Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reading Beyond Yourself

At a local Barnes & Noble in the children’s section, I overheard a mother tell her children, “Remember what we talked about! Pick something in your reading level!”

Now, I admit that I didn’t know what was going on there, and it’s entirely possible that this parent was admonishing her children not to chose a book that was below their abilities. She could have been worried about adult content, but, as I said, I was in the children’s section. Whatever the case, my impression was that this mother wanted her children to stick to those artifical age ranges that are printed on the back of picture books and YA novels, and, frankly, I was horrified.

I find this distressing if only because I read LOTS of books that were well beyond my reading “ability” when I was young, which is how the heck I got better ability, you know? I have never, ever told my son Mason that there was a book he couldn’t try to read. As far as I’m concerned, unless there’s graphic violence, sex, or swear words, it’s all good. (Actually, he’s already read some swear words over my shoulder. Luckily, he doesn’t have all the rules of pronunciation down and so he thinks a** is said “iss.”)

This desire to protect young readers baffles me. And it seems to be prevalent. We were once at Red Balloon, a children’s book store here in Saint Paul, and the sales person tried to take a chapter book away from us. She nearly snatched it from Mason’s hands because she didn’t think it was appropriate for my then three year-old. When I asked her why, she said, “Well, the stories are too long. He won’t have the patience.” At that age, I’d already read all of Charolette’s Web and much of Bambi to Mason, so I just looked at her with a stunned expression. “How would you know?” I asked. Then I said to Mason, “Never let anyone tell you what you can or can’t read.”

And anyway, at that point, I was still reading to him. It’s not like there would be words he couldn’t ask me what they meant, you know? More to the point, the last time I checked there’s no rule that says you have to finish a story you start. We’ve still never finished Bambi because we get to the chapter where Bambi’s mom is killed and Mason wants to start over. So we do. I figure he needs time to process. Processing what you’ve read is part of learning, IMHO.

Mason’s grade school also seems to have a “reading level” restriction they enforce. Everyone’s library card is color coded for the level they’re supposed to be reading at. I overheard a librarian ask someone to take a “Goosebumps” book back because it wasn’t at their reading level. This was a seriously disappointed looking kid. Again, this may be done in order to make sure that children are challenging themselves appropriately, however, I don’t really get that either. Who doesn’t love the comfort of a “simpler” book occasionally? I know that I didn’t discover Leo, the Late Bloomer until I was a teen, and it was still extremely meaningful to me. Plus I have to ask, what adult doesn’t love a certain YA about a young wizard in training?

But, as for reading beyond yourself, the last time I checked no one has ever been seriously injured by reading a hard book. Well, okay, there was that one time I was so excited to start a book I’d checked out from the library that I was reading it while riding my bike on the way home. I ran into a parked car. That’s my only reading injury to date.

There are books that scared the crap out of me as a kid. I read Amityville Horrorat a tender age and now the name “Jody” sends me into screaming heeby-geebies even as an adult. However, I learned an important lesson: you can close a book. If a book is beyond you on an emotional level, you can wait and pick it up later. There are several books I attempted that I just didn’t get all of until much, much later. I’d heard that there was SEX in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but damned if I “got” it the first time I read it. When I came back to it as a young adult, I understood.

In fact, my partner and I have bonded over the fact that we both remember the day we got to go to the “adult” section in the public library on our own. Both Shawn’s folks and mine never hesitated to check out books from that section for us, if we were interested… but there was a thrilling sense of wonder the moment it was okay for us to have ANY book in the entire library for ourselves alone. I think that reading beyond your ability is what makes readers out of people, you know? If I hadn’t tried The Hobbit in sixth grade, where would I be now?

I didn’t “get” a lot of it, but I was AWED.

And I still am.

5 comments:

Zoe said...

My elementary school's library was divided into two sections - the room for grades K-2, and the room for grades 3-5. When I was in first or second grade, I found a chapter book in the K-2 room, and I was thrilled - normally I couldn't find anything I wanted to read in the school library, since I'd been reading chapter books for years and much preferred them to picture books. But the librarian wouldn't let me take it out; apparently it had been misplaced. She made quite a fuss over it. And it's not like it was an edgy book - it was a Baby-Sitters Little Sister Book (the Baby-Sitters Club spinoff for younger kids). I always thought the reasoning was bizarre. Aren't schools supposed to encourage kids to read?

Gina said...

I've told my daughter that before, but only because she's nine and will pick a cardboard toddler book. I wish she's read above and beyond her level.

Melanie A. Howard said...

When exactly did they start doing that numbered reading level system thing? I can't remember ever seeing a book with a number stamped on it when I was a kid, and now it seems it's every dang book.

-Mel

Frank said...

I read voraciously as a kid--I know, what's changed? I remember having exhausted all the kidly stuff and being allowed by the librarians to get stuff out of the "older" shelves.

Which is how I came to read Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo in second grade. Marked me for life, it did...

paintingpixie said...

Yeah, I don't think that's right. Kids should read whatever the heck they want. It expands their minds; makes their imaginations come alive. If we put limitations on books, they'll get bored and stop reading, and turn on the TV or start playing video games. And that's just mindless zombie entertainment.