private life and wanted to start again. So she moved to London—where she met my father. Shortly after, I was born they moved to Germany.
Compared to my mother and the rest of the Italian family, I’m lagging behind a little bit: I speak 4 languages (and have put some effort into keeping my French and Italian up). There is some hope, as my husband’s family speaks Russian and I am learning…though I’m finding it more challenging to learn a new language now that I’m in my 40s. We’re raising our two sons, who are 4 and 1, bilingually, or rather multilingually, too.
Tell us about KinderBooks and what led you to this work.
When I was pregnant with my first son, I knew I wanted to raise him bilingually. Despite or because of my bilingual upbringing—and also watching many friends trying to raise bilingual kids—I also was aware that this is not a given. It actually takes quite a bit of dedication and planning. So I started reading up on it in books and blogs. I came across your blog and book, Adam. And your emphasis on reading daily or at least very often to bilingual children in their minority language, and having a constant stream of books and resources in this language, made a lot of sense to me. After all, when we speak, we only use a limited amount of words—and the situations we use the minority language in are also restricted. Books are such a great way to broaden vocabulary. And when the books are intriguing and meet the kids’ interests, it’s so much fun.
When I researched how to get German kids’ books in the US, it seemed not as straightforward as I had thought. With 9,000 new children’s books in German being published each year it can be overwhelming which ones to get. Not all are that great. Buying is expensive, you have them shipped over from Germany without being able to take a look at them first, and so often after reading them once or twice they just collect dust on the shelves, maybe you don’t even like them at all for some reason. Libraries, on the other hand, don’t have that big of a choice, particularly if you want books on your kids’ current interests. So I thought: There must be a better way and I founded KinderBooks, a subscription-based book-rental service for families in the US. Think Netflix for children’s books in German. When people sign up, they mention the child’s age, language level, and interests, and also if there is anything they are looking for or don’t want, like fairy tales, monsters, dinosaurs, or music. And then they receive hand-picked books, delivered right to their door, from our curated list that matches their preferences. The idea is to make it as easy and affordable as possible to read to your kids in German. If all goes well, the families discover lots of new books they love. I don’t always get it right, but that is my aim.
What are the joys and challenges of running KinderBooks?
One of the biggest joys is sharing and passing on the love of books with other families and helping them to make raising their kids bilingually fun. I love discovering books that others can get excited about, too. It’s also very rewarding to hear when kids suddenly start reading and speaking in German unprompted because we found a book for them that they’re really into. But finding those perfect books is also one of the biggest challenges. Parents have different parenting priorities and styles and this is reflected in their preferences for books. Different kids have different tastes, just like adults. And their language abilities in German also vary a lot from child to child, so it may take a few shipments to get it right. I also get sad when people cancel the subscription because they don’t find the time to read to their kids.
What sort of feedback are you getting from parents and teachers who make use of KinderBooks?
The kids are very excited to receive packages with books each month. And the parents are happy to discover books they had never heard about before. I hear that parents sometimes only notice what sort of vocabulary their kids were lacking when they read to their children on a regular basis. Obviously when we pick the wrong books or the kids are going through a phase when they reject German, we have to adjust a little, but I’m always happy to work with parents on that. With slightly older kids I’ve noticed that they tend to pick the books themselves, particularly if they’re reading independently. We haven’t collaborated that much with schools yet, but that’s something I’m looking to explore in 2019.
What does the future hold for you and your work?
I wish I knew! I started KinderBooks as an experiment two years ago. My second son was born last year, so I’ve been a little limited in how much time I could invest. But despite that it has been constantly growing and I have a lot of ideas. I want to focus on working more with schools. Some Italian parents have asked me for a similar service in Italian, so I’m considering the idea of expanding. And I would also like to offer book clubs in person and digital clubs, too, maybe even chatting with some authors.
What would be your best advice for parents seeking to raise bilingual or multilingual children?
Start early—that’s when the brains of children are most open to language learning. And also the period in life when you as a parent have the biggest impact. Later, friends and school will become more important and so will the majority language. Be aware that you’ll have to put some effort into raising your children bilingually, inform yourself, find others who are in the same boat, and be consistent. Talk to your child in the minority language—have real conversations—and read aloud every day. Make it fun, so they associate the minority language with positive things.